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“Listen boys – I’ve been thinking……”

October 8, 2014

Forty four years ago this week, I returned to my birthplace to commence an English degree at Edinburgh University. I arrived with some trepidation: since the age of six, I had lived in England, and was imbued with a Lancashire accent and an ignorance of everyday Scots culture. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in.

In my first tutorial was someone who had travelled even further and had an equally unfamiliar accent in the Georgian surroundings of the university’s English department.

Angus Macleod, Editor of the Times in Scotland, who has died today, cut a distinctive figure back in 1970. With those unmistakable Stornoway tones, the heavy rimmed glasses, and the penchant for couthy remarks, followed by a throaty chuckle, he brought life to any tutorial or seminar, and by the time we were a smaller group of Honours students in third and fourth year, had become something of an unofficial social secretary.

You could be brain deep in Victorian literature, when a figure would appear from behind the book stacks and announce: “Listen, boys, I’ve been thinking….”

There would follow a detailed agenda for fun and entertainment, usually starting with the Meadow Bar and finishing with Khushi’s Indian Restaurant. The bits between started vaguely and remained so in the aftermath.

For his Birthday, just before our Finals in May 74, we got him a huge poster of himself – not such an easy task in those pre-digital days. He was peeping round a doorway saying “Cheers!” with a can of Export in his hand. It was a popular view of one side of him in those times, but as he said laughingly when he entered the Library to see it pinned up: “Aw come on, lads, there’s more to me than that!”

And most certainly there was.

Through Angus I met many Gaels at university and learned a lot about a different culture. I liked the connection between his Lewis homeplace and the life in Leitrim from where my own family had emigrated. A highlight of my graduation party was to see Angus deep in conversation with a priest friend of mine from the west of Ireland: the Lewisman using Gadhlig, the Clare man using Irish.

Some of us feel the need to proclaim our background, but Angus wore his origins lightly. He spoke of the Nicholson Institute and his teachers with a kind of muted pride, and his family was clearly dear to him – whether still on Lewis, or nearer at hand in Linlithgow, or Glasgow – or his brother Norman, who was one of our lecturers in the English department. Trips home to help gather the peats remained a feature of his autumn days for some time. For all his student lifestyle, he had a serenity about his background which was affecting and impressive; I saw it echoed in the attitude of another great Gael, who was my creative writing tutor, Sorley Maclean.

On occasion, Angus could pick a certainty which was less than convincing. Prior to our final exams he confided that he had not bothered to read “Jude the Obscure” out of Hardy’s canon as it was ‘too obvious’ a question. He had concentrated on “The Woodlanders”, a less praised work which he felt would gain him bonus points with the markers. There was an awful inevitability about the Hardy question in Paper 6: “Compare and contrast any of Hardy’s novels with “Jude the Obscure”. The Lewisman’s groans were heard all over the exam hall!

On the day our finals finished, the party lasted well into the night. It fell to me to rouse Angus from his chair and get him home to his student house. As we made our unsteady way along Jeffrey St, a member of Lothian and Borders finest took an interest. I nudged Angus into consciousness and he turned his head towards the bobby: “Feasgar math,” he managed, “and up the Gers!” It seemed to be the right combination and the policeman wished us safe home.

I think it would be fair to say that his decision to become a journalist was the making, and nearly the breaking, of him. Being bi-lingual, I thought, gave him a keen appreciation of words, and a delight in using them precisely and to best effect. In those days, the newspaper business could be hard on health and lifestyle, and serious illness changed Angus’s approach in some ways – without ever dimming his determination to be a credit to a profession in which he believed with all the fervour of our generation.

He did well with his diligence and commitment, and loved the story about two of his elderly relatives from, I think, Back, on the east coast of Lewis. He was the Scotsman’s Parliamentary correspondent in London at the time, and his brother, Norman, had become Professor at Edinburgh University. Norman was getting a hard time from the old ones – having only escaped as far as Edinburgh, while Angus had made it all the way to London.

