John and I had  the pleasure of visiting, on our most recent progression through Scotland, both the Island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and the Mainland island of the Orkney Isles.   They are completely different.

Both are lovely islands, scoured by Atlantic gales and surrounded by fearsome seas.   They tend to be largely treeless;  green in the case of Orkney with pasture, and yellow on Lewis with ‘macher’ – flower filled meadows.   I think technically, for beauty, you would have to award the prize to Lewis, but it would be a judgement of Paris.   Lewis has a melancholic, haunting beauty, whereas Orkney is more robust, down to earth, cheerful.

Although some of my ancestors are from Lewis, and I have some of the characteristics of the islanders with on the downside my prematurely grey hair but on the other hand my problem free skin, in fact I have always felt much more at home on Orkney.

Lewis occupies the area I think of (perhaps unkindly) as ‘celtic twilight’, where  efforts, rather pointless in my opinion, (though no doubt an opposite argument could be mounted) are made to preserve the customs of the island in its language – Gaelic – and in its crafting, fishing and other traditional activities.   Religion seems to be  an on-going issue in the Hebrides – apparently the Northern sections of the archipelago are Protestant and the Southern catholic.    However it appears that politically they are controlled by a group of people who are able to ban public opening of any shop, visitor centre or even public transport on a Sunday, and who would prevent the ferries from operating if only they could.   While I am happy for people to celebrate the Sabbath in any way they choose,  I vehemently object to them seeking to compel me to do likewise;  and so on Lewis on a Sunday I always feel like doing cartwheels down the street while singing ribald songs.

Lewis and Harris manufacture one of the loveliest fabrics in the whole world – Harris tweed – yet nowhere on the island is there a large showroom, demonstrating the whole process from sheep shearing, through carding, spinning, dying and weaving;  with fabrics to buy and perhaps a pattern book to order from, with articles and clothing made from the tweed, a nice coffee shop, adequate parking and OPEN ON SUNDAYS.    The Director of Tourism for Lewis should be removed from his post and replaced by someone who actually thinks visitors to the island are a good idea – even on Sundays.

Orkney on the other hand feels as if it has always been richer and more secure in its identity than Lewis.   It certainly isn’t an island whose main purpose is tourism, but it is like New Zealand – gives the impression of quietly getting on with its own affairs while making you warmly welcome.    It has a wonderful new dig of an amazing huge complex thought to predate Stone Henge, and is handling that competently, able to protect the artefacts and engage visitors as well.   On Orkney, too, they can always make you comfortable, feed you, look after you.

Whereas on Lewis I feel you are just tolerated as a visitor, and treated with a certain amount of suspicion, on Orkney they’re glad you came to see them and are hospitable and warm.

But not everyone of our party felt this about Lewis, and they are both very lovely islands.    Perhaps you should go there and see for yourself.


ON BEING SORRY           

In my maturity, I’ve never really understood those people who find it almost impossible to admit they are in the wrong.   What angel of perfection amongst us is never wrong, and what a pretentious bore he must be.   Admitting you’re wrong about one thing and saying sorry does not mean that the 99 other things you said are not correct.


My memories of myself as a young person are not always edifying.   When I was at High School, people who brought their own lunch could sit in a classroom and consume it but when they had eaten they were supposed to go outside.   I have no idea why.   It was pretty cold in Scottish winters.   Anyway, I walked a long way to school,  I was very thin and had absolutely no need of further exercise,  I was often tired, so I just used to sit in an obscure corner and read my book or do my homework, and never look up and generally the teacher would leave me alone.


One day it was a prefect who came to hose us out, a thin faced spotty boy who exercised his petty authority  rather zealously.   The room was full, and he came to send us out.         “And you too, Missy,” he said to me.   “The rules apply to you just like everyone else.”    I was annoyed and I argued with him.          I pointed out there was no damage to school property;  it was freezing outside;   some of us were doing our homework.    He said it was the Rules.   I said, So?   The time has come to change them.   You, instead of upholding petty authority, should be making a case for why we should stay in.   The school bully observed:   He couldn’t do that.    He hasn’t the wit.   Even a lassie can out-argue him.      The prefect summoned back up and ejected us.   He then reported me to the Lady Advisor (but not, I noted, the Bully.)


