Entertaining Dr Johnson:intro.

April 7, 2008

Bringing a friend home to meet your father can be a fairly stressful occasion, one that is made much worse if your relationship with your father is a difficult one and you just know that your friend and your father aren’t going to get on well.  The potential social embarrassment is made infinitely worse if the father in question is a distinguished Scottish judge with traditional attitudes and strong views and the friend is known for his notoriously anti-Scottish views.

James Boswell

This was the explosive situation that James Boswell, advocate and author, got himself into in 1773 when, at the end of his tour of the Highlands with Dr Samuel Johnson, he and Johnson arrived at his father’s Ayrshire home, Auchinleck House, to stay for six days.  James Boswell’s father, Alexander, who had the title of Lord Auchinleck from his position as a judge of the Court of Session, was sixty-six years old. James, who was now thirty-three, had been in more or less constant conflict with his father since his teenage years – a relationship not helped by Alexander re-marrying after the death of James’s much-loved mother.  Alexander thought that James was too fond of loose living and running off to London and should instead concentrate on his family responsibilities as a recently married husband, and as heir to Auchinleck, and on his career at the Scottish bar.

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Admiral Keith: intro.

April 4, 2008


When in August 1815, the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated at Waterloo, surrendered to the British he found himself negotiating the terms of his surrender and his eventual imprisonment on St Helena with the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, Admiral Viscount Keith.  Keith’s involvement with the surrender of the man who had dominated Europe for almost twenty years was the culminating experience of a lifetime at sea for one of Scotland’s greatest naval figures. 
George Keith Elphinstone was born on 7th January 1746 at the family home of Elphinstone Tower, Airth, near Stirling.  His father would in 1757 become the 10th Lord Elphinstone, and his mother, Clementina Fleming, was the heir to the estates of the Earl of Wigton and the niece of George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland, who had gone into exile following the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising.  The Elphinstones were a well-connected and an old-established landed family but one that was burdened with debt and had many children to provide for.  The estate could not provide livings for all the sons and the two eldest sons joined the army; the third son, William, went into the marine service of the East India Company and George, the fourth surviving son, entered the Royal Navy at the age of 14 in November 1761.  In later years the Admiral often remarked that “he was sent to sea with only a five pound note in his pocket and was told by his parents to push his fortune in the world.” 
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Para Handy

April 3, 2008
Para Handy Scottish icon!
Yes, Para Handy is surely one of the most remarkably resilient comic characters ever created. He first appeared in the columns of the Glasgow Evening News in 1905 and has never been out of print since.
Created by the Scottish novelist and journalist Neil Munro the Para Handy stories tell of the adventures of Para Handy,  Captain Peter Macfarlane, and the crew of the puffer Vital Spark.
OK – what’s a puffer?
A small steam lighter mainly used to carry general cargoes around the West of Scotland.
Despite the fact that the puffer has disappeared from our waters (apart from a couple of museum ships) and the world that they inhabited has changed almost beyond recognition, the stories have retained their freshness and humour in a quite remarkable way.

A typical puffer.

My co-editor, Ronnie Armstrong, and I were delighted and thrilled to discover 19 original stories, which had previously been unpublished in book form, in the files of the News  and have included these, along with comprehensive notes and introductory material and archive photographs in our Birlinn edition of the Complete Para Handy.

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For more about Neil Munro check out the Neil Munro Society website http://www.neilmunro.co.uk/

John Splendid

April 1, 2008
John Splendid was Neil Munro’s first novel, published in 1898 after serialisation in Blackwood’s Magazine.  Like most of Munro’s fiction it is based in and around his home town of Inveraray in Argyll and is set in the troubled period of the 1640s and the Civil War. War however in Argyll took on much of the character of a clan battle. The Campbell stronghold of Inveraray is burned by the Royalist forces under Montrose, assisted by Alasdair MacDonald or MacColla, who saw the struggle between King and Parliament as an opportunity to strike back at his clan’s traditional rivals the Campbells, represented by Archibald, the 1st Marquis – Gillespeg Gruamach (Archibald the Grim).
As I write in my introduction to the B&W reprint of John Splendid the story starts in 1644 when: “… Colin, heir to the Laird of Elrigmore returns to his native parts after a long absence. Five years of study in Glasgow University had been followed by seven years of campaigning in Germany and the Low Countries as a soldier of fortune campaigning in one of the Scots regiments fighting in the Thirty Years War.” He returns to Argyll where his family were allies to the Campbells and finds himself in another war zone and meets McIver of Barbreck, a distant cousin of the Marquis and the John Splendid of the title.
Munro’s cast of characters reveal the Highlands in all their complexity – John Splendid for all his military prowess is shown to be less than noble, always ready with the answer that the Marquis wants to hear, while the Marquis, fated to be a war-leader of a fighting clan, has all the instincts of a lawyer and a politician. When his town of Inveraray is burned he takes the prudent but unheroic course of sailing away to seek reinforcements.
John Splendid was a bold choice for Munro’s first novel – the same story of Montrose and Argyll had been dealt with by Sir Walter Scott in  A Legend of Montrose – but it is tribute to Munro’s skill that his version is capable of being compared with the Scott novel.

