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Fake it – don't break it

There are strong arguments in favour of building a replica of Tutankhamun's tomb rather than risking visitors damaging the real one - and after all, similar things have been going on for years


4 December 2013

When I was younger, I went to Knossos on a holiday. It wasn't all sun, sea and ouzo – I went to look at the ancient ruins and was suitably gobsmacked.

The site was discovered in 1878 by Minos Kalokairinos, but the excavations began in 1900 by the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) and his team; and they continued for 35 years. In Greek mythology, King Minos lived in a palace at Knossos, the one with a labyrinth where Theseus defeated the Minotaur – heady stuff for a young man.

It took me several years to discover that the most of it was a recreation. It began in an effort to preserve the site from decay and torrential winter rain but, after 1922, Arthur Evans started to make a facsimile based on archaeological evidence. The palace is not as it was – perhaps, in places, not even close; and in some other parts it is pure fantasy based on 1920s architecture and art deco.

Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Did I feel cheated when I found out the truth? Yes I did – but tourist numbers continue to flock to Knossos and I doubt any of them with their iPhone cameras and bottled water and flipflops either know or care that what they marvel at has more to do with my reenactment Living History sites than the reality of uncovered ruins.

It seems, however, that this is the way of the future. A replica of King Tutankhamun's tomb is about to open in Egypt and the authorities are hoping tourists will choose to visit this copy instead of the original.

Tutankhamun's tomb lay untouched for more than 3,000 years until Howard Carter, uncovered it in 1922. It was virtually intact – the best preserved tomb found in the Valley of the Kings. More than 1000 people a day have traipsed through it since (even allowing for a fall in tourism given Egypt's present political condition) and, as each one enters, temperature and humidity levels change, making the walls expand and contract. As a result, the elaborately decorated plaster is coming away from the rock face.

Specialist restorers Factum Arte, the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation and the Society for the Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt spent five weeks of 2009 recording every detail of the tomb, measuring 100 million points in every square metre. They used the data to recreate the original, and soon they will open their replica next to Carter's house, just over 2km from the real burial site. The copy is identical to the original "to around a tenth of a millimetre", says Adam Lowe from Factum Arte.

The real tomb may eventually need to be closed to the public to preserve it, but for now visitors will have a choice: real or fake. If they choose real, they add another infinitesimal dot of decay. If fake, they get the experience of a tomb dating back to… 2009. Which one will they choose?

It's not a unique situation. the Lascaux cave, discovered in in south-west France in 1940, has walls decorated with some of the most important prehistoric art ever found, in perfect condition because the cave had effectively been sealed off for thousands of years. Opened to the public in 1948, it quickly grew mould, black rot, green stains and calcite – so in the early 1960s, when it was receiving 100,000 visitors a year, the cave was closed. But tourists still wanted to see the images, so Lascaux II was created, a replica of most of the cave. Since it was opened in 1983, just a few hundred yards from the original, some 300,000 visitors a year ooh and aah their way through it. So popular is it that Lascaux III, a 'touring version' is now going round the world, and Lascaux IV, a reconstruction of the whole cave system, is due to start soon.

Paolo Veronese finished his painting, The Wedding at Cana, in 1563. It was commissioned for the refectory in the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, where it hung for more than 200 years until Napoleon arrived, ripped it down, cut it up and sent it back to Paris. Now it is in the Louvre and the French aren't about to give it back. What now hangs in the refectory in Venice is a perfect fake (by our old friends Factum Arte) – which gives rise to the question: it it better to view the original in the wrong setting, or a fake in the right?

And ultimately, do we mind fakes so much? Rodin bronzes are many, and all came out of the same mould. Old Italian masters had teams of people finishing off their work. James Patterson never writes all his own books (and now Wilbur Smith is headed the same way) and Japanese 'whisky' is, alarmingly, as like Scotch as to be a brother.

And talking of 'the cratur; let's not forget Bushmills, best known as the town where the whiskey (note the 'e' so you know it's Irish) was distilled some 400 years ago. It is noted for its old-style cobblers, where a worker in a bunnet still mends shoes. A bakery with mouth-watering bread and cakes adds appeal and there's a bookmaker not far away. Farm animals come out of shop doorways as you pass and the locals peer out of windows to watch the tourists.

All of it is a load of owld malarkey – just highly-detailed artwork and graphics that brighten up its main street. It makes O'Neill's Irish bars look positively authentic.
Mind you, that's a local initiative, done for some £30,000 raised in the least-funded parts of Northern Ireland. Compare that to the £2m the Northern Ireland government forked out to apply stickers to the windows of certain properties, giving the impression that business was booming.

A psychology to attract investors? No – it was because they overlooked the luxury golf course where the G8 summit leaders were meeting.

Fer fake's sake…

Don't tender your resignation

Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael's recent nonsense about what could happen if Scotland votes for independence makes him ideal for the chop - but his opponents won't want that to happen


3 December 2013

HERE'S a fact which might surprise all those B&B owners happily accepting English money for a stay in the BideAwee Guest House – the banknotes are not legal tender. Most folk know, thanks to tosspot taxi drivers Dahn Saff, that Scottish (and Northern Ireland) banknotes are not legal tender. Which is technically true – they aren't. Not even in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But the truth is that no banknote, including Bank of England notes, qualifies for the term 'legal tender' in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

I wouldn't get your landlady knickers in a knot over it, all the same – the term "legal tender" has very little practical meaning as far as ordinary, everyday transactions are concerned and it has no bearing on the acceptability of authorised banknotes as a means of payment. Legal Tender, as a term, simply means the settlement of a debt and is a very narrow technical meaning; you can settle a debt using debit or credit cards, used sheep, old socks or anything else mutually acceptable between two parties.

Thus endeth the science bit and I tediously mention it because of Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary rapidly proving that Michael Moore, the previous incumbent, was a giant of intelligence and dignity by comparison. Alistair's recent statements include: 'If Scotland becomes a foreign country we will treat it as a foreign country', which is an astounding use of the word 'we'. Not sure of Mr Carmichael's locus here, but I wish he would stop pretending he is Scottish. Mind you, he has referred to Scotland variously as 'they' (on the Andrew Marr Show) and 'her' on The Sunday Politics.

That the man's mouth and brain are not fully integrated is made clear by fatuous statements such as:

If you look back to last year with the Olympic Games, you had great days with Andy Murray and Chris Hoy winning gold medals for the United Kingdom. But also remember that fantastic Saturday night when you had Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis. If Scotland was a foreign country, we would have no stake in that.

Oh well, that's my mind made up. Can't cheer Mo or Jessica across the tape? Heaven forfend.

Worse, of course, was his exchanges with Andrew Marr recently when Marr asked him if it was true that George Osborne would refuse to allow Scots the use of the pound. As he rightly pointed out, the pound belonged as much to the Scots as the English so Andrew could not see how this could be.

Carmichael could and, with a brief look at the purple sky of the planet on which he currently resides came out with the following:

It is, as long as we are part of the United Kingdom. But in fact public international law is very clear on this – if you remove yourself from the United Kingdom then you remove yourself from all sorts of institutions, and yes, the pound would be one of them.

Is there an international law which is not public? If so, I think we should demand it be made public at once. But wait – what the feck has international law to do with an internal UK matter?

And wait another minute – adopting Sterling as a currency is not something a country can prevent. Zimbabwe has Sterling. There are a raft of countries which exclusively use the dollar and have no other connection to the US. Andrew Marr, sensing idiot blood in the water, mentioned that it might be ridiculous to claim that, if Scots voted for independence they couldn't have the pound. Carmichael replied:

It's not a question of, nobody is saying anything about "You can't have". The fact is that a currency union wouldn't work.

What happened to public international law? Good God – has it been cavalierly thrown to one side now? The public has a right to know about its International Law being so disregarded, I think …

The current Secretary of State is a pompous, clueless, fake Scot – yet the Yes lobby will be on their knees, fervently praying that he is not replaced, since he is possibly the most glittering star in their pro-Independence campaign.

