Friday, April 18, 2014

The Island Of Dreams

An island map

Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.

The words of a very famous song, the identity of the author is long lost in the mist of time. As is its meaning.
It might have been written by a soldier, waiting for death at the hands of the enemy.
Or more popular is the version that it was written by a soldier returning north after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops in the 1745 rebellion. Or it could refer to the Celtic belief that if you die away from home, the faeries will take you back via the 'low road', some kind of transport friendly underworld. Or it be that the high road means ‘hanging by the neck until dead’, the low road means ‘by foot’ i.e. the faithful will get home before the traitor.

The banks of Loch Lomond are indeed bonnie. The loch has many islands, about 60 in low water and about 20 at high water. With that lot on a loch 18 miles long and 4 miles wide you’d think I’d find one suitable for my new book.

But alas not, so I invented one.

The islands are dotted with religious buildings, follies, old ruins and castles and in my case, some dead bodies. There are also a fair amount of crannogs (also found in Scandanavia) where ancient types also had difficulty finding an island to suit them so they built some. Probably some ancestor of Ikea.  One upright stake sunk deep into the loch bed, then stones piled round it until it breaks the surface and hey presto - your own island. They were used as homes, status symbols, refuges, hunting and fishing stations. They date back 5000 years, some of them were still in use in the mid 1700s.

                         A member of the Moray Club took this picture, he blinked and the deer was gone.

As well as the famous wallabies, there are white deer that swim the loch looking very ghostly and rather magnificent.

Here’s a run through of the islands - 

Bucinch (island of goats)
Has no goats.   

Used to be owned by the Earl of Lennox. In 1225 he gave it to his clerk ( a Buchanan ) for an annual rent of a pound of wax. The Buchanan’s became a very powerful family from this small start. This island has it’s own wee crannog, Keppinch or The Kitchen.

Ellanderroch (island of Oaks)
Has oaks.  Very big ones, for a small island.  One oak was weakened by a big hollow in the trunk so the locals filled it with concrete. It was then struck by lightning leaving only the concrete. The loch has many squalls and this is the Island the fisherman head for safety.

Fraoch Island (Heather island)
Covered in heather. Only 150 metres long and  12 metres high.  Has little soil to it dries quickly and autumn appears here a month before anywhere else on the loch. A 1792 map shows  the island as a prison. It is also said to have been used as a deposition site for nagging wives.


 Inchcailloch The island of the woman
The woman being St Kentigerna.  This is the most accessible of Loch Lomond’s islands. In the 13th century a church was built in her memory and the Buchanan family used to row across  for their  Sunday worship. The church was abandoned in 1670  but the graveyard was used until  1947.


Inchconnachan (Colquhoun's Island)
Although no real evidence of occupation remains, there are signs of a grain drying kiln and rumours abound of an illicit still closeby. This is the island of the walllabys. Rarely seen but the place is covered in their droppings seemingly. Or are the sightings of Australian wildlife and the production illegal hooch somehow related....


Inchcruin (Round Island)
Inchcruin  has a couple of sandy beaches but is mostly rocky.  At low tide it touches Inchmoan island at a strait called  ‘the geggles’. Previous owners kept a ex-US army truck on the island. Handy as there are no roads.
Inchfad (the Long Island.)
Boasts its own  canal. The canal gave access to a (legal ) distillery on the island. The grass is rich here and is thought to sustain the white deer.

Miniscule. About 25 feet high. Probably an overgrown  crannog.  The surface is covered by the remains of a castle built by the Galbraiths of Glen Fruin.

Inchlonaig (Yew tree Island)
Has Yew Trees! They were planted by Robert The Bruce. His army used up all the previous ones, using the yew for the bows of his archers

Inchmoan (peat island)
Locals used this island as a source of peat obviously. Has some splendid ruins.  Swimming here is relatively safe ( but never warm), but the interior is impassible due to  gorse and rhodedendrons.


Inchmurrin (St Murrin's island)
The largest island,  1½ miles long, 300 ft high. St Mirren, the saint not the football team, is said to have had a chapel here but no remains have ever been found. Inchmurrin was renowned for its whisky until the exciseman got a boat and put a stop to all the fun.


Inchtavannach (Island of Monks)
Monks, not monkeys. ( some people have misheard it)   At Ton-Na-Clag  the monks used to toll their bells to call the faithful to worship.