The Lady Advisor summoned me.    She was a brisk, sensible woman.   I had never crossed swords with her.    He had complained of my rudeness and I would have to apologise.  I asked if he had complained about  the bully, pointing out that he had been personally insulting, whereas I had remained polite.     He had said that the bully only  threw in his 2d worth because I had argued in the first place.   I considered.   I wasn’t in the least bit sorry.   But I did not want to fall out with the Lady Advisor whom you needed in your corner if you ever had difficulties with male teachers (not that I ever did ).    She was, as I said, a sensible woman, and she now made an observation which made me think.   “You are very able,” she told me,    “but there are some fights you won’t win.   This is one of them.   I give you three days to apologise to him;  he will come and tell me when you have done so.   Then this incident will be closed.”     She looked at me.   “You are too smart not to see the sense of this.”   Then she dismissed me.


I was not pleased.   I despised the goody-two shoes prefect.   He hadn’t got  the personal authority or aggression to handle a situation which if he’d any wit he’d have left well alone.  Plus we now faced weeks of freezing hours waiting to get back into school.   However, I would face worse consequences if I persisted.   If they consulted my parents, my father would vociferously support me, but this was never entirely helpful.    I decided I’d have to bite the bullet.    But I thought, I may not win with  the Lady Advisor, but I’ll make this guy sorry he ever set eyes on me.


So I waited until the third day (might as well keep everybody waiting), and then I hailed the prefect on the main stairs, where we could be seen by many people but wouldn’t be overheard.   I had decided I would enact the most gracious apology I possibly could, as if I were an actress in the role of apologist.     I smiled and called him by his name.   I said how I’d had an interview with the Lady Advisor and I’d been reflecting on what she had said, and I had come to apologise to him for challenging him in his enforcement of the school rules.  I said obviously as a prefect it was his job to do so and I should have been supporting him in that instead of raising difficulties.   I was very sorry I had caused trouble and hoped he hadn’t had to waste too much time and energy on it;  and I would comply in the future.   He was extremely surprised (as well he might be, poor chap he was entirely without guile), but he was gracious;  said he understood it was cold outside, but exercise was good for one, and no it hadn’t been any trouble and he was glad the incident was now over.


I was careful to let some time elapse before I began to smile on him, and I only revealed the sweet and charming aspects of my nature, and I agreed with all his platitudes.   I was careful to ensure that he made all the running:  I was just always thrilled that he had honoured me with his presence.    When he asked me out, I refused with cold disdain, and I walked away and never spoke with him again.


But this guy, for all his lack of cunning, taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.   He was so shocked and surprised that all his distress showed, and for the first time in the whole episode I was genuinely sorry.     I do not know if he was quick enough to understand the link between the earlier incident  and my later behaviour.     He had been over zealous, and he had been unkind – he did not care that we would have to stamp our feet outside;  and he had been petty in running to the authority to force me to comply and acknowledge his position: but what he had done was all trivial and he had not thought much about it.    I on the other hand had acted with malice;  I had entrapped this unworthy opponent;  I had deceived him with deliberate intent for weeks with the sole purpose of revenge, and the hurt I had inflicted was out of all proportion to his original offence.   I was just annoyed, initially;  whereas he was wounded.    Also this time he could not run to the Lady Advisor and complain I had not treated him as he deserved.     I had behaved in a manner unbecoming to a lady, and my behaviour was much worse than his had been.  I was ashamed of myself.


There was no way I could make amends to him.   Explaining was not my style and besides I doubted if it would make him feel better.   I had intended to make a fool of him in public;   however I did not tell a soul about it;  and when people complained about him after that, I always dismissed his pettinesses as the trivialities they were and said he wasn’t really a bad fellow.     I’m sure he just thought I was a spiteful cow and I can’t really blame him.


Being sorry means you recognise the hurt you’ve caused, and if possible you will do something to alleviate it, and that you are prepared to bear the costs of doing so.


The Tony Blair school of Being Sorry (Look, let me make this quite clear.   I mean, yes of course I’m sorry that people died, but I did what I believed to be right, and we should move on now and not talk about this any more and no penalty accrue to me) is not being sorry at all.


Truthfulness means you are prepared to admit to yourself that you did wrong.   Integrity means that you are prepared to admit to anyone you affected that you were in error.    Love means always being prepared to be sorry.     Being sorry also means you don’t do it again.




I’ve written from time to time on the issue of Scots independence and of the prince who came riding to lead the challenge, Alex Salmond.