When the mob can't hear their baying for the baying

Slamming the payoff given to social worker Sharon Shoesmith after the Baby P tragedy is missing the point about why she was dismissed and why she was given money – and it's a point some people are happy for you to miss


1 November 2013

I see the Appeal Court is now to be televised, following a change in the law. Predictably, there is a huff and puff of outrage from certain sections, who think it is the thin end, the demise of civilisation as we know it etc etc. It's not as if it is truly live, mind – there is a 70 second cut-off button so all those effers and blinders can be edited out and kept for the Uncut version, post-watershed.

I'm all in favour of it, if only because, had it been available during the Sharon Shoesmith Appeal Court trial in connection with the death of Baby P, the world might well have a different view of the woman. I don't know if Sharon Shoesmith has a secret tail or cloven hooves. It would certainly seem so, if all the people I have had words with on Facebook are to be believed. 'Loathesome' and 'vile' are just two of the epithets flung about and the general concensus is that this 'appalling woman' who 'was paid to look the other way over murder' should not have had a six-figure payout.

Sorry. Wrong. No matter what her culpability in the Baby P tragedy was, she deserved the money.

Shortly after receiving the Ofsted report into Haringey Council's handling of the affair, Ed Balls (pictured), at the time Secretary of State for Children, went in front of the cameras, all machismo and righteous indignation. He said that the report had blamed Shoesmith for failing in her duties to oversee her department. He couldn't sack her, but would ensure that she that she was removed from her post as director of children's services. But why, he was asked, has she not resigned? Are you surprised at that decision, Mr Balls? And so Ed was forced to admit that Sharon Shoesmith hadn't offered her resignation because, well, actually, to be honest – she didn't know about it. She had not yet been informed.

So Sharon Shoesmith first found out that she was a bigger hate effigy than Guy Fawkes when Ed Balls talked about it on television. I don't know if she was incompetent and needed removal. I do know that someone charged with an offence as reprehensible as the neglect of a child they were supposed to protect has a right to defend themselves before a verdict is passed. No question. No argument that says 'well Baby P never had a chance to defend himself' etc etc. That is the Law of the Old Testament and it holds no sway in court.

What does is employment law; and the appeal judge agreed that she was unlawfully dismissed, as he has to. Now that she has negotiated a compensation deal – and the terms, unsurprisingly, have been leaked – there are those who ignore the point, or just don't get it. They are boosted by the very same Ed Balls, who has 'a bad taste in the mouth' over her six-figure deal. Every other newspaper in the country has leaped all over that as a headline and Balls has his ba' face back on the front pages. Faced with the same situation, he said, 'I would do exactly the same thing again today.'

Which is not what I look for in a Minister of the Crown. In order to avoid the six-figure payout which is making Ed boak, all he had to do was make sure that Shoesmith had an opportunity to put her case first, before it went viral. Even if you are legally a big yellow Homer, it seems like the sensible thing to do. Ed might have had to put a crimp in his posturing for 24 hours, but at least Shoesmith would have had a fair hearing. In this light, Ed's finger-point at Sharon Shoesmith – not just for the death of little Peter, but for the payment she then received for his mistake – is breathtakingly cynical, even for a politician.

If he would do 'exactly the same thing again' I wouldn't trust Ed Balls to run a menage, let alone a government department.

But let's face it, Balls may have ballsed it up, but Sharon is a fairground rifle-stall chicken – the easiest target you will find, since it is hard for folk to accept that being compensated after the death of a child in their care is right and proper. She should maybe donate the cash to a children's charity, but I can also see why she won't – and it has a lot to do with the rest of the injustice.

Ed Balls' press conference claimed that the 2011 Ofsted judgement blamed Sharon Shoesmith. It didn't. The report did no such thing: as Lord Justice Kay put it, a joint area review like the one that Balls ordered from Ofsted is designed not to 'identify culpable individuals.' But the Powers had to sack someone and so Balls demanded that the report, which would normally take five months, be finished in three weeks, and ordered that it was to find 'definitive evidence on which the minister can act' – in other words, identify a scapegoat. The Sun had a petition, signed by many thousands, demanding Sharon Shoesmith's dismissal and Balls went on record with his approval at a yet another press conference. How he loves his press conferences.

In most other contexts there would be uproar at this sort of railroading. Instead, we have a bad cowboy movie, one in which town thug Eddie 'Two Gun' Balls leads a troop down to the jailhouse, armed with torches and a hemp noose.

See the man/woman at the back, third from the left? The one with the red face and matching neck? That's you, if you have 'a bad taste in the mouth.'

No-one should have been put in Shoesmith's position – a victim of vitriolic hate in print and private emails, on TV and radio, whipped on by Ed Balls with his personalised attacks. His argument runs: 'It was for her to ensure that the systems were in place. It would be no answer to say "I delegated".'

But if ignorance is no defence, then Balls is the one who should be leaving a bad taste in the mouth. It was, after all, up to him, the government minister, to ensure 'that the systems were in place'. Instead he has slipped out from under censure and continues to foment hatred for a social worker over the death of a child; preventing serious discussion on the underlying problems he was responsible for, glossing over the incompetence that cost taxpayers a shedload of cash; preventing serious thought on whether Shoesmith is, in fact, as culpable as the mother who committed the crime – and who was released from prison recently. Now that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Easier to veil it all behind a witch-hunt, because there are all-too-many people prepared to rear up on their hind legs and howl on command. Maybe if people had seen it on TV they might have been more on her side than Ed's.

An argument Birlinn out of control

As the Scottish independence referendum draws ever closer, talk becomes more heated... and actions become more questionable


1 October 2013

BadgesMy auld maw, God rest her, used to do it frequently and I never liked it. My wife has picked up the habit and I like it even less. This is because, all too often, it is absolutely spot-on deserved and that's infuriating enough for me to really, really, not want to inherit the habit. Still – here goes.

I told you so.

Yes, there it is. I told you so. Cue wagging finger and outrage and, even as I do, I have to admit that it took little skill and less Harry Potter to predict that the closer we get to this bloody Referendum (what do you mean, what Referendum? Are you from Mars? Tooting?) the more ludicrously heated the Pros and Antis would get.

Cue Hugh Andrew, managing director of Birlinn publishing house in Edinburgh. I like Birlinn. I like the writers it takes on and some of the works they produce. Up until now I had no reason at all to think sadly or badly of Mr Andrew. Until, that is, he announces that said Scottish writers face being seen as 'foreign' in the rest of the UK in the event of a Referendum 'Yes' vote.

Drawing himself up to his full huff and puff, he goes on to declare that the industry in Scotland was already struggling due to a lack of proper financial support or strategic thinking from the Scottish Government or its flagship arts agency Creative Scotland and warned that an 'artificial wall' would be erected between Scotland and the London-dominated book industry in the event of independence.

Nationalism, he ended in full fulminate, 'represents the worst of all worlds for our writers and culture.' I mean, seriously. I thought I was reading something from The Daily Mash for a minute.

According to trade body Publishing Scotland, about 1500 people are believed to be employed in the industry in Scotland, with more than 100 companies in total, from large firms such as HarperCollins to small traders. Scotland's publishers are thought to be responsible for about 3000 titles a year, with the sales turnover currently worth around £343 million.

But wait – the book market in Scotland is largely homogenous with England. Even by Mr Andrew's own admission, only one in every 19 book sales north of the border is distinctively 'Scottish.' The other 18 are published in England. London is the centre of the UK publishing industry, where all the agents, editors and deals are. Not Embra. Not Glasgow.

Would it change if Scotland became independent? Let me think about that for a nanosecond… Naw. London will remain the centre of book deals and dealing and wheeling and, if Edinburgh, Glasgow or any other city in Scotland thought they could change that, they would have done it already.

Birlinn is a publisher of essentially Scottish-themed books in Scotland. It would love to think it is more than that, because it had Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which is decidedly not a Scottish-themed book by a Scottish writer. (McCall Smith, incidentally, is from Rhodesia.)

