Category Archives: latest-posts

Two Black Belfast Taxis – One Orange and One Green – Pt 1

Two Black Belfast Taxis - One Orange and One Green - Pt 1

The topic under discussion here is a sensitive one, but I hope not controversial. If any offence is caused, I can assure you that it’s completely unintentional, therefore please accept my apologies in advance if I have.

In 2004, six years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I paid my first visit to Belfast. To have gone there as an English tourist before ‘The Troubles’ were officially ended would have been unthinkable for most people, and even after those peace documents were signed, not everybody approved of the outcome, and sporadic violence still wasn’t uncommon.

In my introduction to Northern Ireland I gave a brief explanation as to how the North got separated from the South after the 1921 Irish War of Independence; but the Government of Ireland Act may have solved one problem but it created another – and Belfast, being the North’s capital, found itself in the thick of it.

Different people have different opinions as to when The Troubles actually started because catholic discontent and protestant suspicion had been simmering for quite some time. On the one hand, the minority catholic population felt that they were being treated as second class citizens on issues such as jobs and housing (and there was little they could do about it under the prevailing voting system): Protestants, on the other hand, felt that there was a deliberate attempt by Irish Catholics to change the demographics of the province, and the Northern Ireland government was either inept or complicit in handling it. I think most people accept though, that it was during the late 1960s when things took a distinct turn for the worse, particularly around the time of the Civil Rights marches.

I’ve read numerous books, watched countless news reports and even witnessed first-hand how the conflict affected the UK mainland, but as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, only the people who were directly involved there during this tragic period of Irish history can come anywhere near close to describing what it was like to live in the province during those times. For these reasons, I don’t intend to delve too deeply into the background of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, but I will need to touch on some of the history for anything to make sense.

For anyone who would like to know more, I can highly recommend this excellent 2019 TV documentary series entitled Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History.

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The Island of Raasay

The Sound of Raasay

The Island of Raasay

According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.

Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.

Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.

For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.

Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.

Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.

Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.

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A Drive Around Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula

A Drive Around Skye's Trotternish Peninsula

I’ve often found travelling to places that I’ve always wanted to go a risky business because my imagination, and the real time experience, doesn’t always match up, but my first visit to the magical Isle of Skye in 1983 was the complete opposite – and one of the reasons why the island exceeded my expectations was the wonderful Trotternish Peninsula.

That first journey to Skye involved a 600-mile journey from the West Country in a rusty old Fiat Mirafiore: There were no cheap flights then, and there was no Skye Bridge either – it was ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ by ferry from the Kyle of Lochalsh. The toll-free bridge has made the island far more accessible now, not just for me, but for everyone else too, so it makes sense to come out of season if possible when there are fewer people around and the only difference in the weather is that the rain is a bit colder.

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The Culloden Battlefield

The Battlefield

The Culloden Battlefield

On 16th April 1746, five miles to the east of Inverness, the last pitched battle on British soil resulted in the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his attempt to reclaim the thrones of Britain and Ireland for the House of Stuart.

The Young Pretender’s ambitions have gone down in folklore and often been romanticized to such an extent that the real facts have often become blurred. This was not just simply a battle between Highlanders and Lowlanders, Scots and English, or even Catholics and Protestants. It was probably more about returning a Scotsman to the throne of Scotland than anything else, but be that as it may, Charles Edward Stuart’s ambition came to an abrupt end on Culloden Moor against the Duke of Cumberland, son of the Hanoverian King George II.

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Inverness

Inverness Castle and the River Ness

Inverness - Capital of The Highlands

Inverness is the self-proclaimed, and undisputed capital of The Highlands.

Its strategic position at the end of the Great Glen where the River Ness flows into the Moray Firth, has meant that it’s always been at the historical heart of The Highlands, even if it isn’t geographically.

In 2000 it became Scotland’s 5th city, therefore making it the UK’s most northerly city, and one of the fastest growing. The city’s population in 2012 was 46,870, and 59,910 for the Greater Inverness area, which means that a quarter of the Highland population live in, or around, Inverness.

For somewhere that holds such a key position in the affairs of the Highlands there’s surprisingly little of note to see in the city itself. The river, which flows for just seven miles between Loch Ness and the Moray Firth is crossed by the rather non-descript Ness bridge, but even so, a riverside walk is worth contemplating if you’ve found yourself here with time to spare.