Though he forged a reputation as a knowledgeable and formidable political commentator, he was no slouch as an investigative reporter. In the early years of his career he gained the lowdown on a story which, three decades later, has become one of the major stories of the day, but was not able to use it. In whichever sphere, he was a terrier after the facts.

Being ‘on site’, as it were, he found himself covering the Iranian Embassy siege in May 1980. It was six days of constant tension and pressure for copy, and I really believe it took a major toll on him – but, as we had come to expect, he reported in an incisive and professional manner throughout.

When I had started teaching, I had been unable to find a flat, and he had immediately offered a room in his place. Later, in 1982 when he was back in Edinburgh, and I again found myself without an address, he was the first to offer me shelter and became a valued flatmate while I sorted things out.

It was like a variation on the Odd Couple. We argued about virtually everything – football, religion, politics, music, and culture. He had introduced me to the music of Na h-Oganaich and even patiently taught me some of their songs, so I took it that he would be a big fan of Run Rig. Not a bit of it! One night we argued from 10pm to 5.30am about whether their rock inspired Gadhlig music was good for the language or not, with me hugely aware that I was arguing the toss with a Gadhlig speaker in my mutant English/Scots accent. Politics was the same – his view was solid and, though, as a journalist he analysed, reflected, and called it as he saw it, his personal views were never likely to change.

At the time he was freelance, with a beat covering local politics at St Andrew’s House. He prepared our Christmas dinner and told me to keep an eye on the cooker. “Where are you off to?” I asked, suspecting the pub. But no, he was into the office to check his contacts in case anything newsworthy might be happening – on Christmas Day! “Somebody has to do it!” he said.

It was real testament to his commitment. And the turkey was lovely too.

When he moved through to Glasgow we weren’t in touch so much, though messages passed via mutual friends.

Then the time came when I was woken by his instantly recognisable tones on “Good Morning Scotland’s” newspaper review each Saturday morning. Pithy comments on the news of the day and its coverage, followed by a creaking and endearing lead up to the final ‘funny’. It was a great way to start your weekend.

As with many student friends, social media provided a way of getting back in contact. We swapped messages and it was good to make the connection again. We kept off politics though. I am bright enough to know he would generally have wiped the floor with me – and wouldn’t have spared me on any inaccuracies, flummeries, or speculation!

As a teacher, I was often asked by pupils, and also by my son, whether they should consider a career as a journalist. It may have been tempting to follow the popular message that the fourth estate is not what it used to be and perhaps words can be better used in other settings.

Thanks to people like Kenny MacDonald, Ian Bell, Iain McWhirter, Dani Garavelli, Peter Ross and Angus Macleod, I was always confident in encouraging them to follow their dream and to keep believing that words, and journalism, can make a real difference – probably the one thing Angus and I agreed about completely!

Angus had my friendship, respect and admiration. He was a credit to all he represented – as a writer, a journalist, and a kind man of principle and wisdom. Many knew him better than I, but I still wanted to record my feelings at his passing. Scotland is worse off for his loss and his family should be aware that many folk they do not know will be sad today and sharing their grief.

As a student, Angus was given to singing – in Gadhlig and English – when the mood took him. Sometimes a dram let a wee bit emotion escape, and he would call for quiet – before giving us all the verses of “Lovely Stornoway.”

I can still recall the final line of the chorus  – and I pray it’s true tonight:
“Heaven can’t be far away from lovely Stornoway.”

Feasgar math, Angus!

Capital mood music

September 19, 2014

Edinburgh is a city of moods, and it lacks both the guile and the geography to conceal them.

Under blue skies and sun, its buildings reflect the light, and it beguiles with the distant glimpse of sparkling blue from the Forth, at the bottom of forever sloping streetscapes.

On grey days, buildings and sky merge, in walls of angry gloom, often made aggressive by a biting wind, which hurries round corners and nips at your face without so much as an excuse me.

In the rain, in the elegant streets of the New Town, street lamps are reflected on cobbles, warm light spills out of cold windowed drawing rooms, and the monochrome landscape gleams, like a reconditioned Ealing film from the 40s.