Isle of Inveruglass
'Island of the Black Stream', the Clan MacFarlane had a nice castle on the east side. Oliver Cromwell destroyed it.

Tarbet Isle (Isle of the Portage)
Tarbert is a Gaelic word  meaning, literally  'to carry over' or 'portage'. Here it refers to boats being dragged over a narrow strip of land. In this case the land lies between the north ends of Loch Long and Loch Lomond where the Viking King Haakon's men dragged their longboats across to get access to Loch Lomond  where they  caused havoc.  Sweet justice was forthcoming  as they lost ten ships in a storm on Loch Fyne, as they sailed to join Haakon’s fleet at the Battle of Largs.

The loch and its islands are in the top ten of the greatest natural wonders in Britain.

English  writer, H.V. Morton wrote:
What a large part of Loch Lomond's beauty is due to its islands, those beautiful green tangled islands, that lie like jewels upon its surface.

I'm away now to design my own island, with an illegal still, monkeys, duck billed platypuses and ....sunshine

                Caro Ramsay 18th April 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alec "Wheelbarrow" Patterson and the Pilgrim' Rest gold rush

South Africa’s history, particularly in the last 150 years, is woven around the discovery of its amazing mineral wealth, particularly diamonds and gold.  It is the history of people and countries trying to grab these resources to make themselves rich.

Needless to say, there are interesting people associated with these developments – names such as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato (read about him here) to name two.  But one of the strangest is a man few know about – Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson, a taciturn, eccentric loner.

The search for gold in South Africa goes back at least a thousand years, perhaps even more, with diggings at Mapungubwe in Limpopo province.  Gold from there found its way to such diverse areas as Arabia, India and Phoenicia.

In modern times, the first gold rush occurred at what is now known as Sabie in the province of Mpumalanga (Place of the Rising Sun) in 1873.  [The name Sabie is derived from the local word ulusaba, which means 'fearful river' because of the ferocious Nile crocodiles that lived in it.]  

One of the people who arrived in Sabie to make his fortune was Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson.

He earned the nickname “Wheelbarrow” because, as the story goes, when he headed north out of Cape Town (1700 kms south of Sabie), he had a donkey to carry his meager possessions.  Apparently, one say when he was loading it, the donkey kicked him, so he decided to move to a more technologically advanced machine, one that wouldn’t hurt him as much - the wheelbarrow.  So he ended up pushing the wheelbarrow the remaining 1600 kms or so.  If that was not enough, the area around Sabie is mountainous, making the feat even more amazing.

"Wheelbarrow" Patterson

After some time, Wheelbarrow decided that the diggings at Sabie were too crowded for his liking, so he wandered off and soon found alluvial gold in a stream about 5 kms from Sabie.  Not liking crowds, and possibly because he, like all gold seekers, was greedy, he didn’t tell anyone.  He just kept on panning.

Panning for gold

Unfortunately for him, another wandering gold digger, William Trafford, came along and also found gold in the stream, which became known as Pilgrim’s Stream because, as another story goes, when he found his first gold, he shouted “The Pilgrim is at rest!”  Unlike Wheelbarrow, who had kept his find a secret, Trafford officially registered his claim.  The area, which became known as Pilgrim’s Rest, was officially proclaimed a gold field on September 22, 1873, causing a huge gold rush, far bigger than that of Sabie,  In less than a year 1,500 diggers were working 4,000 claims.

The site of the gold rush next to Pilgrim's Stream

A claim, by the way, was 150 feet by 150 feet (47 metres square) and marked by corner pegs, which were scrupulously observed by the diggers.  Despite the reputation of gold seekers as being no-gooders, no claims were allowed to be worked on Sundays, nor between sunset and sunrise on all other days.

Although most of the gold was in the form of dust, some nuggets were also found, the largest verified one weighing 6 kgs (214 ounces).  At today’s prices that nugget would be worth more than $250,000.

When the alluvial gold started to run out, some diggers went to nearby Barberton where more gold had been found, some went to Johannesburg, where gold was discovered in 1885, and some stayed and started mining deeper into the soil.  This, of course, required heavier machinery, so the largest hydro-electric power plant in the southern hemisphere was built nearby and Pilgrim’ Rest became the second city in what is now South Africa to be electrified.  The first was another mining town – Kimberley, which Michael has written about (Click here to read that blog.).  The real cities and towns came later.

Electricity was needed to move the ore.