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Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Hemmed in by the Anoach Eagach ridge and Bidean Nam Bian, Glen Coe is a spectacular mountain pass that rises up from the shores of Loch Leven through the ‘Weeping Glen’ where mountain tops are often covered in snow and shrouded in mist, and up to wild Rannoch Moor whose dark brooding skies drop copious amounts of rainfall onto an already waterlogged, desolate plateau: In winter this precipitation can fall as snow, and the bogs and lakes turn the terrain into a cold and icy landscape.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the stark beauty and grandeur of the scenery, and my words and photographs can’t possibly do it justice, but it’s not just the skies that can give a bleak picture, it’s the glen’s history too – most notably, that of the Glencoe Massacre.

Lying under the Pap of Glencoe and near to the shores of Loch Leven is the tiny village of Glencoe, where you can find a monument to the massacre, which was not as straightforward as some would have us believe, but it was an unwarranted massacre nonetheless.

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The Isle of May

Pilgrim's Haven

The Isle of May

Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.

If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.

Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.

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Scotland’s Secret Bunker

Scotland's Secret Bunker

It may not be the first thing visitors to Fife think of doing, but you should make every effort to come and see this extraordinary underground nerve centre where plans were put in place to keep Scotland functioning, should there be a nuclear attack.

Just a 10-minute drive from Crail, a quiet lane leads through the Fife countryside and a barbed-wire fence to what looks just like an ordinary farmhouse, but was in fact, the guardhouse that would have protected the command centre of the Scottish government had it become necessary. Today, it’s the visitor centre welcoming people into the bunker.

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The East Neuk Fishing Villages

St Monans

The East Neuk Fishing Villages

‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.

Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.

If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.

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The Kelvingrove, The Glasgow Boys and Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The Kelvingrove, The Glasgow Boys and Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Scotland’s two largest cities are as different as chalk and cheese. Edinburgh is the country’s cultural and political hub, and Glasgow is the industrial powerhouse with rough and ready areas of the city that are out of bounds for tourists – or at least that’s the image most people have, but things are not always as they seem. Edinburgh has rough areas too, and Glasgow has its own fair share of cultural institutions – and there are none better than the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

This fabulous Victorian building was constructed, like many of Glasgow’s buildings, out of red sandstone from Locharbriggs Quarry near Dumfries. Edinburgh may have the National Museums, but I don’t think any of them are as handsome as the Kelvingrove.

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Glasgow City Chambers

Glasgow City Chambers

During its Victorian heyday, Glasgow didn’t just build slums for the workers, it also built fine buildings for the city’s powerful elite, and there’s none finer than the Glasgow City Chambers.

As the city grew in size and importance, the original civic offices at the Tolbooth struggled to keep pace, and so a site was found at the east end of George Square to build a new City Hall. Designed by Paisley born architect William Young, this grand building was constructed in the Beaux Art style (a form of French neo-classicism), with an ornate pediment and sculptures being added by James Alexander Ewing.

Ewing’s intention was to symbolise Glasgow’s rise to prominence through its connection with the River Clyde, but in the end the design was amended to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee instead. Whoever was behind the change of heart I’m not sure, but it had the desired effect because on 22nd August 1888, it was Queen Victoria herself who cut the ribbon to open the new building.

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St Mungo and Glasgow Cathedral

St. Mungo and Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow didn’t have any history before the Industrial Revolution – or at least I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what many people thought. It’s true of course that it developed into a major city during the Victorian era, but it might surprise some people to learn that it was founded way back in the 6th century when a missionary called St. Mungo built a church at a place called Glas Gu (meaning ‘Green Place’).

If you haven’t heard of St. Mungo then perhaps you’ve heard of St. Kentigern, who just happens to be the same man. The difference in name is down to which branch of the Celtic language you believe the name originates from, but as we’re in Scotland I think we should call him Mungo. It seems that he was born in Culross, Fife, but the date of his birth isn’t quite so clear.

Talking about dates from this period is notoriously unreliable, but most accounts suggest that Mungo was around 25 years of age when he established his mission at the spot where Glasgow Cathedral now stands.

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The Clyde – A River that Gives with One Hand and Takes Away with the Other

The Clyde - A River that Gives with One Hand and Takes Away with the Other

The Song of the Clyde, made famous by Paisley born Kenneth McKellar, waxes lyrical about the “Wonderful Clyde”, but to an outsider like me, ‘wonderful’ wasn’t the first adjective that sprang to mind in describing the ribbon of water that flows through the centre of Glasgow: All I knew was that it was full of shipyards and lined with heavy industry. It certainly held a fascination for me, but I couldn’t believe that it was wonderful, or at least not in the way I understood the meaning of the word – but that was before I’d even set eyes on the river, but what do I think now that I have?

