Going Home – A view of Scotland from Europe

I’ve been living in Aachen for over a year and in early November I decided it was time to head home, to reconnect (albeit briefly) with past roots and all things Scottish. Most interestingly I wanted to see how Scotland appeared to me from the outside, as someone now established on European soil.

The purpose of my visit was to catch up with friends and family back home but also served the function of reacquainting myself with Scotland and to see what had changed over the last year or so since I headed for Europe.

Above the clouds: a chance to reflect


I both love and loathe flying;  I loathe it for its obvious impact on the Planet and for the fact that all personal freedom is taken away as you are unceremoniously paraded through a succession of security checks, shopping opportunities and soulless waiting areas.

However, the chance to view the world from above and to look down on familiar places and landmarks, changes perspective. In our everyday lives (and especially with 2 young children) we  appear constantly to be in overdrive and lurching from one minor crises to the next.  From 30,000 ft the world looks very different; banks of cloud swirl and coalesce casting hypnotic patterns, like waves on the ocean. The patchwork landscapes of people recede and the natural forms of the land re-assert themselves.  The curvature of the earth is revealed as you start to sense that only a few miles of atmosphere separates us from the rest of the Universe. A window on the intuitive mind is opened. Naturally, this is powerful medicine and so I like to get a window seat when I’m flying !

Back on solid ground:

Back to earth with a bump (courtesy of Ryanair) as we skidded down on the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport. I was greeted by the once all too familiar landmarks of the Pentland Hills, the Fife uplands and the shale bings of West Lothian, remnants of our once proud industrial past.

Stirling: Land of Bruce and Wallace

I grew up not far from here, near Stirling, in a landscape made famous by such Warriors and Kings as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. The geographical location of Stirling  was centre stage in the history of Scotland and played a key role in the Scottish Wars of Independence.

One of the first places on my list of sites to revisit was Stirling castle. Stirling provided one of the few crossing points of the Forth Valley which was, for much of the historical period, impassable and characterised by treacherous bogs and marshes. In this respect Stirling Castle commanded one of the key locations in Scotland and effectively controlled the exchange of goods and people between the Highlands and the Lowlands. The Castle has thus been described as a huge broach which pinned together the early kingdom of Scotland. 

Stirling Castle: centre stage in Scottish history

Although of key defensive significance for over 3000 years, the Castle came into its greatest prominence during the Middle Ages when it became, from the 12th Century onwards, one of the most popular locations for Scottish Kings and Queens. The Castle featured strongly in much of Scotland’s most bloody and turbulent campaigns including the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

However, it wasn’t until the 16th Century that the Castle reached its heyday when it became the chosen residence of the Stewart Court. During this period James V redeveloped the site as an extravagant Royal Palace for his French wife, Mary of Guise, with the aim it should rival anything in Europe.  The Castle soon became the nursery of future Stewart monarchs including the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots and James VI who went on to become James Ist of England. 

The Royal Apartments later fell into disuse and served for many years as military barracks. I remember making visits there as a child; the Castle at that time being little more than a windswept and derelict shell with the buildings sadly gutted following decommissioning by the army. All that has happily changed now and following an ambitious restoration project by Historic Scotland, the Royal Palace has once again been returned to its former glory as it would have appeared at the time of the Stewart Monarchs.  The effect is truly magnificent and is the result of years of painstaking research to reproduce authentic versions of interior furnishings, artwork and tapestries from the period. It is guaranteed that over the years this will become a prime heritage attraction for Scotland as well as being of key historical significance.

Royal Palace: the Renaissance apartments of the Stuart Kings and Queens are now beautifully restored

In contrast a walk down through the winding streets of Stirling’s Old Town did not prove to be such a positive experience. Like many Scottish towns, Stirling has suffered in recent years from planning policies which favour out-of-town shopping developments, indoor malls and an ever-increasing proliferation of retail parks. Inevitably these are located on greenfield sites around the edge of town which are largely inaccessible to those without cars.