The Pilgrim’s Rest mines continued producing well into the 20th Century – and was the reason my grandfather, Hugh Scott MacGregor, left Scotland for South Africa.

So what happened to Wheelbarrow?

I wish I had a romantic story of how he pushed his barrow to the next stream and found more gold, or of how he made his fortune and retired to a life of luxury with someone else pushing the barrow.  But nothing is known of what happened to him.  He just passed into history having found an area that ended up producing hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold.

Most of the land in and around Pilgrim’s Rest was owned privately by a company that became known as Barlow-Rand.  It sold the land to the government of the then province of the Transvaal.  In 1986 the entire village of Pilgrim's Rest was declared a National Monument as a living memory of the early gold rush days.  It is a delightful town to visit, as are other gold-rush towns in the area.

Pilgrim's Rest today

Downtown in Pilgrim's Rest

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Signs of the Times...

Seeing as how I am using all of my available words to wrap up a somewhat overdue book, I thought I'd bring you a little photo essay on one of my perennial favorites, Chinese signage.

As always, click to embiggen...

First up: Police.

For an authoritarian state, China sure has some interesting depictions of police officers...

To protect and to serve?

Apparently, a police supermarket

And at times the public safety messages can be a tad confusing…

"Do not panic and run in wrong way!"

Toilets deserve their own special category…

As do trash cans…

Here are a few interesting housing options…

Then there are things for which I have no explanation.

"Clown Fresh Flowers"?

I might worry about eating here... 

"The tongue explodes the chicken cube"

I'm happy they are jolly

Finally, realize that tourism and sight-seeing can be a serious business….

"Don't go barebacked in public places!"

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo

This is about a pair of serial killers in a story written by a guy named Patterson.

No.  Not that Patterson.  This Patterson is Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was commissioned, in 1898, to build a railroad bridge over the Tsavo river in the Protectorate of British East Africa, now Kenya.  This project was part of the building of the Lunatic Line, the subject of a couple of my previous posts.

Patterson was not an engineer.  He had joined the British Army at the age of seventeen, having only whatever education was available in County Westmeath, Ireland for a lad like him—the son of a Protestant father and a Roman Catholic mother.  That heritage may account for the sang-froid and fearless determination he exhibited in the trackless African wilderness of the time.

Patterson’s work on the bridge had barely begun when a couple of the area’s maneless male lions began attacking his Indian workers, dragging them from their tents as they slept.   Building thorn-bush enclosures and bonfires in the night did not stay the beasts.  After a few deaths, the building crew began to think that the lions were a manifestation of evil spirits who put a curse on their work.  Pretty soon the project came to standstill because workers decamped en masse.  Without his large crew, Patterson himself became more exposed to the danger.

To save his job and his own life, he had to find and kill the marauders—who in the end turned out to be a pair of rogue males with a taste for human flesh.  Multiple theories have been posited to explain why the cats preferred human flesh—everything from a paucity of other game in the area to the fact that captured slaves often died nearby while being dragged to the coast, and their corpses made for easy meals.

Accompanied by a brave gun bearer and often by other shooting companions, Patterson went on the attack.    It took him months to find and do away with the lions, who continued to kill in the meanwhile.

He recounted one attack while he and two other men were asleep and thought themselves safe in a railway carriage.  Patterson took the top bunk (an excellent choice), another British officer was on the bottom bunk, and an Italian hunter slept on the floor.  The downstairs Brit could not stand the heat and opened a window.  In the middle of the night, a lion entered through it, landing on the back of the Italian.  In the melee of shouting, reaching for rifles, and trying to run out of the locked door, the man-eater managed to drag the man on the bottom bunk through the window and made away with him.  Patterson buried what was left of his remains the following day.  The Italian decided that, much as he loved hunting, he would be better off trying his luck in another locale.  He left for Mombasa on the next train.

Eventually, Patterson killed both lions—huge males, nine feet from the tips of their noses to the ends of their tails.  It took eight men to carry each one back to camp.  In all, the monsters had killed twenty-eight railway workers.

The bridge was completed two months after the second lion bit the dust.

Patterson had them made into rugs, which he kept in his home until 1924, when he sold them to the Field Museum in Chicago.  Their skulls are still on display there, as is a diorama of what they looked like in life.

