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The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst

Harper Collins, 1999, 304 p, including i p preface, ii p acknowledgements, i p list of illustrations, viii p introduction

 The Lighthouse Stevensons cover

Had Robert Louis Stevenson not gained such fame as a writer his surname would now be more associated with – and more widely remembered for – the astonishing achievements of his immediate forefathers, beginning with his grandfather Robert, who under the auspices of the Northern Lighthouse Trust (Scotland’s lighthouse authority, which later became the Northern Lighthouse Board) were in total responsible for the building of no less than ninety-seven lighthouses round the Scottish coast.

The first lighthouses were built against no little opposition, rescue from shipwreck being seen as thwarting God’s will and prevention as a threat to the livelihoods of those who benefited from salvage – or were, indeed, active wreckers. The technical difficulties at some of the sites were enormous, the hazard only visible at high tide, their bed-rock virtually unworkable – or both. Nevertheless, Robert built the lighthouse at the infamous Bell Rock which threatened the entrances to the Firths of Forth and Tay and the passage of shipping up and down the east coast. His sons Alan, David and Thomas respectively built at the even more difficult Skerryvore, Muckle Flugga (occasionally swept by two hundred feet high waves) and Dhu Heartach. Before finally settling on a writing career RLS, Thomas’s son – known to the family as Louis – had a hand in the construction of that last.

Patriarch Robert was a hard taskmaster and his sons – especially Alan, whose leanings towards poetry Robert regarded as suspect – relatively reluctant lighthouse builders. Alan, never in good health, was later wracked with conscience over his insistence that the men at Skerryvore should work on the Sabbath. Bathurst says of this, “The God that Scotland believes in has always been unusually retributive, quick to punish and slow to forgive, making, particularly in His more zealous, Calvinistic, manifestations a particular speciality of guilt. After his retirement Alan seems to have worshipped a uniquely Scottish God.” The lighthouse keepers were also subject to a strict code and inspection at any time (principally for untidiness indicating a general laxity and signs of, among other things, “hunnish practices.”) Very few let Robert down.

In the course of his duties Robert often travelled to London, to which he did not take. He was of the opinion that England had little except government to offer Scotland. (Perhaps coincidentally Trinity House – the lighthouse authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar – has frequently had a predatory eye on its northern counterpart.)

Bathurst incidentally sheds some light on the wider history of the Scotland of the time. Lighthouse construction gave employment in road building and the like for those affected by the Highland Clearances and the potato famine (not as devastating in Scotland partly due to government relief whose co-ordinator was the unforgettably named Sir Edward Pine Coffin.)

She also makes several asides on the peccadillos of the strange country in which these endeavours took place. “Scottish history was not generally taught to Scottish children until the 1960s” (I can attest that in some cases it did not come in till even later: apart from Iron Age brochs – safely distant in time and so not contentious – I was taught none at all; having to rely on my own background reading and absorption from the general culture) and “(Edinburgh) managed to sustain several wildly contradictory faiths: anti-Englishness and fervent Britishness; improvement and nostalgia; depression and vivacity” which is actually remarkably few contradictions for a Scottish town……

The Lighthouse Stevensons is an engrossing book on a fascinating subject. A fine tribute to all those who contributed to what even today would be daunting tasks.

Pedant’s corner:- Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) Secretary at War (Secretary of War?) canon ball (cannon,) copice (coppice,) row-boats (rowing boats,) throve (I prefer thrived,) “it was a simpler design that Winstanley’s” (than,) (John Rennie) was jointly responsible for widening the Clyde to allow for deeper hulled vessels (dredging and widening the navigable channel?) “a tangle of rocks….. with the sea beating against their sides” (against its sides,) stancheons (stanchions,) the only matter … were proceedings (was; or else, matters,) the next generation .. were appearing (was,) “holophotal meaning ‘whole light’ in Greek” (no; holophotal means ‘whole light’ in English,) “but here was no time” (there was,) supernumary (supernumerary,) “caught comprised” (compromised,) I can imagine what “hunnish practices” might mean but it isn’t spelled out (and the internet is surprisingly unenlightening on the subject.) “Then Thomas Smith began his work” (When Thomas Smith began,) the number of incidents have… (the number has.)

Napoleonic Eagle

This is the Napoleonic Eagle captured at the Battle of Waterloo by Ensign Ewart.

Napoleonic Eagle

The eagle is usually kept in Edinburgh Castle but I photographed it in its temporary home at the Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. You can see my faint reflection in the glass of the museum case

Interior of Monk’s Cell, Mount Grace Priory

The interior of the monk’s cell was far from as spartan as I had previously imagined it would be.