Sign of the times: many traditional Scottish town centres appear increasingly bleak

The result is to create bland American style development around Scottish towns with traditional high street shop units now sitting empty and derelict (or converted to charity shops). Street life in Scotland has as a consequence been greatly diminished or has moved indoors to clean but sterile mall environments characterised by a depressingly predictable assemblage of chain stores. 

 This contrasts markedly with European cities such as Aachen where different planning policies and more conservative shopping habits favour lively and colourful street markets and the retention of a plethora of independent stores.  Much of urban Scotland on the other hand appears drab, less colourful and less attractive than other European countries. The Scottish climate, economic recession and the emergence of internet shopping have also all taken their toll on Scottish High Streets but I think we should also not underestimate the impact of planning policies.

Shopping Mall Culture: much of street life in Scotland has moved indoors

Where it all began:

Six miles NW of Stirling is the small Cathedral “City” of Dunblane and it was here that I spent most of my formative years. When I grew up, life in the “Dunny” was happily uneventful like most other small towns and we felt privileged to live close to the “wild” landscapes of the Scottish Highlands whilst also being accessible by train to Scotland’s 2 major cities. Predictably, as we got older most people drifted away for education, life experience, jobs or just to see the “Big Wide World”; the “Dunny” became a pleasant memory.

The historic heart of Dunblane has a beautiful and timeless air with the earliest parts of the Cathedral dating back to  the 11th Century.  The Cathedral is surrounded by a cluster of pebble dashed houses and overlooks the attractive valley of the Allan Water.  As children, we used to spend many happy hours playing by the river and exploring the nearby dells and burns. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, we enjoyed a level of freedom that many children today don’t experience.

Dunblane Cathedral: a place of peace

In 1996 the tragic events that unfolded at Dunblane Primary School shocked the world. Those of us who’d grown up in Dunblane and attended the school could not believe that such evil could be unleashed  in “our” town; for many years after, it felt like our past had been stolen away from us through one scandalous act of violence (though this was nothing compared to the anguish of those families who were personally involved). Since then the road to recovery has been a long and painful one for the community.  Throughout this troubled period Dunblane Cathedral remained a place of peace and hope for local people.

Fortunately the news is more positive these days and Dunblane is now becoming known as the home of international tennis superstar Andy Murray; there is even a special gold painted post box to commemorate his 2012 Olympic victory and this is rapidly becoming a point of pilgrimage for Murray fans. Despite international success, Andy Murray hasn’t forgotten his roots and recently made a tour of Dunblane to a rapturous reception.

Perthshire Amber: 

One of my favourite parts of Scotland is Highland Perthshire, a dramatic region of mountains, lochs and forests rich in myth and legend and made famous by writers and romantics including William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. At this time of year the Perthshire landscape is particularly stunning and is a veritable blaze of autumn colour.

Autumn Gold: stunning colours of Highland Perthshire

This part of Perthshire is now known as “Big Tree Country” largely down to the work of the so-called “Planting” Dukes of Atholl who established over 27 million trees on bare slopes during the 18th and 19th Centuries. This included many exotic confers brought home by intrepid local plant hunters including David Douglas and Archibald Menzies. Some of these introduced trees such as Douglas Fir now reach a height of over 150ft. Other amazing and remarkable trees in the area include the Birnam Oak (a remnant of Birnam Wood from Shakespeare’s Macbeth) and the Fortingall Yew which is believed to be as old as 5000 years (the precise age is not known) making it potentially the oldest living thing in Europe.

In addition to the amazing natural spectacle, 2 annual events now bring large numbers of visitors to this part of Perthshire during the autumn season. The first of these is the “Enchanted Forest”; an atmospheric light show in a natural woodland setting which brings the woods to life through dramatic use of lighting, eerie soundscapes and stunning pyrotechnics. This is a magical event and one well worth braving a cold autumn evening to see.