Ever since, Birlinn has been hoping to luck into the same, but constantly falls back on books set in Scotland, written by Scots. There is nothing wrong with books set in Scotland written by Scots – consider RL Stevenson and Walter Scott, never mind all the others who came after, such as Tranter and Rankin and the late Iain Banks. But Birlinn wants to be a player, in the same league as HarperCollins and Transworld and all the rest of the Big Publishers thatwriters really want to go with. Really. Deep down, every one of them will admit it. A mainstream London-based, international publisher with clout, with reps at the Frankfurt Fair and everywhere else.

Birlinn does a good job as an independent, but it has now stopped accepting unsolicited submissions in just about every category – and that must be focusing Hugh Andrew on Reasons Why his model isn't working. Always good to find a scapegoat, but Andrew's argument is the most ludicrous anti-indy guff I've seen so far. Does it matter that J.K Rowling is from Gloucester? Or Salman Rushdie is 'foreign?' Are all those Scandinavian writers really secret Scots writing under pen names?

In essence, what Hugh Andrew has said is that the British don't like foreigners, and the Scots will become icons of 'foreign' to the rest of the UK if they vote for independence. That's a sad little racist argument that says more about Andrew than it does about independence, Scots, writers or publishing.

* * * * *

I also told you so… about Bannockburn 700. This reenactment event is held up as a centrepiece in the 2014 Homecoming year, but is already mired in strangeness and controversy, politics and flag-waving (or, rather, what flags can and can't be waved).

Now it has been dealt a serious blow. Nearby Stirling is to host Armed Forces Day on the Saturday of the same weekend. This free event attracts around 40,000 visitors and is a major draw for tourists.

The National Trust for Scotland, who run Bannockburn and Unique Events, who are organizing the Bannockburn Live event, must be blue-faced in private and yet manage to be brave-hearted in public. You can see why. The sheer logistics of two such events in the same place at virtually the same time is staggering. Never mind the problem of traffic and making sure people can get to the events there is the fact that all your knights and archers and sundry medieval reenactors are likely to be upstaged by the Red Arrows screaming overhead.

Far be it from me to allude to conspiracy rather than coincidence. I mean – supporting your Armed Forces is laudable. It is also Government-backed and decidedly Unionist.

The MOD invited applications from cities to host Armed Forces Day 2014 some 18 months ago. At that time Stirling were just announcing the 2014 Clan Gathering – but things went ominously silent. In October Stirling binned the Clan Gathering, claiming they couldn't afford it. Two months later the MOD received Stirling's application to host Armed Forces Day. You can't throw something like that together overnight so you can be sure they were working on this at the same time they were screwing up the Clan Gathering plans and basketballing them in the nearest bin, knowing full well they could never manage to organize both. Knowing also that Armed Forces Day would clash with Bannockburn 700. Surely they didn't miss the significance?

Of course not. Stirling Council ignored the fact but kept their plans from the NTS, who are running Bannockburn – even when asked directly at planning meetings about potential event clashes. They did not inform the Scottish Government or any other official bodies. They passed the responsibility of hosting the Clans over to Bannockburn, while planning at the same time to upstage that event.

It has to be the most blatantly shafting I have seen since Caesar entered the Forum on the Ides of March. It makes a mockery of the Clans, The Homecoming, the National Trust and, thanks to dragging Armed Forces Day into the mire of it, thousands of brave service men and women who didn't deserve to have their day hijacked.

I have to say that they have played a blinder by their way of thinking – set the Nat government rocking and unable to protest, since any attempt to criticise the hosting of Armed Forces Day is likely to be seen as having a go at the Heroes.

The result: a wee coterie of farthing-faced cuff-shooting town council tossers have effectively throw a spanner right into the whirling wheels that might have brought tourist dollars and euros and kudos to north Britain. And we still have a long road to the Referendum, with more of this astounding crap to come.

I told you so…

* * * * *

Addendum

Paragraph e, agenda of Stirling Council meeting, Oct 4 2013.

e. Stirling, Scotland and the UK
Council notes the current debate with regard to the Referendum due to be held on the 18th September 2014. While understanding there is a diversity of views in the area, Council believes that there is a place for its voice in this debate. Council believes that Stirling’s and Scotland’s interests are best served within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Council notes the work undertaken by Glasgow City Council into the potential impact of independence on public services in Scotland. Council believes these impacts will be equally felt in Stirling.Council believes that the 300 year old Union with England and Wales, along with the Union with Northern Ireland are an economic, social and political bond that should not be lightly cast aside. Council notes the tone of some of the debate, especially with regards to symbols that the men and women of Stirling have fought and died under for 300 years. Council deplores this debasing of our symbols. Council resolves to stand up for the symbols of our country by flying the Union Flag from the main pole above the council building and the council flag from the freestanding flagpost in the ground of Old Viewforth.

Signed by Councillor Campbell and Councillor Gibson

The council is dominated by a coalition of Labour and Conservative Parties, who came second and third in the elections to the SNP. The same council who arranged the Armed Force Day to clash with Bannockburn 2014.

Beauty, and the lie of the beholder


3 September 2013

There are lies, dam lies and statistics… You have probably seen this photo. It is not new, but it has become new again because of Facebook, and it is touching a lot of people because of its impact.

It shows Chief Raoni of the Brazilian rainforest Kayopo tribe, weeping because he has just been told that, despite all their protests, despite more than 600,000 signatures, president Dilma has authorises the Bela Monte Dam project. It means the end of 40,000 indigenous people, a valuable habitat bigger than the area of the Panama Canal and God alone knows how many species, known and unknown.

It's enough to make anyone weep. It made James Cameron weep – well, this is Avatar writ huge and for real, so the great Hollywood director is all out in protest, making and narrating videos. Designed, no doubt, to make the world weep like Chief Raoni.

Except that, like Hollywood, all is not as it seems. The chief is not weeping in reaction to a government announcement, but to being reunited with a family member he had not seen for some time. It is common among the Kayapo to show this level of emotion at such an event.

Even so, say those determined to halt the project, the loss these people face should make you cry; it will be devastating and it should be stopped. The photo, they continue, is bringing attention to a very important cause and should move you, because it shows the failure of our species to protect our planet from ourselves. It represents a chief's failure to protect his people from absolute annihilation. Life as they know it will disappear for a dam – that they will get no use from. And it is not just about a culture, but thousands of acres of wild land and biodiversity gone, for ever.

All very laudable; and all, possibly, very true – the pro-Dam lobby have their own take on it, and the entire affair has been mired in courts since 1975. This is just the latest attempt to kickstart the entire thing.

But there is another loss here: truth.

Is it okay to toss that into the dungheap in the interests of promoting a worthy agenda? How far can you devaluing your case before it vanishes entirely, just like an endangered species?

A judge has now put a new stop on the dam project, claiming a risk to fish stocks in the Xingu River, so it is back to the drawing board and the legal teams for the pro-lobby.

Yet already something has been irretrievably lost in Pandora.

* * * * *

Talking of indigenous natives – there was a time when the flyover bridges between the Scottish border and the 'furtherest north' (as I heard it called once) were daubed with 'Ennglish Go Home'. Sometimes 'English Go Hume'. Now and then it was even correctly spelled – but you got the message all the same.

'White settler' was an insult once used to disparage those who had moved to the Highlands to make a new life – but you don't hear the phrase much these days. That's because the daubers realised that the people who came actually helped shape and save the communities they adopted as home. Their biodiversity has enriched many a glen and not a few islands. The weak and the stupid were weeded out; those who remained fashioned a new and energetic dynamic.

There is, however an insidious follow-up to these pioneers, these New Highlanders who sought relief from a city rat-race and managed to cope with all that big sky and treeless horizon to make a life. They have been tracked by another breed: the ones who who do not accept the values of the place or engage with the communities they live in. The Trumps, if you like, who come to Scotland as white punters, determined to save the natives from themselves.