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For more information about Neil Munro go to the Neil Munro Society website www.neilmunro.co.uk

The Rat-Pit

March 31, 2008

The Rat-Pit is a companion piece to Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End – it tells the story of  Norah Ryan, the childhood sweetheart of Dermod Flynn the central character in Children of the Dead End.  Her descent through betrayal, the birth of an illegitimate child, life in a Glasgow lodging house (the rat-pit of the title), sweated work as a piecework seamstress, prostitution and death is recounted in graphic and harrowing detail.

Click here for an article about MacGill

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March 31, 2008



Scottish Heather Book

March 30, 2008

Some books you write because you desperately want to, others because some kind publisher waves a chequebook under your nose!  I have to admit that the Scottish Heather Book fell into the latter category – but it was fascinating finding out how deeply heather was woven into Scottish literature, culture and folklore, and a real pleasure to find out a little more about the plant in its various forms. Some of the uses heather was put to surprised me – I certainly didn’t know until I researched the subject that bundles of heather – “reenges” – used to be sold on the streets of Edinburgh as pot scourers.

Click on the link below to order The Scottish Heather Book from amazon.co.uk and find out more about this most distinctively Scottish plant.

Patrick MacGill: the “Navvy-Poet”

March 30, 2008

A writer who swiftly transported his Irish working-class hero from the squalor and danger of life as a navvy, building the Blackwater Dam for the Kinlochleven aluminium works, to a scholarly position at the centre of the English ecclesiastical establishment in St George’s Chapel, Windsor might be thought to be in danger of losing credibility. If the young hero also overcame a background of grinding poverty and limited education to become a best selling novelist and poet the writer could perhaps expect quite a lot of rejection slips.

Yet what would be unbelievable fiction was the reality of the life of the ‘Navvy-Poet’, Patrick MacGill, who shot to national fame with the publication of his autobiographical novel, Children of the Dead End, in 1914.

MacGill was born into a poor subsistence farming family in the rural community of Glenties, County Donegal around April 1890. He described his education in Who’s Who as ‘three years at a mountain school.’ When he was twelve, he was put out to add to the family income by doing casual work on local farms. After a couple of years of this he was considered old enough to be sent to the hiring-fair at Strabane, County Tyrone, and spent the next few years working for a variety of masters as a farm labourer. As a teenager he came to Scotland with one of the tattie-howking squads who made the yearly trip from Ireland to harvest potatoes on the farms of lowland Scotland. 

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 This article originally appeared in The Scots Magazine in September 2001.

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From Morvern to Morocco: intro.

March 29, 2008

Scots have always been able to adapt to a wide range of alien environments while retaining their national identity and characteristics.  Few demonstrated this ability more markedly than Harry Maclean.  A descendant of the Macleans of Drimnin in Morvern he spent 43 years in Morocco, became commander of the Sultan of Morocco’s army, adopted Moorish costume; but managed to play the bagpipes at every opportunity and retained a very Scottish personality. 

In a remarkable career he became both a trusted adviser of successive Sultans and an unofficial agent for the British Government. This position was not without its perils, he was captured and held hostage for several months by a bandit chief with whom he had been sent to negotiate on behalf of the Sultan. 

Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1848.  His father, Andrew, was Inspector General of Army Medical Services and a grandson of Allan Maclean, chieftain of the Macleans of Drimnin.  Young Harry was found employment in the civil service but this did not prove congenial and he asked his father if he might join the army.  Maclean was commissioned into the 69th Foot (The South Lincolnshire Regiment) and served with them in Canada, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

In 1877 the Sultan of Morocco sent 100 soldiers to Gibraltar to be trained as a cadre of instructors for his army and asked the British Ambassador to Morocco, Sir John Drummond-Hay, to find a British officer who would enter the Sultan’s service and train his army. Harry Maclean accepted the appointment and spent the next thirty years in the service of the Sultan, Moulay Hassan, and his successor, Moulay Abdelaziz.


Kaid Maclean in local costume

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The Great Push

March 29, 2008
Patrick MacGill’s autobiographical novel of life in the trenches in the early years of the First World War has many of the strengths of his first novels – Children of the Dead End and The Rat-Pit. It is written from first hand experience and gives an unromantic, unvarnished, private soldier’s account of war at the sharp end.As I discovered when researching MacGill and his army career for my introduction to Birlinn’s reprint of this book he had enlisted in the London Irish in September 1914. Like many Irishmen of the day he saw no problem about volunteering to fight in the army of what many of his countrymen saw as an occupying power – MacGill’s politics always seemed more to be class-based than deeply involved in questions of nationalism. MacGill was gassed in action in September 1915 and two weeks later was wounded in the arm at the battle of Loos on 28 October and invalided home. Although he remained in the army for the duration of the war it seems that the authorities found a more appropriate role for a talented writer than rifleman and he produced a number of other books about the war and ended up in the Intelligence Section of the War Office.
The Great Push is a classic account of men at war and in its brief compass gives many memorable pictures of the horror of war and men’s reaction to war.
For an article on MacGill and his work click here.

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