Abstraction of Light: Dougie Maclean’s atmospheric concert in Dunkeld Cathedral

The other highlight of this time of year is Dougie Maclean’s “Perthshire Amber” Festival. Dougie Maclean is a native Perthshire singer songwriter and is renowned for his beautiful (though often melancholic) ballads about the Scottish landscape and people. The Perthshire Amber festival goes on for several days and makes use of some remarkable and atmospheric venues including the restored crannog (an iron age lake dwelling) on Loch Tay and Castle Menzies near Aberfeldy. We were fortunate enough to attend an evening concert in the beautiful setting of Dunkeld Cathedral, one of the earliest establish sites of Celtic Christianity in Scotland. Simple but atmospheric lighting inside the old Cathedral provided a timeless backdrop for an inspiring and warming evening of Maclean’s haunting music.

Woods of Caledon: birches illuminated by low angle sunlight

In Scotland’s Capital:

Edinburgh is one of my favourite places in the world and the City where I still feel most at home. The natural geography of the “Athens of the North” provides a spectacular setting for the City which is spread out across seven hills including the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crag and the Castle Rock. From all of these viewpoints it is possible to enjoy dramatic panoramas across the City, the surrounding countryside and out across the Firth of Forth to Fife and the North Sea.

Centre Stage is undoubtedly Edinburgh Castle which occupies an ancient and impregnable volcanic crag at the heart of the City Centre. This is a textbook “crag and tail” with the medieval Old Town located on a ridge of higher ground which was protected from the powerful action of ice-age glaciers by the more resistant Castle Rock. The “Royal Mile”, the old High Street of Edinburgh, runs along the crest of the morainic ridge down through the Canongate to the Palace of Holyrood  and the site of the new Scottish Parliament.

Green oasis: Princes Street Gardens with the old town behind

Eventually the Old Town on its ridgetop became too crowded, insanitary and chaotic leading to the development of the Georgian New Town on the North side of Princes Street between 1760 and the 1830s (at its time this was the largest planned piece of urban development in the World). At around the same time a lake known as the Nor Loch separating the Old and New Towns was drained and this hollow now forms the green oasis of Princes Street Gardens and the location for Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. The resulting Cityscape with the Old Town on the higher ground and the New Town spread out below gives Edinburgh a special visual appeal.  

Scott Monument: with the stunning backdrop of the Castle Rock

One of the places I really wanted to see in Edinburgh was the National Museum of Scotland. During my student years at Edinburgh University, I spent many happy hours between lectures wandering around this fantastic Museum (which had the advantage of being free to visit !). At that time the Museum was just beginning to modernise and still had studious looking rows of glass display cases revealing objects collected from around the world; pull back an unasuming cover and you would find yourself suddenly confronted with a veritable treasure trove consisting of huge beetles, stick insects from the tropics, pottery from the Ming Dynasty and a host of other surprises.

Over the last couple of years, the Museum has been completely refurbished to provide a state-of-the-art, world-class facility. Gone are the old dust covers and rows of stagnant display cases; now everything is fully interactive, computer enhanced and accessible to all.  The finished result is a huge asset to the City of Edinburgh and could keep even the most attention deficit deficient child happily occupied for weeks on end. Central to the Museum is the superb main hall, a triumph of Victoria engineering and design. I took advantage of the opportunity to walk around the museum to also meet up with an old friend and it was interesting to hear some of his personal views on the state of the Scottish economy and political makeup of the country.

National Museum of Scotland: superbly refurbished

In general, most of the economic news we hear from the UK at present is fairly bleak (along with that from many other European countries). However, it is good to see that in Edinburgh at least (and despite difficult economic times) some things are still moving forward. Most welcome of all is to finally see progress is being made on the City’s beleaguered tram project which has been the source of bitter controversy since it’s inception a few years ago. The project has experienced huge delays, financial problems and ongoing disputes between client and contractors.

As a result the Trams have become deeply unpopular with much of Edinburgh’s population and the project has as a result come close to being mothballed on several occasions.  Although the final result will be much scaled down from the original plans, it is my personal hope that the Trams will eventually win the hearts and minds of the (sometimes somewhat change resistant) people of Edinburgh; in much the same way that the Scottish Parliament building is now (albeit grudgingly) accepted despite similar problems with over-expenditure and bad project management.