Sleeping accomodation:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell LIving Space

Devotional area:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell Interior

Living space:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell Living Space

Upper floor:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell Upper Floor

Small cloister:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell Cloister

Sanitary arrangements:-
Mount Grace Priory Cell Sanitary Provision

All my Mount Grace Priory photgoraphs are on flickr here.

Monk’s Cell, Mount Grace Priory

Most of the monk’s cells at Mount Grace Priory (see previous post) are in ruins like this one:-

Mount Grace Priory Cell Ruins.

The cells were at the perimeter of the priory grounds. This is the entrance to the one cell that has been restored. The square area to the right of the door was a kind of hatch which allowed food to be passed into the cell without any interaction between the occupant and the outside:-

Mount Grace Priory Monk's  Cell Entrance

The (restored) monk’s cell is a substantial building in its own right, not just the size of a single room:-

Mount Grace Priory Cell from Garden

Each cell had its own garden, as in the restoration:-

Mount Grace Priory Cell Garden

Cell garden (opposite view):-
Mount Grace Priory Cell agrden

Mount Grace Priory

Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire is the best preserved Carthusian monastery in Britain. After the dissolution of the monasteries some of the ruins of its guest house were incorporated into two later manor houses, the latest in the Arts and Crafts style in 1901.

Front of Manor House from its garden:-

Mount Grace Priory Manor House

This is the Manor House from inside the grounds, priory ruins in foreground:-

Mount Grace Priory Manor House from Grounds

The most substantial remaining part of the original Priory is the ruins of its church:-

Mount Grace Priory, Church

The Holy City by Meg Henderson

Black and White, 2010, 321 p.
One of the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Holy City cover

The Holy City is narrated as the rememberings of near pensioner Marion Katie Macleod, who, at the age of eleven, lost all of her family – mother, father, brothers, sister, grandparents – in the Clydebank Blitz, hence found herself alone while resolving to look after Davy Ryan, the seven year-old neighbour in the bed beside her in the hospital where they were both recovering from wounds sustained in the bombings. This is a subject not unfamilar to me since a close friend of my parents had an elder brother killed in Clydebank during the bombing and was separated from his family – with nothing but the night clothes he was wearing at the time – and not restored to them for three years.

The book deals not only with the misfortunes Marion suffered as a result of the bombs but also the effects that war had both on her and other Clydebank residents. Interspersed in the text is the history of the town from the 1930s, encompassing the heyday and post-war demise of the shipyards and the workers’ treatment therein, the rise and fall of the Singer sewing machine factory – a significant landmark and employer in the town till its clock was demolished and the Japanese began to produce cheaper sewing machines in the millions. The Holy City was the name that had been given to the part of Clydebank which suffered most damage during the Luftwaffe raids as it apparently bore a resemblance to Jerusalem.

Henderson’s depiction of the community of working people rings true enough, their humour, camaraderie, the deep sense of ‘Us and Them’, their resentments – among which was the fact that the casualty figures were massaged (the text says for the sake of morale elsewhere) – their betrayal by economic circumstance. Marion is a resourceful and combative protagonist but the historical passages read more like pieces of journalism than a memoir. The picture of Jimmy Ryan – whom she marries when he returns from the war as the only means she has to keep her promise to herself to protect his brother Davy – as too damaged by his experiences as a Commando to function properly in civilian life again, withdrawn, unable to sustain a relationship, is well done. Henderson also highlights the scandal of the asbestos which has to be brushed off Jimmy every night on his return from work in the yards (which also permeated the air and covered the ground so that children could throw sodden clumps of it at each other) and leads to his premature death.

The text refers to the myth (sic) of ‘We can take it’ especially as regards the inhabitants of the equally devastated Liverpool in terms of “The reality was there was no choice. The people took it because they were forced to take it” by not being allowed to flee to the surrounding countryside (or being sent back if they did.) There may be some truth to the supposed official thought that bombing attacks led to the chance to shoot down German aeroplanes but there is a circularity to the proposition that lack of (civilian) targets would then give the German pilots pause. Would it? Yes losses did lead the Luftwaffe to give up daylight bombing in favour of night-time raids (the same was true for the RAF over Germany) yet there would still have been no shortage of targets. The raids on Clydebank may have been purely terror inspired – Hitler’s military attentions had by that time turned to the Soviet Union – but they had a strategic sheen. Despite the Luftwaffe’s lack of success in undermining British morale the thought persisted – on both sides – that bombing could win or at least shorten the war, witness the Allies continued air attacks on Germany till the war’s end; to achieve which end actually required ground troops to take and occupy Germany. But for the people being bombed there really was no choice. You either carry on with life as best you can in the circumstances or give up. Most British victims of bombing had nowhere else to go. So too for the Germans.