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Glasgow – No Mean City

St George's Square

Glasgow - No Mean City

No Mean City is a novel written by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long and is about the razor gangs of the Gorbals, a notorious working-class district on the south side of the River Clyde. It was set in the inter-war years and did nothing to change people’s perception of Glasgow’s tough reputation, one in which the stereotype is likely to be a heavy drinking sectarian football fanatic who might well have worked as a welder in a Govan shipyard and spent his Saturday nights trying to drink Sauchiehall Street dry.

Glasgow’s tough reputation stems from the days when it was the ‘Second City of the Empire’. The industrialization of Glasgow produced shipyards, factories and slums, and although there are plenty of examples of some fine Victorian classical architecture, I don’t think that even the staunchest Glaswegian would say that they live in a beautiful city – but beauty is only skin deep. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find that there’s a lot more to Glasgow than you might have realised.

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Scotland’s Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

The Solway Firth

Scotland's Solway Coast and the Rhins of Galloway

Like so many travellers, I’ve often been guilty of rushing past this quiet corner of Scotland in search of the country’s more celebrated attractions further north, but several years ago I decided that it was about time we turned left at the Scottish border to take a steady drive along the Solway Coast to the Rhins of Galloway and find out what we’ve been missing.

From what I can see of it nothing much has changed around here since we visited, but one thing I’d better mention is that we didn’t drive along here all in one day, as the route I’ve described would take at least four hours without stops; and although it might be possible, I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to enjoy the area properly.

Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the same jaw-dropping scenery that the Highlands can offer, but I already knew from experiences elsewhere, that the Lowlands of Scotland have an appeal of their own, but in a much more subtle way.

Immediately after crossing the border into Scotland is Gretna Green, the famous runaway wedding location, where most first-time visitors will want to stop – even if they don’t intend getting spliced. Having been here before, I was keen to move on because I think it’s one of those places that, unless your name’s Henry VIII, you only want to visit once, and so we carried on along the ‘B’ roads towards Caerlaverock instead.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 – The Effects of the Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 - The Effects of the Strike

“The Miners united … will never be defeated” was the battle cry from striking miners – but they weren’t united, and even though the South Wales miners were more united than anywhere else in the country, there were still those that went back to work before the strike ended, and that was bound to make life difficult when they had to start working together again.

There must have been other misgivings too, because although there was a wage packet being picked up again at the end of the week, they must have wondered for how long, and in the case of Bedwas Colliery, they knew straight away because it never even re-opened. By the end of 1985 another seven South Wales pits were either amalgamated or closed down, and it was the same story throughout the country.

Fortunately, Tower wasn’t one of them, and if you’ve read my previous post, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2, you’ll already know why I’m pleased to say that. These people may have had a lot to contend with, but they hadn’t forgotten our support either, and they invited us to a special evening at the Fernhill Social Club to thank us for that support.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 – The 1984/85 Miners Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 - The 1984/85 Miners Strike

This post covers the 1984/85 Miners Strike which had implications, not just for South Wales, but for the country as a whole and workers’ rights in general. It also shows how I became involved, albeit in a small way, in one of the most bitter industrial disputes in modern history.

 

EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE STRIKE

To understand why the 1984/85 Miners Strike had such an impact on the South Wales Valleys and a pivotal point in Britain’s industrial history we really need to go back a few years. In my previous blog, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1, I described how these once lovely valleys became a pretty depressing place for those who worked and lived here. There were other people who worked under difficult conditions, but the miners became one of the most powerful voices to fight for a better life.

By the 1970s some people were arguing that the trade unions had become too powerful, too undemocratic, and organized by extreme left-wing union leaders – and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was at the top of the list that those people were talking about.

In 1971, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, introduced the Industrial Relations Act, which amongst other things, was designed to curb union power. I didn’t think it was a particularly harsh bill, even though I was a strong union supporter, but it didn’t go down well in some circles. In 1972, and then again at the start of 1974, the miners went on strike, and to keep the country functioning – and the lights on – Edward Heath introduced a 3-day week and called for an early election. He didn’t win it, and there was another later in the year, which he didn’t win either. In other words, it was the miners who won, and for the next 5 years the unions had the labour government that they wanted.