The broom, the grass, the rocks and the scrub of Arthur’s Seat all change to signal the seasons, and the castle stands impervious, occasionally donning party colours of fireworks and floodlights, like a serious grandfather persuaded to go with the moment.

So whether it’s Festival, Hogmanay, snow or sun, Edinburgh and the mood of its people is easy to sense. It haunts the streets or brightens them, holds your hand or turns away, opens it arms or hurries on by.

Today of all days, while the country votes in the Independence Referendum, it is interesting to look around the capital – not from a political point of view, but rather to try and sense that atmosphere.

The city is quiet and wears a sensible overcoat of grey in the haar. The mist is hanging round corners, attempting to seem inconspicuous. But, when you raise your eyes to the distance, you find this place, hardly sprawling at any time, has shrunk to town dimensions. The hills, the Forth, and even the tops of trees in Queen Street’s private gardens are all hiding, lost in their own thoughts. Bells are muffled, as for a funeral, and car headlights, automatically triggered by the gloom, even at midday, catch the eye unnaturally.

But this is no fog; it doesn’t feel like a shroud.

The feeling is that of a muslin, translucent, swirling dress, that can’t disguise the fluid movement beneath the cloth. Up there, as high as ever, the sun seeks to break through – so some parts of the city are brighter than others, in places the mist seems lit by electric light, as if a switch had been flicked.

And Edinburgh will do this.

It betrays its mood, but you can never take it for granted. Down vennels and stairways, in lanes and mews, by gardens and yards, it delights in the unpredictable – a pot of red red geraniums, burnished ivy clinging to an iron wrought balcony, a dog in a dooorway, a rocking horse grazing behind a leaded window, a wide eyed cat on a first floor window ledge.
Today there are the signs of a political campaign. The Union flags tend to be draped from the larger New Town flats: the more expensive the address, the bigger the flag. The blues and reds and greens of the Yes Campaign are less conspicuous – neat posters in first floor windows, sometimes round car stickers almost apologetically stuck to door panels, and the show includes a fair number of home made efforts. Seen from street level, the combined effect of these banners of democracy is like a code for background, expectations and lifestyles

But these are passing symbols, there are others which take the eye and inform the brain on a long term basis. Here’s a nameplate well polished on a gloss painted door which states “Mr” and “Advocate”. In a basement ‘area’, bright red and yellow toys betray a nursery within; discreet plaques are found in the most unexpected places Chopin visited here, this was the home of Compton Mackenzie, a Polish General spent the war here, this was the birthplace of a musician, an inventor, the studio of an artist.

And beyond, where more modest houses climb the gradients to the hills around Edinburgh, and suburban bungalows jostle for position in streets too narrow for the cars that are parked, the mist is not so marked, the roofs are lower and the spaces more measured, as people walk to rows of shops or drive to retail malls, and dogs are walked on impossibly green golf courses.

North and south, in endlessly redeveloped housing developments, messages are more roughly written by people less affluent than those with polished plaques, but more visible in their neighbourhood

From the west, trams snake their smooth way from airport to city, and in the east, the curved sands of Portobello seem to point to the twin boulders of North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock.

And over it all, the air is grey, watchful and waiting. It moves to match the currents, reflects the flow of traffic, protects the city from prying eyes.

Whatever the political result, Edinburgh will remain – caught between the hills and the sea, balanced on rock and leaning on mountains, an English outpost that feels so Scottish, balancing Glasgow on the end of the central belt see-saw, drawn in on itself, but willing to welcome others, wearing its history like a mackintosh raincoat, occasionally parting to show unseasonable colours beneath.

It’s some city, and even up on Dunsapie Crag, where the first men of the Iron Age had their fort, it’s hard to classify this place. It’s old and new, and north and south. It sends bitter winds with a smile of beauty, and its grey stone glistens like diamonds in the sun.

And that haar – like its name, it comes from Scandinavia – where maybe this city would feel more comfortable, with its pantiled roofs and northern light.

But its accent marks it out as south, and it shows no signs of wanting to set sail.

Poetry and Prose

September 17, 2014

When I pick up the pencil
For tomorrow’s vote,
My hand may shake
Under the weight of history
And expectation.
Voices, now still, will echo again,
And promises will resonate.

