2007 - 2021

The Wilder Shores, Part 1

At the end of 2015 Rupert Murdoch got his claws into National Geographic – not always successful as a ‘journal of science’, but it tried …  and seemed latterly to be on a learning curve. Earlier that year, on 15 May I became about the last of its ‘Global Vision Lecturers’ (they’d started with Gorbachev and Gro Harlem Bruntland) on the MV ‘Explorer’ going clockwise round These Islands, from the Pool of London via Cornwall, Ireland, the Hebrides to Orkney, Shetland and across to Bergen. At the very least it was to give a foretaste of what unbounded, unhinged capitalism is likely to do to David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’.

NG had got the idea from a proposal I sent to the International Conference on Ports and Harbours, in 2013, partly drawing on my study of North Sea oil for Fool’s Gold (Penguin, 1993) and ideas from an inventor I had tried to help develop patent anti-inundation devices. The problem – as ever in Scotland – was trying to interest bodies like Scottish Enterprise to take even an occasional  long view over the ‘mair jobs oan ra tarr’ horizon, and think in terms of national accounting.

I’d had enough of the Scottish Fishermans’ Federation moaning away about being persecuted – especially after the ‘Black Fish’ scandal of 2007. After SE’s venture into ‘Intermediary Technology Institutes’ in its 2004 programme, slinging half a billion at projects including offshore engineering and getting a few thousand back, their brain fell off. What was left was the conference habit: recurrent public crushes ‘with finger buffets’ to boost – shall we say? – exports. The politicos, academics anonymous, and the same old-and-young publicity folk usually outnumbering everyone else almost ten to one.

I began to miss long-ago weekends at Bletchley Labour Party when it was run by the hypershit Robert Maxwell back in 1970. A monster and a political menace, he actually managed to circulate scientific knowledge: his Aberdeen University Press published some decent books. Murdoch? A banal, philistine, presscreep, inflated from the reptiles in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.  Having in 2008 had a rucksack and computer stolen (inside Holyrood) and ‘journalists’ from NewsInt doorstepping me in Kirkcaldy, I used to wonder at the persistence of a decent bloke like Asa Briggs in squiring him around, until I saw the Murdoch Library at Worcester College Oxford. The pursuit of learning still fires us academics up: get what you can out of the other side. Yes: but Asa had also known Murdoch as a Young Communist, working with his Cowley comrades. Mussolini was once that way inclined. His disciple Balbo’s seaplanes flew in formation to New York, ‘but first east to greet our Russian comrades in Odessa!’ That rabblement hadn’t gone away.

So  there we were, moored at Portsmouth (a sad, truncated ‘Victory’, and the rusting ghosts of the Falklands), ten miles off Victoria’s Osborne with lots of naked Graeco-Teuton youths strutting their stuff. Overnight to Fowey – ‘Troy Town’ run by that one-man Cambridge-Cornish Arts Council man Arthur Quiller-Couch, then the Scillies. Gardens, Gardens … the ‘Explorer’ was a lash-up between the Financial Times and George Wyllie’s PinkPaperBoat : ‘Culture is the new gardening’, etc.   You bet.

Via the Skelligs to Dingle: regeneration in old pubs: ‘J. J. Hannigan Presentation Software AND Guinness’, north to The Arans. A change from 1977and the  old motorship ’Naomh Enna’ with a ferry arriving every few minutes from the mainland at a big, bleak pier, more houses with roofs on them, the starling chatter of interstudent. Killybegs with a few feet of the old County Donegal line on the quay, to be swept away by 2017 for a pier big enough to take the MS ‘Queen Mary 2’.


The problem hit us at Iona, after a dawn off Malin, when Jura had loomed up pink as a mermaid’s tits. Bali Hai with Room 101 attached.

‘There’s a Swiss boat in.’ Indeed there was: in that sound where Hoseason’s ‘Covenant’ got wrecked and young RLS had a century later surveyed the desolation of Earraid. She was registered at Basel, based at Rotterdam and 7000 tonnes. Enough visitors to pack out the tearooms and the tiny cathedral, and the graveyard with John Smith’s tomb amid the Pictish kings.

We couldn’t land until late afternoon, so steamed east into Mull along Loch Scarraid, over which brooded the south face of Ben More, where my career nearly ended, fifty years ago.

In 1966 after the May election had confirmed Wilson in power (I was vice-chair of South Edinburgh Labour and shortly to start on my PhD on university liberalism) I had struck south from the Tobermory hostel and climbed alone to the 3020 foot summit. I turned south, to find the track breached by a sloping field of ice: four slithery yards across.  If I lost foothold a gentle slither downhill then a precipice. Scared stiff and about to panic – my version of Leslie Stephen’s ‘A bad five Minutes in the Alps’ forecast the imminence of death.  I had to cut steps and, sprawled on the slope and grateful for good boots, did so: first with my new and so far unused, inflexible friend: a Bank of Scotland credit card. I used it to grasp, work loose and dislodge a six-inch spike of slate, with which I slowly hollowed out three steps until the stone path re-emerged. His five minutes convinced Leslie that God was dead and he wrote an article for the Fortnightly.