You don't need megabucks to be a white punter. You do need a total knob-end lack of understanding of how a rural community functions. You also need your already-blinkered view of everything around you to be highly–coloured by the vista across your chosen glen forest or loch. These are the ones who get on councils, or focus groups or environmental lobby projects from where they object to wind farms, slam fish farms, denigrate ferry services and decry any development that might detract from their right to a visual amenity. They like their natives and chosen land fixed in aspic forever – or at least until they sell up and move somewhere else.

In Torridon, Highland Council recently stopped an active crofter building a home on her croft because it might 'erode the wider landscape setting.' The Scottish Crofting Federation, effectively a workers' union, said last week: 'It is particularly alarming that this decision appears to have been heavily influenced by objections submitted by holiday home-owners in the area – people who don't themselves stay and work in the community, yet feel they have the right to dictate on where a crofter can and cannot live.'

Meanwhile, Mark Pattison, the laird of Kinlochdamph, thinks that the planned revival of nearby Kishorn oil yard isn't necessary while the west Highlands have 'full employment.' The fact that Pattison runs scenic holidays for artists might conceivably have a bearing on his position. One of them has certainly painted a rosy picture of a Highlands full of smiley happy people with no need of more work.

Elsewhere, The John Muir Trust continues to be vigilant. It is named after a Scots-born American naturalist, a much revered early advocate of preserving wilderness in America. His lanthorn has now been lit for Scotland by the Trust, whose stirring video dwells lovingly on gneiss rock from Lewis and intercuts it with a JCB and the slogan 'it only take a moment to destroy it.' Roads, bridges and technological giants (cue wind turbines – the JMT hates wind turbines) are all very well, but as the video tells me, 'you can't build wilderness.'

Old John Muir would have agreed wholeheartedly. He once told of how his own experiences of walking in the Sierra Nevada was somewhat ruined by 'a lot of queer, hairy muffled creatures; shuffling, shambling, wallowing towards me, the dirt on some of the faces old enough to have geological significance.' They would have been the natives, then – the actual people who live there and mar the landscape for The Trumps of any era.

For all the marketing of Scotland as a wilderness, a place where wide-open space, empty of habitat, blown by a hissing wind is a refuge for jaded London bankers, or Monarch of the Glen stags as a stalking thrill for foreign tycoons and princes, the truth is that Scotland has always been managed. Mismanaged in many cases – but there is no wilderness here. People live here. They work here. They are not indigenous natives to be shuffled back and forth depending on whether a white punter wants an ethnic shortbread-tin picture, or his view down the loch unspoiled.

As Scotland gropes towards some kind of apogee of true identity, perhaps now is as good a time as any to finally lose the Landseer, Highland piper image – and tell the white punters that there is a different view from where the real Scots stand.

Battles real and re-imagined

There is a lot to fight for around Britain right now – some battles are political, others are moral and some are simply for entertainment


7 August 2013

I AM having a bit of a Kevin Bacon at the moment, so bear with me. I will get from Kelmarsh floods to foodbanks, but it might take more than six degrees.

I start with Kelmarsh, the History Live! Festival put on annually by English Heritage. Last year's version was swamped, literally, by the rain and never happened, so I am delighted to report that the 2013 version was a knockout success.

There is just no comparison – and I speak as a reenactor who does more than a few of these events – to a multi-period display of history which manages to bring together Romans (in squads, not just four guys in a muddy field) Wars of the Roses, Saxons and Normans at Hastings (I was in that one), Napoleonic infantry and cavalry, the English Civil War complete with King Charles and his entourage, all splendidly mounted, WWI with trenches and WWII with tanks, guns – and a real Spitfire doing low-level passes.

They even managed, in a time of Level 3 heat warnings, to get clouds and a brief, welcome balm of rain on sweaty faces. I was at Tewkesbury the week before, mercifully only watching the plate-slathered reenactors charging back and forth in 30-odd degrees. Some 28 of them needed treatment and I am not surprised – you don't see that sort of stuff in The White Queen!

I mention this because reenactors, unpaid volunteers, turn out and strut their stuff in the equipment that has cost them a fortune because of the love of the period and the love of history.

* * * * *

The love of history is exactly what is missing from Cala Homes, who plan to develop right over the site of the 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge. They want 15 multi-million pound homes and the Covenanters who fell in the struggle can all sod off and birl in their graves.

Historian Professor Tom Devine, from Edinburgh University, is among the objectors. He says: "Covenanters' Field is the last undeveloped section of the site of the Battle of Brig in 1679. It is a site of national, and not simply local or regional, historical importance. The battle brought to an end the series of Covenanter risings of the 17th century. To agree to the building over of the remaining untouched part of this historic battlefield would be to commit an act of desecration to the memory of those who died in defence of their religious beliefs."

I am a Hamilton lad and Bothwell, practically next door, was a boyhood haunt, particularly the ruins of Bothwell Castle. I watched the ruins crumble while the developers built expensive housing schemes. The ruins were tarted up a bit, but only so that the exclusive developments would be worth the extravagant money – ironically, then as now, the best, most prestigious homes are clustered round the castle.

This latest proposal will chuck up properties worth between £395,000 and £995,000. Cala tried to pull this trick in 2009 and again the following year, and had both attempts knocked back. This time, it seems, their relentless siege has worked.

The most puzzling and saddening thing about this entire event is the role of the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association. As a charity devoted to "protecting, restoring or replacing monuments and memorials to the Covenanters," you'd think they would be out there, hackles raised – but they are backing the proposal. A spokesman says: "I am pleased to confirm the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association supports the planning application to South Lanarkshire Council for the development of Covenanters' Field for housing and Covenanters Heritage Park." No, I have no idea why either.

The council has until 12 September to reach a decision. I am hoping good people start raising their voices.

* * * * *

Raising their voices is what some good burghers of Inverness have done, protesting about Reay Mackay's proposal to name his Fort Augustus tourist camping ground Cumberland's Campsite.

The Duke of Cumberland was the fat, brutal commander of the Government forces who beat the Jacobite army at Culloden. He went on to earn the soubriquet 'The Butcher' for his vicious post-battle ethnic cleanse attempt on Highlanders.

Fort Augustus is dependent on tourism and I applaud Mr Mackay's enterprise; the area really was a campsite for Cumberland's army – practically everywhere was, let's face it.

The main objector is one Brian Denoon, former local resident and honorary fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, former principal teacher of English at Charleston Academy in Inverness, local author and, clearly, a man with a loss of serious perspective. He says: "As one who was brought up in Fort Augustus, it was a rather stunning experience to find that one of the least savoury of figures in the history of these parts is commemorated in the very community from which he sent out his soldiers in the post-Culloden days to massacre Highlanders in the neighbouring glens."

This smacks of the same sort of mentality which used to claim that you couldn't buy Campbell's soup in any shop in Glencoe – not true; and the plaque in the Clachaig Inn reception which reads "No hawkers or Campbells" is for the ironic amusement of tourists only.

This sort of pettiness devalues serious protest and does not even have the credibility of decent argument. After all, Fort Augustus used to be called Kilwhimin until General Wade renamed it following the Jacobite Risings of 1715. Is there a serious lobby to change the name of the village? Or the town of Fort William? I hope not, for it ranks up there with the badly-daubed signs that once decorated motorway bridges and read "Enlgish Go Hume".

* * * * *

"English Go Home" might well have been the correctly-spelled cry at Flodden, one of the many historical battles and events being commemorated in coming years; the worst defeat Scotland ever suffered is commemorated – I always hestitate to say "celebrated" – on September 7, its 500th anniversary. Bannockburn next year is a 700th anniversary. It is also the centenary of the start of WW1 and the 200th anniversary of Waterloo.

Flodden, like Culloden, has always been one of those battles for bowed heads and laments, so it is good to see Scots putting on a musical extravaganzs - Folk Rockin 4 Flodden - alongside Norham Castle.