The fingers of my mind
Will reach and touch
My grandad’s earth from Drumnafaughnan’s fields,
My uncle’s blood and mud from Arras,
My dad’s calculations at the grocer’s till,
My mother’s twenties in Liverpool’s Blitz.
The lives of family in Ireland, and France, and America,
In Viet Nam and England.
All those who helped me see
That caring for those who need it
Is the purpose of Faith.

I’ll wave no flags, and score no Party points,
I will not ask what’s in this choice for me,
No negatives will taint this perfect moment,
In looking forward, I’ll raise my vision high.

Where we have been has brought us to this point –
And now the future calls us all to build
A better way, a listening land,
A nation fair to all.
A Scotland free to give support
To good not evil, bairns not bombs,
And people before profit.

My hand may shake
But my mark will be quite clear.
I’ll vote for Scotland’s people and their future,
To give my son
A hope filled path,
A legacy of light,
Of neighbourhood, community,
And love.

I’ll celebrate the fact
That a shaking hand
That has so much to carry,
Can still stretch out
And clasp the chance of hope

Escaping the babble of Westminster’s Babel – why I’m voting Yes!

September 10, 2014

Even aged 12 – Edinburgh born, living in England, Scottish Independence made sense to me. 1964 was filled with independence ceremonies: Empires were ending, countries were returning to the natural order of things –taking full responsibility for their own affairs. Why should Scotland be different?


The feeling grew when I returned to Scotland in 1970 – with the dismantling of whatever benefits the country had accrued from its involvement in the imperial adventure. Industries were demolished, skills and crafts decimated, and we were left with poor health, poor housing, and a self belief which was crumbling as fast as our economy.


People questioned the political process – however they voted, the English electorate would decide the UK government. As David Cameron remarked, the Union was ‘the most successful merger in history’ – Scotland’s assets, human and otherwise, had been annexed and used, and over time the junior partner was swallowed by the major, to the point of invisibility.


I considered politics, but my original ambition: to work in public service as a teacher, prevailed, leading to nearly 40 years as a guidance teacher and then deputy head. Instead of working to formulate policies, I worked with those who were affected by them.


Many were comfortable under the system, but I was more engaged by those who had little material wealth, even less hope, and were invisible to those in power. It’s a privilege to work in support of families and children, and to work alongside agencies such as the NHS, Social Work, and Children’s Charities. I may have been a teacher – but it was from the families and agencies with whom I worked that I received my education.


My schools were ‘national average’, demographically; I taught pupils from leafy suburbs, and those whose families were supported by “Save the Children”. I saw the effects of political decisions first hand, and witnessed the steady disillusionment of so many with the system under which they had to live. That the UK is one of the most unequal states in the developed world was made patently clear to me. Scotland, for me, is not about rocks and glens, bagpipe music, or Braveheart; Scotland is about those real brave hearts who face impossible decisions every day, who feel abandoned by the politicians who should be protecting them, and who feel powerless in a world where strength seems to be everything.


So, I’ll be voting Yes to give those people hope, to underline my belief that there can be a better way of operating, that we can have political parties in an independent Scotland who put principles and people before electoral victory; where we have politicians who will stand up for real ‘Labour’ values, not calling the Welfare State ‘the something for nothing society’; where ‘standing tall’ in the world is about how we treat our most vulnerable, rather than our stock of US controlled nuclear weapons; where our international contribution is not filtered through another State, and is to peacekeeping not warmongering; where we get the government we vote for, and where everyone feels they have a part to play.


I’ll be voting Yes to land reform – to get rid of the obscenity of 16 individuals owning 10% of Scotland’s land, and for more power devolved to the Highlands and Islands; I’ll be voting Yes to sovereignty being invested in the people rather than a political or class-ridden elite, and Yes to a country where “What’s in it for me?” is a question for the self obsessed few, rather than a policy driver for political decisions.


I’ll be voting Yes in support of new Scots and all those like my own ancestors who, in coming here as immigrants, will find in an Independent Scotland the inclusive and warm welcome which UK parties increasingly seek to deny them.