Big Plans:

Another huge project which is underway is a new Forth Road Bridge which is being constructed alongside the famous 19thC Railway Bridge and the 20thC Road Bridge. The Existing Road Bridge links the Capital with Fife and the North of Scotland and now handles some 70,000 vehicle movements per day; way in excess of the original forecast capacity. However, in recent years, corrosion of the bridge cables has been detected, facilitating a heated debate about the requirements for a new Forth Crossing. Attempts have been made to dry out the cables to reduce the corrosion though it is uncertain as to how successful this is.

Many environmentalists see the new bridge as unnecessary and it is envisaged that an additional crossing will greatly increase general vehicle movements along with associated pollution and congestion. However, the present SNP Government argues that this is a vital project for Scotland’s infrastructure and overall strategic economic development; the concern being that Scotland’s transport infrastructure will effectively grind to a halt as HGVs are restricted from using the existing Road Bridge in future years due to cable corrosion.

I must admit to being quite surprised by the speed at which this project is progressing compared with some other Scottish “flagship” schemes including the Aberdeen City Bypass and the Edinburgh Trams, both of which have experienced significant delays for technical, legal and environmental reasons. Already, approach roads, junctions and foundations for the Bridge are being put into place.

Crossing point: work is already underway on the new Forth Crossing

Building a Green Economy:

The Forth Crossing is one major project listed in Scotland’s National Planning Framework as a key infrastructure development. Another of the projects listed in the Framework (and the one which I was personally involved in) is the Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN). The CSGN is an ambitious project which aims to improve the overall environmental quality of Scotland’s Central Belt through significant enhancements to greenspaces, path networks, enhanced woodland creation and ecological connectivity.

Much of Scotland’s Central Belt still bears the social and economic scars of former industrialisation and mining with poor quality housing, high unemployment and severely degraded landscapes scattered in pockets across the Region. The CSGN aims to reverse this decline through working together in tandem with local authorities, government agencies and NGOs. Similar large-scale environmental regeneration projects have occurred in Germany (e.g. Emscher Landschaft Park in the Ruhr) however in the case of the CSGN, a much larger area of land is involved (over 10,oookm2) and critically, financial resources available are significantly less.

The vision for the CSGN is an extraordinarily ambitious one and is only made possible only by existing organisations working closely together in partnership. I was based with The Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust (a local environmental NGO) with the aim of leading co-ordination and delivery of the CSGN across East Central Scotland. The Greenspace Trust works as a mentor and facilitator with community groups and local people to improve greenspaces around the Capital and to get local people practically involved in projects to improve their own environment.

Green Future: big challenges lie ahead for the Central Scotland Green Network

I visited my old office and colleagues at the Greenspace Trust and found that things were in a pretty heathy state there despite the overall economic problems Scotland is experiencing at present. One of our particular tasks in the Lothians was to increase the amount of woodland cover from the present low figure of 13% up to a target of 25% in future years. Whilst this aspiration is some way off, it is encouraging to see projects that we initiated at last starting to bear fruit.

The NGO (or 3rd) sector is without doubt one of Scotland’s great success stories in  and I do not see the equivalent in Germany where organisational structures are more clearly defined and where there is a much greater divide between the public and private sectors. In Scotland the 3rd sector works wonders at levering in external funding resources and helps to bridge the gap between local government and business interests. Local NGOs are also perceived as being more accountable, have a freer hand and tend to be regarded more positively by local people than public bodies. Increasingly NGOs are restructuring on social enterprises lines and are bringing in new innovative ways of working.

In addition to the Central Belt, Scotland’s rural landscapes are also undergoing a huge transformation at present with the Scottish Government’s rush to develop renewable energy sources, particular from wind and wave energy. A huge programme of wind farm construction is currently underway with a target of delivering 50% of gross electricity consumption from renewables by 2020 (this has now been revised up to 100%).

Renewable Energy: changes afoot in the Scottish uplands

In terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, this programme is admirable. However, with wind farms rapidly springing up here, there and everywhere there are huge concerns being voiced by conservationists and wild land groups. These concerns particularly relate to the visual impact of hundreds of turbines and associated transmission lines upon (as yet)  relatively uncluttered Scottish landscapes in addition to the potential impact on individual bird species such as raptors. It is my hope that a balance can be reached between protecting the integrity of our most important landscapes whilst ensuring a reliable supply of “green” energy which reduces CO2 and climate change impacts; this can only be achieved through sensitive planning and siting of developments. 