While Marion is an engaging, resourceful character and the conversations she engages in are lively – and occasionally barbed – there is something a little stilted about the whole. The historical interludes, though interesting, aren’t well enough integrated, the incident with which the novel starts and whose ongoing ramifications intersperse the narrative is not come back to sufficiently often, the loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, showing too much of the authorial hand. The Holy City is good, well worth reading certainly. But a contender for entry in a list of 100 best Scottish books, though? Not for me.

Pedant’s corner:- Marion describes Helensburgh as by the seaside (I wouldn’t.) She also says it is six miles from Clydebank (make that 17.) The details of the sinking of the Bismarck are also wrong. There is a reference in dialogue to ‘wanno they science fiction stories, ye know the wans, where an impostor takes ower somebody’s life.’ Were these a common enough currency in the late 1940s to invite such a comparison?

Eleanor Cross, Geddington, Northamptonshire

The other Eleanor Cross we visited was at Geddington:-

Eleanor Cross

Eleanor Cross, Geddington

An information board here shows the route of Eleanor of Castile’s body from Lincoln to London, and the twelve stopping places:-

Information Board, Eleanor Cross, Geddington

Eleanor Cross, Hardingstone, Northampton

Edward I of England, known as Edward Longshanks, and also Malleus Scotorum or Hammer of the Scots may have been a Middle Ages hard man but it seems he loved his wife, Eleanor of Castile. When she died at Lincoln he had her bodytransported to London for burial and at each stop along the way ordered that a cross be erected in her memory. These are known as Eleanor Crosses.

On our trip down south last summer we were so close to two of these we had to photograph them.

The first was at Hardingstone just south of Northampton:-

Eleanor Cross

Eleanor Cross, Northampton

There is an inscription (pretty much unreadable) in the stone on the wall behind the Cross:-

Inscription near Eleanor Cross, Northampton

The inscribed words are reproduced on the plaque:-

Eleanor Cross Inscription

Another descriptive plaque is on a pedestal nearby:-

Eleanor Cross, Northampton, Descriptive Plaque

Denis Healey

One of the last of the big political beasts of my (relative) youth has now departed.

He held office as Defence Secretary for 6 years but was more famous as a Chancellor of the Exchequer excoriated by the left for his adoption of wage controls in 1976 and immortalised in a song – to the tune of What a Friend We Have in Jesus – about the Callaghan Government which contained the line, “All the bad was done by Healey, all the good by Tony Benn.” But Healey in a deaperate bind. There had been an oil price rise of 400%. Imagine today’s politicians coping with that.

His obituaries on the television skipped over his war record to concentrate on his political career. But one of the most striking things I ever heard about him was that he was the Beachmaster (for the British sector) at the Anzio Landings a job of no small responsibility. He’s worth an obituary for that alone.

Denis Winston Healey: 30/8/1917–3/10/2015. So it goes.

The Holocaust and the State

There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 16/9/15 where Timothy Snyder argued that the conditions necessary for the Holocaust of Jews (and others, but mainly Jews) by the Nazis to take place have largely been misunderstood.

Snyder sees it as crucial that in the areas where most killings occurred, principally in the lands of pre-war Poland, the Baltic States and what had been Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, the apparatus of the state was no longer functioning – had indeed been deliberately destroyed. This was the necessary precondition for the activities of the Einsatzgruppen and the SS to be so unconstrained.

Though Snyder’s focus is on Eastern Europe I found myself thinking that in Western Europe too the absence of state institutions was a factor contributing to whether or not transportations to the killing zones of those whom the Nazis saw as undesirables came about. In Denmark, where the king remained and most institutions stayed intact (at least until 1943,) most of the Jews escaped or survived. By contrast in the Netherlands, whose monarch went into exile in Britain, and in France, where the Third Republic collapsed and Vichy was a puppet, deportations were much easier and in some cases even facilitated.

We have seen the consequences of the absence of the state relatively recently in Afghanistan – the Taliban would not have come to power there if not for the chaos engendered by, first, the Soviet presence and then its retreat (effectively driven out by a mujahideen aided and abetted via US and Western support) – in the disarray of Libya and now in Iraq and Syria where ISIS/ISIL/Daesh would not have had the opportunity to grow as quickly or at all if there had not been the vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it.

Contrary to what some libertarians appear to think it seems the state really is a force for good.

Postscript:- While looking over the above it also occurred to me that the killing fields in Cambodia, while a consequence of Pol Pot’s take-over, were also due to state collapse, in this case that of the pre-revolutionary government. I suppose too that La Terreur in revolutionary France and the turmoil in the former Russian Empire after the Bolshevik coup are examples of what happens when state organisation suffers disruption. To avoid chaos a polity requires not people with guns but checks and balances; plus a functional judicial system capable of holding those in power to account.

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