I’ll be voting Yes for my friends and family in an England which is gradually being sucked dry by a Londoncentric obsession, and who are being denied the fruits of England’s radical history in the worst sort of meritocracy. A progressive country north of the Border can inspire their struggle for a more egalitarian and inclusive country of their own.


When I vote Yes I’ll be confirming there is a better way, that people deserve a government which represents their needs and views, and signalling that the time is up for a Scotland submerged in a post colonial power which places profit above people, an illusory ‘world status’ above commitment to the most vulnerable, and promotes a ‘Britain’ based on tea towel history and bread and circuses – with not much bread. I’ll be voting Yes too for the values for which so many fell fighting in world wars, and which no longer seem to be on offer.


It won’t be the promised land,– but it will be a land where we take full responsibility and make our own progress, where government responds to the people and their needs. And, yes, my vote does represent the triumph of hope over experience, but does anyone reasonably expect such change to come about through the current system?


Scotland’s voice, the voice of its people, has been drowned out for too long, we need to free ourselves from the babble of Westminster’s Babel.


That’s why, after a lifetime of consideration, I will be proud to vote Yes.

And when they ask me………….

August 4, 2014


August 4th 2014

Dear Dad and Uncle Joe,
The Great War started a hundred years ago today, and as I look at the photograph of the two of you together, I can’t help think about you both.

I don’t suppose the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo meant much to you. In 1914, you would have been 15, Dad, and, Joe, you were 17.

When war was declared, I expect Dad and his younger brothers were in County Leitrim, as they were each Summer, saving the hay and enjoying long walks around Lough Allan, by the family home. You may have been working as a clerk by then, uncle Joe, or helping out in the shop in Buccleuch St. Neither of you could have known how the world and your lives were about to change.

It’s hard to look closely at the photograph, but even harder not to.

I think it must have been taken some time in 1917. Joe, you joined the Post Office Rifles in 1916 and were part of the draft in July of that year to replace all those who had been killed at the Somme. You arrived in France on July 11th and were immediately transferred to the London Rifle Brigade, 1/5 Batt, London Regiment, whose original strength had been almost wiped out at Gommecourt on July 1st. I hope some of your mates were transferred with you.

In the picture, you have your Sergeant’s stripes and swagger stick, and you seem comfortable with them. You would hardly have reached Sergeant during your training, so I don’t think this picture was taken on Embarkation leave, rather on Home leave from the Front. Furthermore, the dark eyed, slender, handsome youth of earlier pictures has been replaced by a bulkier, more tested individual. You look as grey as it is possible to look in a sepia toned photograph; I think you have been through at least some of the battles that the LRB fought in 1917, on the Somme, and at Arras and Ypres. Your look is distracted, as if fearing that a steady eyed gaze into the camera may have given too much away.

I’m sure you didn’t tell the family many details, if any, about what you had seen, but I know my dad idolized you as his big brother, and I think he may have guessed at some of what you had been through.

Dad, I think that shows in this picture. You are probably not yet 18, but there you are looking into the camera, and showing fear and uncertainty. You were the most gentle man I have ever known, but, like others, you will be wondering how you will cope, if the ‘call’ comes.

More than that, though, you are afraid for Joe. You have seen many photos like this one, black edged, on sideboards in the houses of friends. You are desperate for a picture with your soldier hero, but appalled by the use to which it might be put. You both know that this might be the last picture of you together: that’s why you were so keen to have it taken, that’s also why your faces betray how difficult it is to be photographed.

I think your uniform is probably a cadet outfit, maybe of the Highland Light Infantry. It shows your keenness to emulate Joe, to be in uniform beside him. In the end, a knee injury from football will leave you passed as fit only for Home Service in the last months of the War. Escorting German Prisoners of War from Leith Docks to Edinburgh Castle, you take them up to your family’s flat for a good meal. I used to think this was an example of outrageous Leitrim hospitality, but now I feel you may have had another motive.