Scocha will be there, and for those who don't know, the Hawick band have headlined at the biggest Highland games in America, (The Glengarry) as well as Tartan Week in New York. With them, almost as the other half of the Scottish-English divide, will be Dave-Hull Denholm, Charlie Harcourt and Steve Daggett – better known as members of folk-rock group Lindisfarne.

* * * * *

Lindisfarne is where I will be headed this August Bank Holiday. The priory will see some 50-odd Viking tents, scores of armed warriors and one of the best displays you will see this year, bar none. You'd be a fool to miss it – even if only for the good mead, an island speciality and the excellent food.

* * * * *

Excellent food is currently off the menu in too many homes across the UK. The recession bites ever harder and a new, sad and slightly sinister organization has appeared – the foodbank.

I say "sinister" because it seems MPs can't keep away from them. They are currently paid £65,000 a year plus thousands more in expenses, including substantial food allowances. They're about to accept a pay rise of around another £7,000.

I am going to try and be generous and assume that they really think they are doing A Good Thing by turning up at the opening of a local foodbank, with smug, cretinous smiles and absolutely no sense of shame or irony.

Chief Sec to the Treasury Danny Alexander (Lib Dem) in Inverness. Johann Lamont (Lab) in Aberdeen. Michael Connarty (lab) in West Lothian. Alex Fergusson (Con) in Castle Douglas. Hugh Bayley (Lab) York. Andrew Selous (Con) Dunstable. Ian Wright (Lab) Hartlepool. Stewart Jackson (Con) in Peterborough. Alex Cunningham (Lab) in Billingham. Zac Goldsmith. Gordon Brown. The list goes on and on. Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon, actually tweeted to his 6,000-plus followers: "Delighted to attend launch of #Croydon Foodbank."

"Delighted"? Is he serious? His tweet is might have been on a par with the message in which he accused Labour of making money out of Arab girl dating sites. This was because he had clicked on a Labour link and discovered the ad emblazoned, as he thought, all over the resultant website. He did not realise that it was a Google ad targetted to his own computer and using his, previous … er … likes.

I suspect that no-one has used foodbanks more this year than MPs, not because they need a free can of Campbell's, but because of the political capital they think can be made. Foodbanks must be heart-sick of getting yet another car-load of politicians instead of toilet rolls.

Prime Minister's Question Time on December 19 last year handed out the true Christmas message. Ed Miliband claimed foodbanks were an indictment of the government's welfare policy. Fair enough – but what he failed to add was that it showed that foodbanks were widespread and well-known enough to carry national, political weight. And Labour MPs just can't ignore a bandwagon like that any more than the rest of them.

So, cue MPs with no sense of irony or shame – and the Trussell Trust itself, now becoming politicised. It attended the Unite foodbank protest, tweets on #onenation and re-tweets left wing columnist Polly Toynbee.

Told you I would get you there – even if some it leaves a bad taste and is hard to swallow.

Blog on - the difference between pitching and posting

The blog is dead… but only if you've been writing one in an attempt to secure a publishing deal


13 July 2013

I have been having a full and frank exchange of views, as they say, with someone who will remain anonymous to save blushes, but who declares firmly that The Blog is dead. Waste of time. Why would you do it, etc etc… The answer is simple: because I don't want anything from it other than the ability to write freely about stuff I never could when I was a journalist with all sorts of corporate restrictions.

Now I can point the finger at, say, all those re-enactors currently up in arms – pun intended – over plans to ban weapons during the annual parade to Bannockburn.

This is because, the organisers claim, a car on the route last year was said to have been hit by a shield. It doesn't surprise me – a union flag was burned too, because this parade has sod all to do with the excellent re-enactors who recreate the battle, and everything to do with the tartanned Jacobites who turn out in full Prince Charlie rig, or Wallace two-handed anachronisms under the auspices of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, the more mouth-frothing end of Nationalism in Scotland.

Of course, my fellow re-enactors don't see this. All they see are the words 'weapons' and 'banned' and they are off, like clansmen at Culloden on a mad charge with little or no chance of success or reason.

At the other end is the 'discovery' of a letter in The British Library in London, formerly part of the British Museum. Uncovered by a professor of Scottish History at Glasgow University called Dauvit Broun (whit? Oh – wait. Davey Broon – I see it now) it garnered the headlines 'Bruce Pleaded with Edward II To Leave Him Alone'. Deliciously unionist, it reduced the Hero King to a wee bullied lad in the playground.

But reading the missive, as ever, reveals the truth.

'Our humbleness has led us, now and at other times, to beseech your highness more devoutly so that, having God and public decency in sight, you would take pains to cease from our persecution and the disturbance of the people of our kingdom in order that devastation and the spilling of a neighbour's blood may henceforth stop.

Everything which we and our people will be able to do by bodily service, or to bear by giving freely of our goods, for the redemption of good peace and for the perpetually flourishing grace of your good will, we are prepared and shall be prepared to accomplish.'

Which strikes me as one king to another making a good case for sense and peace, not a frightened man whimpering to be left alone. Since Edward clearly rejected it and was suitably duffed for his pains, you have to ask: who's the daddy?

But this kind of ordure, on both sides, is what we can expect in the run-up to 2014 and the referendum.

It is why I blog, have done for years, and will continue to do so.

The problem with those who announce that the blog is dead is that – well, it is for them. No longer fit for purpose because it has not resulted in a book deal or a herd of followers stampeding after you.

You have to optimise your posts with current events, discussions, popular links to popular bloggers in your area, keywords and SEO; plus, most importantly, visual and interactive content complete with comments, images and multimedia links.

I do not know who wrote this, but it popped up in my in-tray about the same time as an offer to provide at least four interesting tweets a day on my clearly moribund account. It seems to miss the point. A blog ain't a book, ain't a pitch for a book, has nothing to do with social interactive media. It has its own reasons for being; and anyone who mistakes it, as some are doing, as a book in itself, should be forced to read Vic Johnson. He is a big, square-chinned smiley man, one of those motivational speakers and writers whose latest is How To Write A Book In A Weekend (If You Flunked English Like I Did).

It's a follow-up to an offering on how to make money from epub, the basis of which is simple enough: you offer advice on how to make money from epub and, by the time hopefuls have parted with hundreds of dollars, they know little more than when they started – and you have made money from epub.

How To Write A Book etc is, in fact, a list of common-sense ideas. Like the chapter Pick A Niche And Topic, which is simply the old 'Write What You Know' rewritten under the guise of guru revelation. As for his statement that 'choosing the working title is probably the most important part' – well, that reveals all you need to know. How To Write A Book In A Weekend etc etc is a snappy title and clearly all the work went into that. Me? I would have thought that actually writing an informative and helpful book was probably the most important part.

Johnson's publication, in short, is a blog (and not a very good one) packaged up and sold as a book. It is a sweeping generalisation by me, but: the blogs most likely to score book deals are in the information-driven/self-help category of Vic. Or humour. Actually Vic's book scores on both counts – but I can claim the money on tax.

There are novelists who have made it via blogging, but they are self-referencing memoirs. Waiter Rant springs to mind. It got lifted from an anonymous posting to HarperCollins publication by the revealed author, disaffected waiter Steve Dubanica. A sequel Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity is out there somewhere. See if you can find it…

Besides – if I am reading a book and thinking, 'This is a good blog post,' then it is time to bin it. The autistic, ADHD, redneck rant world of the blog is not the medium for a good book topic.

So, my opponent in argument is right. The blog is dead… if you are a writer looking to push, promote or publish. Mainstream publishers probably still flirt with the idea of it (I was advised to get a website which, by definition, would include a blog).

But if you want to make it from blog to book deal, you have to stop being a writer. You have to become a single-minded, laser-guided marketing-and-promotion driven obsessive with the mind of an accountant and the heart of an entrepreneur.

Is that me? Blog on…

Fiction - the real price of freedom?

Behind the Holywood hype and frantic flag-waving, yet more of Scotland's real history is about to be obscured by fantasy


20 june 2013

This time next year almost every other Scot will be waving saltire flags, painting faces blue and white, screaming 'freedom' and waving tartan. It will be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – and, for all the organisers have put their foot down with a firm hand, you are going to see some pro-Scottish sights, for sure.