Patterson went on to write his account these and his other adventures durings the building of the railroad in his 1907 book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.  His story (Hollywoodized) was made into two films: Bwana Devil in 1953 with Robert Stack and Nigel Bruce and The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996 with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.  I have not seen either one.  I will watch the first one this evening, so by the time you read this, I will be able to tell you if it is worth watching.  If you want to know about the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas film, you have to take your chances on your own, as it is against my religion to watch a film with either one of them.  Both in the same film will, I am sure, be more than I bear.

As close as I will ever get to seeing a movie with Val Kilmer

Annamaria - Monday 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What not to say to a writer

Last week I went to a party. An unusual event in itself for me, but this was doubly unusual because it was a party of non-writers. Over the last few years my few social gatherings have tended to be at writing conventions, so I find myself largely Among My Own Kind, as it were.

However, this was different. I found myself in a group of people, very few of whom I’d met previously, and none of whom were writers. Not only that, but they didn’t quite have a handle on exactly what it was I did for a living.

It is a bit of a peculiar occupation for those not involved in it to grasp, I admit, and I’ve often discovered that when people don’t understand what you do, they are—unintentionally, I’m sure—incredibly rude about it. Now, don’t get me wrong. These were otherwise terribly nice people, but after a while I started to play Writer’s Insult Bingo, and very nearly scored a Full House.

“So, how much do you make from this book writing thing, then?”
Now, I’m sure this was asked with only genuine curiosity in mind, to find out if so nebulous a career was one that could be pursued as a career, and not merely as a hobby. Unfortunately, the Brit in me finds discussing money all rather vulgar, so I contented myself with saying, “I make a living, thank you.”

“Are you likely to have written anything I might have read?”
This is one of those questions that’s impossible to answer unless you happen to know the person and their reading habits very well indeed. In which case, they wouldn’t need to ask, would they? But it’s the implication that, naturally, you’re not famous enough for them to have heard of, because you haven’t written one of those books that everybody seems to have read almost as a matter of course, like THE DA VINCI CODE or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Quite what they’d do if you said, “Well, yes, actually. I am Dan Brown, but this evening I’m off duty …” I have no idea.

“Oh, I don’t read.” (usually said with a certain amount of pride)
I struggle not to react to this one. A very good friend came up with the perfect response. After introducing me to a new acquaintance as “ … the well-known crime writer …” he was met with this and without hesitation came back with this straight-face reply: “Oh, we can teach you!” I am also reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote to the effect that what discernible difference is there between people who don’t read, and those who can’t read? I managed not to come out with this one at the party either. Heroic what restraint I have, isn’t it?

“I only read one book a year—on holiday—and I download that from one of these free sites.”
Lovely. This is like telling someone who owns a clothing boutique that you’d rather walk round naked than  buy clothes, but on the rare occasions when you do happen to need a new jacket, you shoplift it without a hint of shame …

“I’d write a book … if only I had the time.”
Because of course, that’s all you need in order to write a novel—the time. No talent, no persistence, no ability to create believable characters, a salient plot, a meaningful theme or a realistic setting. Nope, all you need is the time. And the implication here is that they have far more important things to do with their time anyway.

“I’m going to write a book, based on my experiences as (cue drum roll) an accountant!”
I’m sure very exciting things happen when you’re an accountant. I recall an old Dick Francis book where the main character was involved in just that profession and I seem to recall that all those books kept me turning the pages until the wee small hours. And while I would never cast doubt on anyone’s literary ambitions, this would need a careful approach in order to work successfully without giving away professional confidences. After all, it worked for a certain country veterinary surgeon some years ago, didn’t it?

“I read one of your books … I haven’t read any of the others, though.”
Now, I know what was behind this remark. It was said because I’d put a relative into the book in question as a cameo character and she wanted to see how he was portrayed, but it came over as meaning that once was more than enough, and the experience put her off wanting to read any of my other work. Although, for all I know that may have been exactly what she meant. In which case I’ll get me coat …

“I haven’t read any of your books, but I just borrowed one from my friend.”
This is a bit of a double-edged one. Yes, it’s nice that the person was prepared to give my work a try, but if they don’t want to take the risk and shell out money when it might be not to their taste, I’d far rather they said they borrowed a copy from their local library. This ensures that the author is paid nearly sixpence in Public Lending Right earnings and—more importantly—keeps the libraries used and funded.

“Oh, here’s an idea for a book for you …”
OK, so I didn’t get this one at the party (part of the reason I failed to be able to call, “House!”) but it happens quite a lot. In truth, I have more ideas for books kicking around than I know what to do with, and even if I hadn’t I’d be very reluctant to use one suggested by someone else. After all, if they tell you the idea and you then write it, perhaps to some success, what kind of a royalty do they expect for their part? A good idea can be totally ruined if it’s badly executed, just as brilliant writing will rescue a so-so idea.