On March 28th 1918, just south of Oppy, in northern France, Joe is wounded and captured in a German advance. He’ll spend the rest of the war in the Infirmary at the Friedreichsfled PoW Camp in Germany. On a postcard home to his parents, which I still have, he writes that he is getting better and hopes to be let out of bed soon, though I suspect that was more to calm them than to give an accurate picture of conditions. I wonder was Dad’s kindness to those Germans performed in the hopes that his big brother was receiving similar treatment in Germany?

Maybe I’m wrong, but this picture seems to capture the moment more deeply than any of the thousands of digital snaps we take unthinkingly today. In the waiting for the set up and in its formality, there must have been far too long for both of you to think about the meaning of the picture, the reasons for its importance. Dad – you look as if you are staring desperately into the future, wondering what is to become of you both.

And it’s impossible not to feel sorrow for you as I recall the future of which you were ignorant.

Uncle Joe, you made it home, and could even return to work – as a clerk in the Bru down in Maritime St in Leith. However, you never really recovered from the wounds and the gas and shortly after a desperate trip to Lourdes, in search, I suppose, of a miracle, you died on May 25th 1923, aged only 26. No time to be married, to be a father, to forge a career, to celebrate the closeness of family as it grew.

Dad, I don’t think you ever got over losing your hero; you certainly didn’t feel you were cut out to play the role of responsible eldest son of the family – you were too quiet and unassuming – and your brothers were too outgoing, sociable and mischievous

You married the lovely Katie and then lost her to Leukaemia when you were both in your mid forties. In late middle age, you met Mum and became a beloved and loving dad, before we lost you when I was only five, and you died on May 25th – Joe’s anniversary.

So I look at the two of you there, faded in photographic brown, trapped by history, caught before the future, and I feel an almost overwhelmingly mixed reaction which involves, love and loss, sorrow and joy, pride and helplessness. And so many questions!

Did you go, Joe, in defence of small countries? The family supported Sinn Fein, did you think there might be a place for Ireland at the peace table? Or was it a sense of decency, in support of your mates? Your men must have relied on you as a Sergeant, how did you deal with the losses – of body and mind? And when you came home, were you proud you had gone, or just angry at the waste of lives?

And, Dad. How did you cope with losing your big brother? The agony of him being missing, the relief of hearing he was ‘safe’, the joy of getting him home, and then the slow realisation that you were losing him after all? His loss must have coloured your whole life. He never saw you marry, never became an uncle, was never there to advise or support you as you passed through life; couldn’t help your Mum or Dad as they got older.

Uncle Joe, you were the age my son is now when you died, and Dad, I am five years older than you were when you died. A sense of loss hangs over that photograph – but also an affirmation of who I am and where my values come from.

I love you as much today as I would have done had you survived to be my uncle, Joe, and if I had had you for more than five years, Dad. You are always in my heart and thoughts, part of who I am. I hope I’ve made you proud – not as a soldier, which, thank God, I was never called to be, but as a man who has tried to be gentle, caring, and alert to others and their needs. I think that’s what both of you would have wanted.

But really, on this anniversary of the start of the Great War, it’s not personal at all.

The real sadness of that picture, and my words, is that there are millions all over the world who could have written them – in Europe and America, the Far East and the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in Africa, in Australasia, in Ireland, the USA, Viet Nam and Cambodia, Japan, and the Balkans – all with uncles lost and memories unmade.

And tonight, in Gaza, and Israel, families are looking at modern versions of this picture, and putting them carefully away, so that those as yet unborn can ponder over them in a hundred years time. Every picture brings a tear, every memory a wish.

As Einstein said: “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.”

It seems we never learn.

Love and God Bless,

Your son and nephew,

John Francis

The Loneliest Boy in the World – Review

June 5, 2014

The Loneliest Boy in the World – The last child of the Great Blasket
By Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin with Patricia Ahern. Collins Press.

The Blasket Islands, off the coast of Kerry in the extreme west of Ireland, have a habit of getting under your skin. Once discovered, they are not easily forgotten.