Music and philosophy:

One of the things I really love about Scotland is the chance to play music with friends. I’d planned to meet up with a couple of ex-colleagues and musician friends for a jamming session in Dunfermline (the burial-place of Robert the Bruce)and was really looking forward to this.

In Scotland informal music sessions are a part of everyday life and anyone with a modest degree of talent can join in a pub session without needing to feel too embarrassed about it.  This contrasts with Germany where music and the arts have a slightly more elitist flavour and (so far from my experience) are not quite so accessible to non-specialist musicians. This may well be something to do with the German desire for perfectionism and the fact that most things in Germany are usually organised pretty well in advance (spontaneity not being one of the Germany’s leading characteristics !).

Celtic music by contrast is extremely healthy, vibrant and dynamic at the present time with old Scots and gaelic standards frequently fusing with blues, country, reggae, improvised jazz and other world musical influences. I have to admit that the availability of easily accessible “session” culture is something I really miss in Germany; there are many evenings when I simply pine for a few beers with the chance to play along with other musicians (and without anybody getting too serious about it). 

Needless to say we had a great evening in Dunfermline; a steady flow of liquid refreshment helping to get the fingers working and the vocal chords warmed up. We also had two great “moothie” players in attendance, the eclectic combination resulting in a diverse mix of tunes ranging from Johnny Cash through to slow Gaelic airs.

Scotland’s heartbeat: musical evening amongst distinguished company

Inevitably when you get a group of Scots musicians together in a room (with enough liquid refreshment to lubricate the conversation) the  mood will turn melancholic at some stage as people get into the darker themes of Scottish history and culture. This reflects the subject matter of many popular Scottish songs which (like Portuguese Fado music) follows the topics of emigration, economic hardship and the generally tough lot experienced by previous generations.

Many of these historical factors still have a huge impact on the Scottish landscape today. In particular Scotland suffered in the past (and still does) through inequitable landownership whereby a small elite ended up owning of vast tracts of the country.  During the worst part of the Highland Clearances whole communities were forced off their ancestral lands to make way for sheep farming and sporting estates. Many ended up emigrating to territories opening up in Canada and the New World or moving to the growing cities of the industrial revolution. The ghosts of abandoned “ferme touns” still haunt many parts of the Highlands today and it’s easy to imagine the suffering of poor people evicted from their houses in the harsh Scottish climate.

I recently read Andy Whiteman’s interesting book on this topic entitled “The Poor had no Lawyers”. Whiteman’s book investigates in detail how the present landownership patterns became established, who owns the land today and how they acquired it. The story is a complex and somewhat depressing one but as the title suggests the odds were very much stacked against the native tennent farmers and crofters. Fortunately, in recent years things have begun to improve with “Community Right to buy” legislation being adopted by the Scottish Parliament. Since the passing of this legislation quite significant areas of rural estate have been bought over and are now being managed sustainably by local community trusts; long may this trend continue. 

Empty Glens: uncomfortable questions still cloud Scotland’s land ownership

The big questions for the future:

By far the biggest topic of discussion in Scotland at the present time (apart from the demise of Rangers FC) is the Scottish Independence Referendum. This was one of the key election pledges of the SNP Government and has now been scheduled for the autumn of 2014. The Scottish people will be asked the simple question “Do you agree that Scotland should be an Independent Country ?” and will be asked to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

This will be a key test for Scotland’s self-confidence as a nation. There is no doubt that devolution and the Scottish Parliament have been a good thing for Scotland and there are few who could now envisage turning the clock back. On the whole people in Scotland are more self-confident and prouder of their heritage than ever before with a burgeoning interest in Scottish music, cultural traditions, history and the arts.