Neil Oliver at the commencement of a series on the history of Scotland, recounts a tale concerning one of the Roman Emperors who ventured into Scotland.   I’m not certain which one it was – more than one made the attempt – but in this tale as you will see it matters little.   The natives were employing guerrilla tactics, harrying the army in lightning raids, using their knowledge of the terrain and the weather, and avoiding head on conflict (which they were bound to lose.)    One day, emerging out of the mist to stand in a beacon of sunshine on a rock before them – but out of reach of their weapons, a warrior appeared.   He hailed the Roman Emperor by name, raising his voice so that the entire army could hear him.   He informed them that he was the flower of his tribe’s  manhood, their principal warrior, and he had been concealed in these mountains by the gods for the express purpose of defeating the tyrant (naming the Emperor) and stopping his cruelty and greed.   Though all the world was conquered by Rome, his country would never surrender, and the Emperor would be well advised to take his miserable lackeys back to wherever they came from before he and the gods dealt them a worse fate.    Then he disappeared again into the mists before they could get at him.   As we all know, the Romans never succeeded in conquering Scotland, and if the Emperor was Septimus Severus it is said his incursion into Scotland cost 50,000 men and nothing to show for it.

However, it was largely Rome who wrote the history of the world, and their historians denounced this account as merely  an ornamentation, an exaggeration by the historian several centuries later, who, they alleged, was actually a Celt and therefore biased, unlike Roman historians who, as we all know, only dealt in truths.

So there is no proof that this taunt was ever made:  but it sounds highly probable to me.   The use of guerrilla tactics, the Never Surrender attitude, the physical courage, the celtic oratory, the clever PR, the exploitation of the drama, the personal vanity, the aspiring to a heroic vision, the wit and the derision, the bold assumption of equality and disdain of rank, the sheer glorious effrontery of it,  makes it sound very like many of my countrymen to me.   Of course the Roman historians would deny it.     It makes the so called glory of their conquests seem tawdry and grasping and enslaving, instead of as they prefer to present it, the bringing of civilisation to the world.

Returning however to our modern-day hero…

I had the privilege of meeting Alex Salmond and exchanging a few words with him while we were in Scotland.   e was taking part in a Por-Am Golf Day on the golf course at Culloden, prior to tH

He was taking part in a Pro-Am golf event on the golf course at Culloden, prior to the Scottish Open.   John and I attended.   I sat reading in the shade of the hospitality area for much of the morning (it was a very hot day) while John followed Salmond’s party (which included Phil Mickelson, who went on to win the Scottish Open.)   John saw that the players would have to pass through a very narrow passage in the sand-dunes on their way to the 13th, and he took me there in advance of the golfers coming through in the afternoon.

I always find that famous people look much less impressive in the flesh.    We saw Padraig Harrison (small, like an amiable leprauchaun), Graham McDowell (shorter than I expected), Phil Mickelson, (an impressive and courteous figure) and finally, the man himself.

Alex Salmond is one of those rare people whose appearance is absolutely neutral.    That is to say neither positive nor negative values can be applied to his looks.   He is not handsome;  neither is he unattractive.   There is nothing about the look of him that would cause him to lodge in your memory.   His face was one you would never notice in the first place, and secondly would never recall.   Of his Machiavellian intelligence, his brilliant strategy, his long term planning, his well thought out plans, his knowledge, his intuitive understanding of people, his cunning – nothing at all showed on his face.

John asked for his autograph in order to stop him (he was too polite to assume that the crowd was interested in him, though in general it was him  they were following).  He asked where we were from.  We said, Sussex, and I added that I found myself all the time in a position where I had to defend his position.   Then he looked at us swiftly.   He did not appear to discount support as being of no value because it was not accompanied by a vote.   He knew that we were not interested in him as either a golfer or a celebrity, but as a politician.   He explained that he was having to attend meetings over the course of the golf weekend.  Were we there all weekend?   We assented (in fact we were going on to scatter my mother’s ashes but we were not going to burden him with so time-consuming a conversation.)    Then he looked forward to seeing us again on Sunday, he said, taking my hand and adding what a pleasure it had been to meet us.   Then he went on his way.

I thought, what hard work that must be.   He was playing tolerable golf;  he was exchanging with everyone who wished to exchange with him on whatever level they chose;  and he was keeping to the timetable.   He seemed able to judge exactly how to pitch each exchange.   He had as I said a bland, pleasant, unremarkable face but he had great charm.   He did not seem either arrogant or distant, but warm and accessible (although this must be in part an illusion.)   Although we are quite  sophisticated enough to understand that our cordial exchange is one he has with many people all the time, he never the less gave the impression that he would genuinely have liked to talk with us for longer and see us again.   Since this is unlikely, given the pressure on his time, one has to conclude that his mastery of a politician’s necessary skills is first class.