This is partly due to their history – an isolated Gaelic community, fighting against the odds, until what seemed an inevitable evacuation in 1953; and partly due to their position ‘on the edge of the world’, so near but so far from the jetty at Dun Chaoin on the mainland. Today the ruined village clings to the island slopes above an tráigh bháin – the stunningly white beach – as grassy tracks lead between the still clearly defined fields.

Sitting by ‘the American Well’, where day by day the islanders gathered and talked of those who had emigrated to the ‘next Parish west’, it’s difficult not to hear those voices, and impossible not to seek to capture the lives of those who were once here.

Luckily – and this is another reason for the island’s haunting presence – those voices speak clearly to us through the island’s literary tradition. It is a tradition encouraged and promoted early by visiting scholars, and follows on from the original highly acclaimed works from Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

Many books by islanders have been published, adding to the writings of scholars such as JM Synge, Brian Ó Ceallaigh, Ray Stagles, and Robin Flower, and the body of work is often referred to as the “Blasket Library”. All add to our knowledge of Great Blasket and its surrounding islands, all are told from different points of view.

Last year we had a memoir from Michael Carney, the oldest living islander, and now comes the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin – the only child on the island at the time of the evacuation – and the last survivor of that group.

Written with Patricia Ahern, this is a new and fresh angle on the story of the Blaskets. Only 6 when he left the island, Gearóid’s description of his early life, and the people who inhabited it, is based on a child’s view and is sharp and observant in a way that adults may not always replicate. He saw the islanders as being the same as him – not knowing any other children, he saw no distinction between adult and child. The islanders, in their turn, treated him as a full member of the community, and even in his brief years there, he learned the daily routines, the working practices, the survival skills necessary to these folk on the edge of the world

If you’ve ever sat amongst the ruins on Great Blasket and wondered about the ordinary lives of these people: meals, sleeping, working, and enjoying themselves, this book gives you answers in a typically understated island style.

On Chritmas Eve, 1948, journalist Liam Robinson, and photographer Donal MacMonagle, visited the Blaskets and a piece was produced on Gearóid’s singular life. A wily subeditor headlined it “The Loneliest Boy in the World” and it was syndicated across the globe.

Gearóid is still at pains to point out that he was not lonely in any sense, and laughs at the suggestion that his ‘only friends were the seagulls’, but he is honest enough to agree that he enjoyed the amazing reaction to the article. Good wishes, toys, clothes, and offers came from the five continents. An American rancher offered to adopt him, others offered land and a home to his parents and family, he gained penpals in other countries. The Blasketers were used to international attention in later generations – but the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin seems to have struck a nerve internationally.

It is symptomatic of the islanders’ phlegmatic approach that they took the fuss in their stride, and Gearóid details in a quite matter of fact style how his life was changed – but not to any great extent. However, two highly affecting moments in his writing refer to his later meeting with Robinson in 1988, and to the atmosphere on the island on Christmas Eve, when there was a lighted candle in the window of every house and the full moon made glisten the frost on the tarred felt roofs.

Another attraction of this book is that we learn in some detail of life on the mainland for the islanders after the evacuation – and local characters around Dun Chaoin, such as the larger than life publican, ‘Kruger’, fairly walk off the pages in the later parts of the story.

Anyone who has read the Blasket names on the gravestones in the new cemetery near Dun Chaoin, overlooking the island, must have wondered how they made a new life on the mainland. Earlier books by Cole Moreton, and last year’s offering from Michael Carney, paint a picture of the American emigrants; Gearóid does the same for those who stayed closer to the island – as well as detailing his educational experiences – his first meetings with other children in the national school at Dun Chaoin, his boarding school experiences in Kilkenny, and his eventual education in Dingle’s more familiar surroundings.

The tales of his adult life, and the gradual loss of his parents and their generation from the island, fill in more gaps in our knowledge, and there is a sense, as there must be, of some things coming to an end.

An old tale, then, from a new angle, but what endures – as it seems to in all the books in the Blasket Library – is a sense of a remarkable people, far removed from the sentimentality we may be tempted to show towards a lost way of life, accepting of what needed to be done, proud of their past, embracing their present, and facing their future with a strong Faith and self awareness.