The National Trust for Scotland have said no to stalls for Yes Scotland supporters and have banned the display of political banners and leafleting at the three-day event. 'It is a non-political event, full stop,' a spokesman declared.

Oh, d'ye think so?

'We are talking about concessions for sale of produce, sale of merchandise, that sort of thing. We have a veto on the products and produce that are sold so, clearly, anything that we regard as unsuitable for what will be a family event would not be allowed to be sold. We won't be allowing banners in other than the types that are being sold within the arena area.'

Oh, d'ye really think so?

In every Bannockburn event I have ever been at there have been anachronistic tossers dressed as Jacobites, who get huffy at not being allowed to fight on the field. You get Braveheart face-painters. No doubt this time we will get wee girls done up like Merida out of Brave. You can't stop them at the best of times (and why should you – it's all good fun) and not in a year when the event is just weeks before the Scottish referendum.

Even the ones putting on the show – I hope to be in among them – and who are de-tartanned, de-blue-faced and de-Jimmy-wigged, are a stonking political statement. Have you seen Clanranald? I would be surprised if they bowed to any pressure not to unfurl a lion rampant or saltire flag in the interests of political fair play. I doubt the ones playing the English will lower the Cross of St George. Since there will be about 1000 volunteers armed and armoured, the NTS will be sent home to think again if they try it.

They won't, of course. They are not daft – they are getting £250,000 from the Scottish (SNP) Government to put on the event and have just had the Bannockburn site refurbished at a cost of some £9m. They can safely ban what they like as regards overt politicking, because the event is already hijacked – as is the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup Tournament all in the same year as the referendum.

Whatever lip-service is done to seemingly preserve the political independence of Bannockburn 2014, you can bet it will be a flagship for the referendum – and a saltire flown worldwide. Already, all things Scottish are starting to wave tartan arms; and there is a new television drama being made, to be shown in the US this autumn.

It's called Reign and stars former Neighbours actress Adelaide Kane as the young Mary Queen of Scots in what is described as a drama re-imagining of her teenage years – check the video out then tell me if your heart doesn't sink:


It may well be The White Queen meets Game of Thrones but it will do for Scottish history what Twilight did for vampires. Not that Mary Queen of Scots needs much help, since she has been tinted rosier in every generation until now she is the beautiful, doomed victim of that awful auld Englishwummin Lizzie I.

The fact that Mary is played by an actress whose previous claim to fame is in Teen Wolf, and half the cast of The Tudors support her, will do it no harm, for it is made by CBS and Warner for an American market who, if they had not planned beforehand, will now be coming to Scotland, armed with all their mostly-spurious clan connections and the last of the mighty dollar.

Tartan Day does the same. Brave was VisitScotland's Big Hope which collapsed in a wet heap in the worst summer for years. I have been here before and suffered a Stirling Castle statue of Wallace looking like Mel Gibson for years until it was consigned to a mercifully forgotten corner. Latterly, I have grown tired of seeing teenagers trying to look like Merida from Brave and now I will have teenage lassies all pouting in Renaissance Fair dresses, with no idea that a more accurate portrayal should be a baldie old woman with bad skin and no chin.

Of course, that would not help sell tickets to Bannockburn at £40 a pop. Freedom comes at a price…

Thou shalt not suffer a zombie to live

The dehumanising of targeted victims isn't new - it's only the marketing that's changed


15 May 2013

In The Lion Rampant, my last visit to medieval Scotland, there is a young mum called Aggie who falls foul of the Church and is burned at the stake as a witch. It wasn't uncommon. Anyone reading the accounts of such inquisitional religious events can't help but be struck by the efforts of the male-dominated judges, juries and executioners to reduce their victims from humans to something lesser. 'You shall not suffer a witch to live' is all the excuse you need to look yourself in a mirror once you had chained an abused woman to a post, piled wood round her and burned her to ash and oblivion.

It is medieval – a word now used to describe any barbarous treatment meted out to folk, in the sure belief that while our obese arses may be dragging on 21st-century ground, our knuckles are not. We have evolved to know that certain behaviour is 'medieval.'

And yet... I look at this story of a boy allegedly raped at knifepoint by a woman, and I despair. Not because of what has happened, unusual though it is; but because of the accompanying picture, which someone thought was a very fine way to illustrate the event. The designer-haired street-punk model wielding a flick-knife has no connection with the woman in the story. She is simply a serving suggestion some online marketing wank thought was a good idea.

I wouldn't get so stoked about it if I thought it was just the behaviour of one tosser with an iPad lifestyle. But it isn't – it's one of all too many examples of the objectifying of victims.

You can always rely on the pizza pioneers of the NRA in America to come up with another: the ex-girlfriend target. The cross between a blow-me blow-up doll and a plastic surgery advert bleeds when you shoot it.

It is supposed to be a zombie, say manufacturers Zombie Industries, who offer lots of variants from Nazis to Terrorists. They are sorry and will change the name they gave the girlfriend model from Ex to Alexa. Minimum packaging upset – and come on, it's a zombie, fer fecks sake. You're meant to blow them away with shotguns. That's what every other game does these days.

And why? Because they aren't human, that's why. Like witches, you must not suffer them to live. You have to slaughter them in the worst way, with the worst gore. In addition it gets round all the bleating protests from mothers who are concerned about what their kids are doing on their Xboxes. You spread your hands, offer a big marketing smile and say: 'Well, it's not like they're human, is it?'

But it all feeds back into the real world – as most dehumanising lies do in the end.

The lies connected with immigrants, for example. The Tories are tightening up immigration laws as they bark out their old right-wing ethos, which is being amplified to the extent that even immigrants safely housed in the UK are starting to argue that it's best if no-one else comes. Because they are taking jobs, housing and benefits, clogging up the NHS, bringing strange cultural practices and generally Are Not Like Us.

The truth is that of 2,000,000 net migrants to the UK from the countries of eastern Europe which joined the EU in 2004, just 13,000 have claimed Jobseeker's Allowance. Even if they'd all claimed from the day they arrived, which they couldn't, and were all still claiming nine years later, which none of them are, the cost would have been £5m a year.

It's not an insignificant amount of taxpayers' money, of course. But since the financial collapse of 2008, the Government has given banks £1,162,000,000 – of which £456,330,000 remains outstanding – and Dave In Number Ten hasn't mentioned it since. If Dave stood up in the House and gave the same time to the issue of banks as he does to immigration, we'd be here for about 2900 years.

I am not here concerned about whether immigrants are ripping us off. I am concerned about UKIP and history repeating itself in the rise of the right at a time of recession. I am concerned about the returning trend of pointing the finger at other people and declaring They Are The Problem because They Are Not Like Us.

So it seems there are immigrants, and there are immigrants who are like zombies. Targets that bleed. Witches. And it is all distressingly medieval.

Bannockburn: A Templar revelation

If you want proof that a writer has gone mad, see if he has become involved with the history of a certain order of knights in Scotland…


25 April 2013

The Lion RampantAmong the many unclosed arguments over Bannockburn concerns the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – commonly referred to as the Templars. The debate about their presence continues to rage on. Did Bruce give them shelter? Did he, as is claimed, become head of the Order, or form a new Order out of their ruins? Are the Masons of today the direct inheritors? Is the Scottish Rite handed down from the Templars? Did they lead an army of 'sma' folk' down Coxet Hill at the crucial balance of the battle and so bring Bruce victory?

If you want proof that a writer has gone mad, see if he has become involved with the history of Templars in Scotland. For my own part, I dismiss all of it. Bruce was not foolish enough to shackle himself to a discredited, disbanded Order simply because he had been excommunicated. The whole thrust of his life in the aftermath of Bannockburn was to undo that and gain Papal approval of his kingship, so he was hardly likely to be flaunting heretics in the Vatican's face.