Despite this, many question the economic realities of Scotland becoming an independent nation particularly in the light of the global economic recession and the fact that key Scottish financial institutions such as RBS had to be bailed out through massive injections of funding  from the UK Government.  Another uncertainty is whether Scotland would automatically qualify for full membership of the EU (as was assumed to be the case) or whether the newly independent Scotland would have to re-apply for admission. It is certain though that if the originally proposed second question were included on the ballot paper ( i.e. should the Scottish parliament assume greater powers) then the answer would most be an emphatic “Yes” from the Scottish people. However full independence might be a step too far for many, particularly in the present troubled times. The jury is out.

Holyrood Parliament: will it govern a newly independent Scotland ?

The “Brave” effect – past and present:

On the last day of my visit to Scotland, I took a trip to the Trossachs; a beautiful area of lochs and hills which has often been described as Scotland in miniature. The area was made famous by romantic writers including notably Sir Walter Scott who used the Trossachs for the setting of his “Lady of Lake” and “Rob Roy” novels. This spawned a whole generation of literary tourists including such notables as Thomas Carlyle, Queen Victoria, Hans Christian Anderson, Alexander Smith and Jules Verne.

Like Highland Perthshire, the Trossachs are rich in tales and legend; stories of the supernatural, witchcraft and about romantic “heroes” like Rob Roy (a Highland version of Robin Hood). Particularly of interest is the tale of the Reverend Robert Kirk, an Aberfoyle church minister who strayed from the path of the 17thC Establishment to write about the hidden world of the faeries in his book “the Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies”. Not long after writing the book, Kirk’s body was found in mysterious circumstances on Aberfoyle’s Doon Hill clad only in a nightgown.

Scotland’s powerful landscapes: continue to inspire

The new myths of today are different but no less powerful. Whilst visiting the Trossachs I was interested to see how VisitScotland (the national tourism agency) are promoting the Disney Pixar film animation “Brave” to potentially inspire a whole new generation of young tourists to visit Scotland. I picked up a leaflet entitled “Scotland, where legends come to life” which explored how elements featuring in the “Brave” movie such as castles, wild landscapes, clans, highland games and nature can all be seen in real life (in Scotland naturally !). I also followed a link to the Visit Scotland “Brave” website and I must admit to being very impressed as to how the featured “Library of Scotland” could bring the landscape to life and inspire young imaginations.

This follows on from a whole series of films about the Scottish landscape and culture including  Bill Forsyth’s film “Local Hero” and most famously the Hollywood movie Braveheart.  Braveheart, out of all the movies, has helped to bring visitors in droves to Scotland (and particularly to Stirling) through its larger-than-life depiction of William Wallace, Scottish rebel leader, freedom fighter and national hero.  Along with earlier romantic literature, Braveheart has indeed captured the imagination and helped to spawn new myth. Whilst we all know that the plot is largely fictitious (i.e. William Wallace never actually wore a kilt or looked like Mel Gibson) we all somehow like to buy into it because it feeds off our quintessential sense of what it is to be Scottish.

From the top of the Dukes Pass in the heart of the Trossachs I watched the last rays of the drying autumn sun illuminate the hills of the Southern Highlands. Without a doubt there is something unique in the Scottish landscape that touches you deeply and spiritually in a way like nowhere else. Perhaps it is the omnipotent sense of the past in Scotland; the long evolution and mixing of Celtic, Pictish, Viking and Britons (not to mention more recent imigrants) that provides the country with its unique sense of mystery and timelessness. Perhaps it’s also Scotland’s brooding wild landscapes with the primeval skeleton of ancient bedrock exposed to the surface for all to see.

One thing is for certain; there might countries which are wealthier, better organised, more efficient or which have better weather (not a difficult thing to achieve). Despite this, Scotland still possesses a special magic which is hard to pin down; it will always be the place where I feel most at home.

So I choose to buy the into myths and will forever enjoy being be a part of them…

Low light: November sunset over the Southern Highlands

This entry was posted in Current Affairs, History & Culture, In Scotland, Music, Trees & Greenspaces, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Going Home – A view of Scotland from Europe

  1. biowrite says:

    Great piece, Ian, but RBS was Scottish in name only. The sooner Scotland breaks free of neoliberalism, the better. For a different take on independence, please see: http://radicalindependence.org/index.php/declaration-for-radical-independence/

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