It’s difficult to better the famous lines of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and indeed Gearóid repeats them more than once:

“Ní bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann”

The like of us will never be again.

Making nice

April 25, 2014

“I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and
I don’t have time to go round and round and round”

The Dixie Chicks familiar lyric boomed out from Margo’s playlist as we entered the Assembly Hall for her Memorial Service – a tongue in cheek reminder that this most engaging of women was also a doughty political operator and a fierce fighter for her many causes.

For someone of my generation, this gathering felt a bit like my life flashing before my eyes. Everybody was familiar, many I knew, and others looked like I should know them. Next to us, is a youth worker from central Edinburgh who’s been supporting vulnerable kids and families as long as I’ve been a teacher, and I first worked with him forty years ago; down there; former Lord Provost Eric Milligan and George Foulkes of the Jambo persuasion, seated just yards away from Rod Petrie, Tom Farmer and the Board of Margo’s beloved Hibs. Jack McConnell, Robin Harper, David Mundell, Jim Wallace, George Reid, Jackie Baillie, Tricia Marwick, Christine Grahame, David and Judy Steel, and, in a very welcome and classy gesture, Alistair Darling, his affection for Margo winning over her description of him as “The Abominable No Man”. In addition, the current party leaders: Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont, Patrick Harvie, Willie Rennie – and with a flash of unaccustomed bling in tribute to Margo, Ruth Davidson.

There were many, many more familiar political faces who have haunted my lifetime. These are people I’ve stuffed envelopes for, driven around Scotland, engaged in arguments about, shouted at, admired, disagreed with, challenged and supported. They’ve brought me happiness, grief, understanding, puzzlement, frustration and inspiration. I’d walk on glass for some of them, and cross the road to avoid others.

The speakers were perfect – Alex Neil all passion and remembrance, Elaine C Smith by turn funny and emotional, ending with a wonderful excerpt from Brian Patten’s “How long does a woman live?”, and Jim Sillars, emotional with pride at his lost love: “The brightest star in Scotland’s political sky”, in turn, funny and impassioned, already shaping Margo’s considerable legacy. His voice was cracking – with grief, possibly, but just as likely as a result of the punishing round of campaign meetings he has pursued in the last few months – Margo witholding her permission for him to miss any events, even in her final illness. Family members Craig and Charlie Reid delivered the finale of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ as if it had been written for Margo – as indeed it could have been.

Yet, here’s a funny thing. Looking down on this chamber, once briefly the Scottish Parliament, and long a central focus of a large part of Scottish opinion, I realised my major emotion was one of pride. Alongside the ordinary folk – who meant so much to Margo and to whom she meant so much, this was the political establishment of Scotland. With very few exceptions, their demeanour was cordial, friendly and familiar. There was no security at the entrances, no particular attempt to paint them as an elite, they knew each other well and some were here despite being greatly opposed to the tenor of many of Margo’s beliefs. It felt like – in paying tribute to Margo, they had all grown a little. It was as if the Edinburgh haar had suddenly and briefly lifted, giving us a glimpse of the possibilities of a post independence Scotland, feuds forgotten, small enough and close enough to the people to see their needs and react to their desires, escaped from the London pursuit of illusory ‘world power status’, and re-focused on the nation, its people and their welfare.

These politicians could do that – of that I’m sure, and they only need the voters to give them permission on September 18th – those fifteen hours, as Jim Sillars said, when we hold a country’s sovereignty in our hands.

“Kind but strong” was repeated time and again in tribute to Margo; the notion that this was our chance to make a difference for ordinary people was central to her beliefs; the need to work together – with each other, and for each other, hung over all her rallying cries.

We heard the story from Govan, on the night before Jim Sillar’s victory there, when he was bidding goodnight to his campaign workers: “Go home to yer beds!” he said to them. “It’s ok for you – I’m going home to a public meeting!”

Today’s memorial was a meeting of Scotland’s public – and its politicians were part of that. I left convinced that Margo’s legacy can be a country which is not just independent, but kind; not just self confident but outward looking; and not just argumentative but inspiring and inspired.

Small enough to care, big enough to make nice.


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