In the 1979 General Election, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, after a disastrous Winter of Discontent, lost to the conservatives who had a new leader in Margaret Thatcher. A Soviet journalist called her the ‘Iron Lady’, and it was a label she was more than happy to be identified with, but in the red corner was the communist-leaning leader of the NUM – Arthur Scargill. The stage was set.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 – The Demand for Iron and Coal

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 - The Demand for Iron and Coal

This post covers a time period from around 1750 to 1983 when the valleys of South Wales changed from an idyllic rural setting to an industrial powerhouse, and then into an industrial wasteland.

Many of the pictures and videos therefore are from archive material gathered from various different sources.

  

I’ve often tried to imagine what the unspoilt South Wales Valleys might have looked like before the days of the Industrial Revolution: I can imagine water trickling down from the hilltops above, forming babbling brooks and streams that cascade over a series of waterfalls into the valley below: On the valley floor I can imagine the crystal-clear water tumbling over rocks onto a riverbed where trout and salmon come to spawn: I can imagine the valley slopes of oak, beech, and ash, providing a rich habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, and I can also imagine sheep grazing the upland fields to provide wool and food for the sparse population that lived here: What I, or anybody else, couldn’t have imagined though, is how dramatically this landscape was going to change forever.

Nature not only provided the raw materials to create a beautiful landscape, it also provided the raw materials for an industrial one too. Iron ore and coal were two of the most important ingredients that fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and along with the great minds of British inventors, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the country becoming one of the most powerful nations in the world. Advanced weapons of war, ships, railways, and industrial machinery were all possible because of iron and coal, and the South Wales Valleys was blessed, if that’s the right word, with an abundance of both.

To begin with, the pace of change was slow. Iron ore was easily extracted from rocks found at the top of the valleys, and the other ingredients needed to make iron were also readily available – limestone, water, and timber. In 1750, Merthyr Tydfil was just a small rural village and Blaenavon never even existed, but by 1850 Merthyr Tydfil was the largest town in Wales with the largest ironworks in the world.

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From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

From Tiger Bay to Cardiff Bay

At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Cardiff was less than 2,000, but the lush green valleys to the north were about to change – and so was this small town at the mouth of the River Severn.

The reason for this dramatic change was all down to the increase in demand for coal which was needed to power the Industrial Revolution – and which the valleys of South Wales had plenty of.

The Glamorgan Canal, and then the Taff Valley Railway, enabled the Black Diamonds to be transported down the valleys to the coast where places like Newport, Barry, Penarth and Cardiff all vied for the lucrative export trade.

While everyone else was working down the coal mines, there was one man that was sitting on a gold mine, – namely the 2nd Marquis of Bute. He realised early on that there was going to be money made in the iron and coal industries of South Wales, and in 1839 he built the first of Cardiff’s docks at West Bute to handle the trade.

As the docks expanded, so did the appeal to come and work here: Butetown, as the area became known, attracted immigrant workers and seafarers from all corners of the globe, and it wasn’t long before the area became known for all the wrong reasons. Although several theories have been bandied about, it’s not really known for sure why the docks and Butetown became known as Tiger Bay – but the name stuck, and just like its feline counterpart, began to earn itself a fearsome reputation. If you wanted somewhere to go and get drunk, have a fight, or meet a prostitute – or all three – Tiger Bay was the place to come.

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Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

Northumberland, being next to the Scottish border, is castle country. Apparently, it has more castles than any other English county – and I can quite believe it. One of these castles is perched on top of a mound of volcanic rock, known as Beblowe Crag (or Craig), here on Holy Island.

As the Vikings proved, Lindisfarne was vulnerable. The natural harbour provided protection for ships, but the island itself wasn’t safe from invaders: The Vikings may have gone, but there was still a threat from the Scots, and when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including Lindisfarne Priory, an opportunity presented itself to put the priory’s remains to good use.

Initially, the Priory church was used as a naval storehouse, but as the need for reinforcing Beblowe Crag as a defensive fort became more important, then the stone from the Priory was used to build a new fortress.

However, the need for strong defences against the Scots became virtually unnecessary with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and consequently uniting the two kingdoms together:

Apart from the Royalist castle surviving a six-week siege during the Civil War and a short-lived Jacobite takeover in 1715, in truth, the castle didn’t really see that much action.

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