The Templars ended in Scotland, just as they did everywhere else, but there is no doubt that disinherited Templars were treated with some leniency in Scotland, as they were in Ireland. There is evidence that both those countries were backwaters for Templar commanderies, a sort of retirement home for aged servitors of the Order. No-one much cared to punish old men in a care home.

Was there a Templar treasure, taken from France to the north of Scotland? Possibly – define 'treasure'. If the Templars thought they possessed the Grail, the Shroud of Christ and other such holy artefacts, which was their speciality after all, it may be that kings and popes spent a long time looking for the wrong fortune.

There may not, however, have been a fabled treasury at all – most accounts of commanderies taken over reveal very little in the way of loot. If there was a Templar treasure for Bruce it would be in the weapons and harness he needed – constant war, raids and English domination is not conducive to garnering the money needed to trade or create the amount of weapons and armour, simple though it was, with which the Scots army was equipped.

So where did he get them? Probably not as I have stated, using Templar money to buy Templar weapons from the beneficiaries of the fallen Order in northern Spain, the new Order of Alcantara. But it gave an adventure for Hal and Kirkpatrick while the events leading up to Bannockburn warped and wove themselves into a bloody tapestry of Midsummer's Day 1314.

Incidentally, the Glaissery Castle I have Bruce handing to the 'simple Benedictine monks' in exchange for their help is now known as Fincharn Castle, a former MacDougall stronghold on Loch Awe and not more than a prayer away from Kilneuair Church, a sadly neglected ruin with Templar symbols on gravestones. Loch Awe is the place where the Templars from France brought their fabled treasure… if you believe the many conspiracy theorists.

All of it is too good for a novelist to pass up. Historians would be wiser to treat tales of the secret continuation of the Templars in Scotland with a huge saline pinch.

Bannockburn: Everything and nothing

As the Kingdom Series winds its way towards one of the most famous moments in Scottish history, it's worth pausing a moment to separate fiction from what facts we actually know


21 April 2013

The Lion RampantThe Lion Rampant, published this week, finally brings the Kingdom Series to Bannockburn – and you would think that, after 700 years, we'd have at least some clear idea of what actually happened in 1314 at Stirling. But all we truly know is that two armies met somewhere close by Bannockburn on Midsummer's Day. One was commanded by Robert Bruce, King of Scots, the other by Edward II, King of England.

And that's about all we know for certain. Time has snowed over the marks and the memories – but they still run deep. On one glorious day in the year this book is set, the Scots won a great victory against all the odds, cocked two fingers at English ambitions – and, of course, only served to annoy its more powerful neighbour, who recovered sufficiently to make the kingdom suffer for it for the next several hundred years.

For all that Scots love to believe it, Bannockburn was not the end of matters. It consolidated Bruce on the throne, sent Edward II's relationship with his rebellious barons into a downward spiral from which, ultimately, it never recovered – but it did not end the cycle of invasion, slaughter and harrying. It did not even keep a Balliol from the throne; supported by Edward III in 1332, Toom Tabard's son, Edward Balliol (and there is wealth of revelation in that first name) took the throne from Bruce's young son, David. Ousted almost at once, he was promptly reinstated by English might, only to be ousted once more. Returned to power a third time by the English, he was finally thrown out in 1336 and this time he took the hint.

From this, you can see that war between Scotland and England rasped along, right through the Rough Wooing of Henry VIII (another abortive attempt to force the Scots to bow the knee) and only ended most of the brutal bloodshed with the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and, finally, grumbled to a grudging halt with the Acts of Union in 1707. It flared briefly in 1715 and '45 and then died forever at Culloden.

Bannockburn, resplendent in the panoply of great battles, was simply one more in the bloody tapestry of Scotland's history. Together with Culloden, they mark both the highest and lowest point of the Scottish martial bid for freedom.

For all that, Edward II was not his father, against whom Bruce never took a yard of ground. Edward I, in his turn, was never so bloody or brutal than his grandson, 'the perfect king' Edward III. From an English perspective, Edward I and his grandson are golden monuments to chivalry; the Scots, of course, have a different view.

Bannockburn, for all its impact on history, remains an enigma. Numbers, the actual site and progression are all best guesses; and I have used numerous sources, taking the bits I think fit best as a historical novelist creating one more fiction around the event. In an age of military shock and awe, it is worth remembering that the entire of Edward I's army, a monstrous host for the time, could have fitted into Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium, capacity 16,000. Bruce's spearmen could have crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, on a football pitch.

The battle site itself, on the day, is also best guess – though the idea has perpetuated that the boggy ground hampered the English heavy horse, a concept no doubt culled from all the later historians who bothered even to walk that ground in a typical wet summer. But the summer of 1314 was not typical, just as the battle was not typical. There are hints, in other extant accounts, that May and June of 1314 had been rainlessly hot; and Bannockburn's carse, given weeks of beating sunshine, is firm and perfect for cavalry, even if the steep-sided streams, tidal washed twice a day at one end, retain a measure of damp.

(1314 was the start of a climate change which saw long, harsh winters, arid summers and wet autumns, all of which conspired to ruin harvests. The year after Bannockburn came the worst famine in Britain – worse still for the people of northern England, whose wheat crops were ruined by weather and the ravages of victorious, raiding Scots. Scotland also suffered, though the despised oat, staple of the Scots diet, was a hardier plant for wet weather, and the Scots were not being burned out of what little they had.)

The salient points of the battle at Bannockburn are fairly well confirmed, source to source: the arrival of the English, weary and exhausted; their hasty and ill-conceived assault and the death of Sir Henry Bohun at the hands of Bruce personally; the belief that the Scots would not stand for a second day; and the shock of them not only still being in situ, but actually attacking.

The victory was the culmination of Bruce's struggle to ensure that Scotland recognised him as king. It would take fifteen more years before the rest of the world recognised it as well.

The start of this book is purportedly written by an unknown monk in February of 1329, three months before Robert the Bruce is finally acknowledged as king of Scots by the Pope - and four months before his death, ravaged and ruined by 'an unspecified illness'.

Now, 700 years later, it seems Scotland stands on the threshold of regaining the freedom so many died for on that day – and, of course, those who fervently wish for that fly this event like a banner. It is still worthwhile remembering, all the same, that Bannockburn, that golden moment, achieved everything… And nothing.

Horribly Unhistoric

Acclaimed kids' author Terry Deary is wrong on a number of things in his books - so it's no surprise he is wrong about the place of libraries in our culture too


10 March 2013

Vicious VikingsI AM now getting weary of asking 'is it just me?' in that rhetorical way. It aint. I know there are so many others that think some people are either incompetent twats or wilfully negligent, or deliberately uncaring. Tick your box for the likes of the Tory/Independent administration of Moray Council.

Despite pleas from communities and evidence from communication workshops held throughout Moray, half of Moray's libraries have just been dismembered, devastating a service that was one of the top performing in Scotland. Thirteen councillors decided to remove all library services in Burghead, Cullen, Dufftown, Findochty, Hopeman, Portknockie and Rothes.

Bad enough and repeated throughout the country – I can remember banging on about library closures at least two years ago. But you have to wonder what colour the sky is on the Planet of the Thirteen Philistines who have now designated March as 'libraries month in Moray', supposedly to showcase the range of services available.

So there you go. Axe the ability to read, then spend good money getting people to celebrate reading. You couldn't make it up … unless you were Terry Deary, author of all those Horrible Histories.

He recently came out with a diatribe against libraries, the thrust of which was that 'they had to change' and that they were, in some way, robbing him blind. 'Books aren't public property,' he pontificated, 'and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed.'

Of course, as one of the most popular library authors – his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times during 2011/12 – Deary will have received the maximum amount possible from the Public Lending Right scheme, which gives authors 6.2p every time one of their books is borrowed, up to a cap of £6,600. Not good enough for our Tel. 'If I sold the book I'd get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000,' he mourns.