“I wouldn’t mind reading one of your books, if you’ve got one lying around anywhere.”
This has been said too many times for me to count. I am given very few free books to give away, and usually I do so to people who’ve been very helpful in allowing me to pick their brains during the writing process, and are mentioned in the acknowledgements. The idea that I am given a boxful to hand out to people who may do me the honour of giving the book a casual onceover is wearying. Enough people already expect the blood of my labours to be given away for nothing. It implies you think what someone does has no commercial value.

“Where do you get your ideas?”
This also was not one I heard at the party, but it’s so common at writing talks and events that I had to include it here. The truth is, if you have to ask then you are not a writer. Ideas are everywhere. They surround and absorb us. Every news item, documentary, overheard comment or chance remark—all are rich with possibilities. I developed a theory years ago that writers may have some form of mild autism.

After all, the human brain is being constantly bombarded with information, far too much to react to, but we filter out everything we don’t need. The autistic mind lacks that filtering system, which is why people with autism often have photographic memories and the facility with numbers or ability to draw remarkably accurately. In the case of a writer, we pick up threads of ideas that most people miss. With last year’s Charlie Fox novella, ABSENCE OF LIGHT, I sat in a fascinating lecture at the local WI by a senior Home Office pathologist about his work reconciling the bodies from the Christchurch earthquake. All the while I was scribbling furiously in a notebook when just about everyone else listened and enjoyed, I’ve no doubt, but without the urge to take the basic idea and go, “What if …?”

I’m sure everyone must have come across their own favourite insults, not only to writers, but towards any profession. Care to share your favourites?

This week’s Word of the Week is agraphia, meaning an inability to write, although it differs from the usual writer’s block as it is defined as a language disorder resulting from some form of brain damage. It is noted that there’s no direct treatment for agraphia, although some people can learn techniques to help them regain a portion of their previous writing abilities. It is often accompanied by aphasia­ (speechlessness) and alexia (the inability to understand written words).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I'm Off To Greece.

This is my final States-based post for six-months. I’m off to Mykonos on Tuesday.  I know, you’re all crying for me. Don’t worry, for I shall persevere…in the face of constant challenges of the sort expressed in the photo at the top of this post.

I’ll arrive on Mykonos in the middle of Easter week. This year Eastern and Western Easter fall on the same day, both during Passover. Yippee, we’re closing in on World Peace.

Last Monday I got to say goodbye to Washington & Jefferson College where I’d taught mystery writing during the frozen month of January.

I was invited back for a springtime address to the English Department. What a great bunch of folks. Some of my students even showed up, and others stopped me on the campus to say Hi. I guess it pays to be an easy grader.:)

It beats a wanted poster.

One of my students really surprised me. She’s a freshman and unbeknownst to me a rising opera star.  She was one of a dozen singers awarded a coveted position this summer in EPCASO (Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera—and you think governments are big on acronyms). In its 32nd year, EPACSO’s website describes itself as a month-long Summer Opera Program with concentrated study and training in voice, repertoire, and language for singers. The program is specifically designed for those singers whose abilities indicate a realistic possibility for a career in opera.

Ezio Pinza (1892-1957)

Well done, Jesse!  And after that buildup how can I not share with you a sample of her singing.  Undoubtedly it was my mysterious teaching that made her the star she is today.

Another of my students received a grant for this summer to study the habits of European-based mystery writers, of which Cara, Yrsa, and I are included as targets.  Savvy kids in my class.

And on Wednesday night I said adieux to my Mykonos After Midnight book tour with a MWA-NY panel titled “Mysteries in Translation” at the New York Public Library.  Annamaria, Chris Pavone, and I were the panelists, moderated by Shizuka Obate.

Later, Annamaria, Chris and I joined friends in a spontaneous dash over to a nearby Greek restaurant and a great fun time in a warm-up for my coming week.

Now it’s on to finishing up farm work, packing, and writing. Yes, finally, after five months of everything but writing…or so it seemed…the time has come to turn to Andreas Kaldis #7 for 2015. Assuming I can come up with an idea.

But that’s why I return to Greece, folks. For inspiration.  And it never fails.

Bye-bye for now. Yiasu!