I recalled his dismissal of George the Sneerer on Question Time some years ago over the incident of Osbourne’s visit to some oligarch’s yacht in  the Meditteranean and the  ensuing bad publicity.   (I paraphrase.)   “If George”, he began with deceptive mildness, “wishes to be mistaken for a man of the people, he should not  be a guest on a Russian oligarch’s yacht, and in particular not at the same time as Peter Mandelson, who is a master of  the black art of politics vastly superior to himself.”   Salmond himself is evidently a master of all the  arts politic second to none.

It would be my guess that a man as clever as Salmond, who seems to have  a well thought out position on any question laid before him, must spend quite a lot of time actively thinking.   By this I do not mean meandering idly through the meadows of memory, but the hard work of considering and concluding about issues and problems.   This needs solitude, or at the very least, an absence of other demands on the intellect for a period.   For such a man, I would presume that these exchanges are undertaken by him as a necessary part of his job-  that he is not naturally extraverted.   Such skill, though apparently effortless, must cost him an expenditure of energy.

An interesting man, I thought, and all the more so because so much  about him is hidden.    Here’s a man who has gambled his entire career on one throw of the dice.    Yet, in my judgement, he, as an individual,  can afford to lose.   His personal resources would be sufficient to withstand the disappointment.

The question is, can Scotland afford to lose him?

Photograph courtesy of John Armstrong


The definition of a lady.

I haven’t written anything for about a month, and if you received any odd blogs or ones which you know you saw but then vanished, it’s because Joanna was patiently trying to teach a remarkably inept and slow pupil how to post own photograph in blog.    The photograph at the bottom is all my own work – only problem is I have no idea how I did it!    I’ll try to include one over the next few weeks so I get used to the process.

We’ve been in Scotland, visiting on our tour the place of my mother’s birth where we scattered her ashes.    Although I wrote an account of this event, I think this should remain private to ourselves.

We had no instructions from my mother, but I think she would have approved, as in John Galsworthy’s poem:

Scatter my ashes!

Hereby I make it a trust;

I in no grave be confined,

Mingle my dust with the dust,

Give me in fee to the wind!

Scatter my ashes!

In my remarks, however, about my mother, I said how difficult it was to capture her subtle and elusive qualities, and I fell back, unlikely though it seems on the magnificent reply of the future King Edward VII when someone criticised his wife.   “The Princess of Wales,” he reproved them, “is a lady, and therefore she never does anything mean or small.”

I thought that an excellent description of what it is to be a lady.   It’s nothing to do with etiquette, wealth, rank, social category.   Not every Princess of Wales has been a lady.   When my mother taught me the etiquette of middle class life : how to set a table, for example;   in what precedence guests should be seated round a table;  the traditional way to serve a dish – she generally prefaced her remarks by saying, “All this is of little account, for good manners is just about being kind to other people, but it is useful to know what ought to be done, so that you can choose not to do it.”

I think mothers who are bringing up girls should have the motto painted in their halls.   A lady never does anything mean or small,

It is by no means always easy to achieve either.   This past week my eldest daughter and her children have been with us on holiday and one day we did a tour of the charity shops.   I spotted a grey wool jacket which I rather liked, with a fairly good label, but it was quite a small size, so I suggested my eldest grand-daughter try it on.    It suited her (almost everything does) and I bought it for her.   She was delighted with it.   But when we got home and I tried it on, it also fitted and really suited me.    Whereas on her it looked funky with jeans, on me it looked classic with a black dress.   My granddaughter with great generosity offered to surrender it to me , saying I would have more opportunity to wear it, and for one shameful moment I was tempted.   Then I asked myself, how mean and small are you going to be?   A gift once given cannot be rescinded:  it is freely the property of the recipient.   Also, was I going to play David to her Uriah the Hittite?   How many jackets did I own, in comparison with my grand-daughter?   So I suggested she model it with different selections from her wardrobe, recommended another styling of her hair, and left her securely in possession of her jacket.    It is not easy to live up to Queen Alexandra’s ‘never’ lapsing into anything mean or small.

I was saying that my mother’s counsel always was to be kind;  to be generous;   to give the benefit of the doubt;  to forgive (and I with my vengeful anger and long memory had much need of that counsel).   My father was a clever and unusual man.   He understood the kind of person I was, and he advised me how to hone my skills in order to best defend myself and pursue my own interests;  whereas my mother gave me advice on how not to cause too much damage, both intended and collateral,  to other people.

I am grateful to my parents for their thoughtful and tireless efforts to educate us in the widest sense, and it must have seemed (certainly in my case)  at times a thankless  and forlorn cause.   But they persevered, and here I am today, still trying and not always managing, never to do anything mean or small.

2013-08-11 12.11.55 (1)