Deary, Deary – so much for your readership. Are the kids not supposed to fall in love with books, discover authors, genres, the basic pleasure of reading? I see – no, they are not. They are meant to rush out and spend their pocket money on you.

But never mind his selfish author perception – Tel is concerned about the Bookshops. 'The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?'

Bookshops are closing down, he insists, 'because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell. What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches. Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry. They are putting bookshops out of business, and I'm afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century.'

What a misguided, badly-researched, self-centred prat.

There are many reasons why bookshops are failing, epubs being the least of it, supermarket bookshelves being a huge part of it, Amazon being the 300lb unavoidable gorilla of it – and libraries far down the list. They have been around for decades and so were bookshops until recently – is Mr Deary declaring that, suddenly, libraries are lending out so many books the retailers can't cope?

I am unsurprised, all the same. I have read the Horrible Histories – like everyone else, my grandsons love 'em because it makes them laugh with the kind of grisly/toilet humour every six to ten year-old adores. He is lauded for bringing the serious study of history to kids, making it fun to learn etc etc, yadda, yadda

I read Vicious Vikings because that's my primary interest. I have come to the conclusion that a better way to teach kids this period in a fun way is to hand out copies of The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. They'd love it (apart from the kissing – yeuugh!) and the history in it would be just about as accurate, for research – in writing as in life – does not seem to be Mr Deary's strong point. I am ten times more accurate than he is and I write fiction, for feck's sake.

So – for your info, Terry… Iceland wasn't discovered in 870. It was first settled in 870, which is not the same thing. The Battle of Eddington was not 871, it was 878. That was also the date of the Treaty of Chippenham, not 886. And the bold Leif Erickson did not discover America in 1000AD – it was a year later.

In Stormin' Normans, the date of William the Conqueror's death is given as 1085. He died in 1086. He wasn't buried in a cathedral in Caen, either – it was an abbey. Henry I's son, William, died in 1119 according to your version; he actually died in 1120. The site of William the Conqueror's first battle, Val-es-Dunes, is 'on the Norman border with France' – but this is geography, not history, so you might be forgiven for not knowing that it is just outside Caen and nowhere near the French border. (I am indebted to author Marc Morris for the revelations on Stormin' Normans – his own book, Conquest, on the subject is just masterly.)

That's just two of the scores of HH books. God knows what Terry Deary has done to a generation of kids and history – but it could all have been avoided if the man had spent a little more time on Google, even Wikipedia. It's clear he didn't use a library; but his secret is safe if the kids to whom he offers this butchery of history can't actually go to one either and find out the truth.

AND FINALLY…

I read a lot of strange stuff, but I was only attracted to the Radiation Protection Dosimetry Journal by the pictures of naked women and not the erudite articles, I swear. There I read a study from the University of Southern Queensland which found that beards block 90 to 95 percent of UV rays, thereby slowing the ageing process and reducing the risk of skin cancer.

Got asthma? Get a beard - pollens and dust simply get stuck in lustrous facial hair. It retains moisture, too, protects against the wind and keeps you young and fresh-faced – well, underneath the beard anyway. What's more, shaving is usually the cause of ingrown hairs and bacterial infections that lead to acne. And, let's face it, you will never go hungry with a beard – it is a positively Einsteinian how trapped toast crumbs increase exponentially with the length of a beard.

Grow for it!

Fiddling while hope burns

What chance does culture have in an environment where the best-marketed works vastly outsell the best works?


23 January 2013

DO you judge a book by its cover? I mean, if someone says it is great and it is marketed as great, do the subsequent sales figures make it great? Would Fifty Shades have stayed anonymously grey without the hype? Are Harry Potter's endless adventures well-written because of the millions of units shifted?

I ask this because of Joshua Bell. Yet again the email detailing his Washington subway experiment is going the rounds and clogging up spam filters everywhere. But this 'urban legend'happens to be true: in 2007, concert violinist Joshua went to a station platform with his umpteen-million quid Strad and proceeded to play a selection of classical pieces. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, standing beside a wastepaper basket in the Washington DC Metro and he made about £25 in roughly an hour.

Three days before, young prodigy Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely good seats went for $100 a pop.

Is this an indication that, if you say it is brilliant, people will pay to come? But that if you let one of the best artists in the world, using one of the best instruments in the world, create with some of the best compositions in the world and say nothing at all, then it is mediocre busking?

It was, of course, a newspaper stunt – some of the best and worst 'social experiments' are. The paper I once worked for decided to try something similar when news broke that homeless dossers were being shifted away from Glasgow's Central Station Hotel, where they survived winter thanks to the warm air of the gridded vents constantly pouring from its heating system. The Daily Record swooped on one of the said dossers, barbered him, bought him a suit and then took him into the posh Central Hotel for a slap-up meal. The 'social experiment' was to show that, with a shave, a haircut and clean clothes, he could go into a place where he was not otherwise even permitted to lie down outside.

It might well have had more weight and dignity about it if the Record, story in the bag, had not taken back the suit and dumped the dosser back where he came from. Social experimentation did not stretch to any actual involvement in improving the poor guy's lot, it seems.

But the Joshua Bell experiment does have some point to make and, in a somewhat irritating circulation of blogs and email, poses the philosophical question: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

The S-to-Z of getting it wrong

It's time the Brits stepped back in and sorted out the lax colonial Americanization of English


22 January 2013

THE ONION, in case you remain uninitiated, is an anarchic spoof news website which vies with The Daily Mash to brighten my day. A recent story of theirs caught my imagination long enough to consider becoming one of those who passes the link on to everyone he knows – however, I reined myself in.

The story purports to be a news scoop from New York about the rising death toll in an ongoing turf war. Four more copy editors, they trumpet, were killed amid violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. As the news report has it:

"At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English," said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word "anti-social" had been corrected to read "antisocial."

"The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone."

Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.'

Made me laugh – and then wonder whether the Gangs of New York are battling over the wrong turf. It's time the Brits stepped back in and sorted out this lax colonial Americanization of English. More than time the 'Z' was fitted with concrete overshoes and dropped in the bay.

If you are a published writer with one of the larger houses, you have already suffered the rise of the 'ize' – it is cheaper for copies to be pre-'ized' when published in the UK, rather than have to be reworked for sale in America. So all my books have 'ize' endings – in fact, Word has to be beaten into submission in order not to do it automatically and, to my shame, I have wearily stopped hitting it.

I have even been told that there are words with a 'z' in them that are purely American – like advertize. Or maybe just wrong, like surmize. No, there aren't. 'Advertise' and 'surmise' are correct and have always been correct. Well, huffs my informant, sometimes words with a z-form in American represent an older form of English that made its way to the USA before the language was standardized in England.

Sometimes, I am forced to spit through gritted teeth, words with a z-form represent Noah bloody Webster's attempts to 'standardize' or 'improve' American usage of English when he produced his famous dictionary in 1828. In it, he deliberately and extensively revised – sorry, revized - all the spelling. Described as a great spelling reformer, he just decided to use a 'z' wherever he considered the pronunciation called for it. Well, he surmised incorrectly, blinded by the 'prize' no doubt. He is a great spelling reformer in the same way that Attila the Hun is an urban planning genius.

I had thought myself resigned to it. Like McDonalds and Coke, jeans and trainers and truly bad baseball caps, it is just part of the relentless Americanization of Europe – but now it is taking an insidious turn.

Not content with warping existing words out of true, there is a strange force abroad creating such shambling horrors as 'incentivize'. When did that become necessary? 'Democratize' has never been. 'Moisturization', for feck's sake, is now the most-used pseudo-science part of every wrinkle cream telly ad.

The English language is constantly evolving, I am told, so I should relax and just go with the flow. But this isn't a calm, babbling brook, constantly changing course and nature – it is a living entity subject to some Frankenstein tinkering. The result is a shambling affair bolted together, nouns made verbs with some bad stitching, mutant mouthings made meaningless by manipulation.

British writers – all writers, in fact, with any sense of honour (not honor) should take up their Chicago typewriters and recolonise the street.

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