Several people I knew, who were far more responsible, died in the wilds at that time: Alfred Plevin, who founded the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, wandered away from a hospital after a nervous breakdown. Peter Chiene, who ran ‘Q’ Magazine, and was frozen in 1973, trapped in a Hebridean spring storm. Some geographer friends were buried by an avalanche. Looking back from our comfortable ex-Hurtigruete boat, this thought convinced me I’d been a complete idiot, rescued by something that would go on to wreck Leslie’s liberal world: in our Ring Cycle the dwarf Alberich of economic willkur.

Twin to the spore which would cultivate fish in the sealochs of the domesticated north- west.

‘Where do the eggs come from?’ ‘Helicopter.’ ‘Yes but from where?’ ‘Hivnae a clue’ ‘And the ship that carries the mature fish – to where?’ ‘Nae idea.’   

The grey water and foul smell of a fish farm in a stagnant inlet off Argyll, surrounded by, overlooked by, old livestock farms being reclaimed by heather and bracken, retirees’ cottages falling empty after age caught up. Kids, no different from their Victorian counterparts in their life-chances, heading from industrial-scale schools on now-silent buses, being plugged into ‘social media’. Off to the battery-farms of financial services, continuous takeovers, public-private partnerships, dodgy philanthropists, while the rigging of parked, pricey sailing yachts flapped and cracked in the marinas. In Mull the comic little train from the Oban ferry to Torosay had beenevicted by a new estate owner and relocated to Rudyard Lake, where Rudyard Kipling, creator of Kim and Stalky, had been conceived through sexual intercourse.

‘Into Shopping? stay at Edinburgh SYHA Hostel.’   ‘If you want to avoid sudden Death, keep a hand in Harvey Nicks.’ In the German or Swiss highlands, there was a balance of skill and local knowledge propelling such places. Not here. The tiny hostels of my youth were vanishing fast, along with sometimes weird wardens, damp sleeping bags and legalism about sex – buy into glam and booze! Looking at the near-deadly cliff of that lonely Munro from the momentary sunshiny desolation of Loch Scarraig, an essential element of risk and fear had gone too.

‘Global Vision’ homily, after supper, the voyagers got the first draft of the above: Iona far from cradling European piety, was perched on the shoulder of wondrous Staffa. International Law of a sort – the calligraphy of the monks in their treasured, unburnable books – reflected not piety but this bizarre clash, and the extraordinary books that recorded it.  Skin-boats carried them to central Europe. In May 1986 I had walked the causeway over Lake Constance to Reichenau where Columbanus had ended up. Winter had just ended and round those Romanesque daughter-houses the cloches were open for BaWue’s first lettuces of the season. The snow returned, its easterly weather-system having visited the Ukraine, and baptised the little plants with caesium, enough for several millennia. Local bairns couldn’t play outdoors; BaWue’s venison habit dropped dead, along with uncountable country inns. A branch-stream went on to Scotland, dusted the Border hills. In the 2010s, at Melrose, my parents drifting away in their late nineties, our carer Wilma Hewitt noted the number of her friends dying of stomach and colorectal cancers. In 2005 Virginia, my wife, killed by a rogue metastisation in the intestine, might also have been a victim.

Our daughter and the youngsters went out to the Staffa landing on the roaring Zodiacs. Their torches danced above the basalt cliffs in a clear, cold sunset. Turner had a rough time two centuries ago in the dawn of steam, strapped himself to the paddler’s mast, in the threshing of paddle, waterglare, cloud and sun. This is our new hell, his painting says.

‘Into Shopping? stay at Edinburgh SYHA Hostel.’   ‘If you want to avoid sudden Death, keep a hand in Harvey Nicks.’ In the German or Swiss highlands, there was a balance of skill and local knowledge propelling such places. Not here. The tiny hostels of my youth were vanishing fast, along with sometimes weird wardens, damp sleeping bags and legalism about sex – buy into glam and booze! Looking at the near-deadly cliff of that lonely Munro from the momentary sunshiny desolation of Loch Scarraig, an essential element of risk and fear had gone too.


Comments (5)

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  1. Mathew says:

    Has the author been doing methamphetamine? Crack? Or just high on life?

  2. Dabid says:

    I got a bit more information from his article than your comment. But Thanks for illustrating his point perfectly.

    1. Mathew says:

      There’s a point!?

  3. Carol says:

    What a great writer…Loved reading this!

    1. Utterheb says:

      This is a perfect example of the influence of the west coast on a slumbering brain. A week in the Hebrides – early February or late November would suffice – to reawaken, even in the most jaded townie, an appreciation of LIFE!!

      When you cannot stand up because of the wind, or sleep from the sound of the rain and the thunderous shaking of the modern ‘croft house’ by the wind, or eat a bland meal from shop bought rubbish on account of the ferries stuck on the mainland… now that is west coast island life at its best. Slainte!

      Home grown potatoes, salt fish, dried mutton, and bog cormorant – eat your heart out Fanny Craddock.

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