Saturday, 27 September 2014

Happy Days on Happy Daze

This has been the summer I really learned to sail. We bought Happy Daze, a 23 foot Halcyon yacht, in April and worked like crazy to get her in the water as soon as we could, which turned out to be early May. Since then we've sailed her every chance we have had, averaging a few times a week, and we've gradually taken her further and further afield as our confidence has grown.

We have been out in dead calm weather and in winds that were as strong as we'd like to experience on a boat of this size. We've sailed in sunshine, rain and fog. We have made loads of mistakes, and learned from them. We've also had huge fun and magical encounters with dolphins, porpoises and all the resident birds. We've enjoyed a dozen wonderful nights at anchor in secluded lochs. We are well and truly hooked.

The season's nearly over. It's the time of year when gales come in gangs, the weather is as unpredictable as a riot and changes faster than you can say 'safe anchorage'.  But hopefully we'll get a few more sails in before we have to take the boat out of the water and lower the mast for the winter.

Already, we're starting to make plans for next year, and dreaming of what we might get up to. My ambition is to sail to Iceland. That won't happen next year, but hopefully we will sail to as many of Scotland's islands as we can in the season. I'm wondering how much I could work from the boat with the help of wifi, or even satellite broadband...

We're also realising that Happy Daze is not a big enough boat to achieve all we want, and so we're starting to think about upgrading to something bigger. Not huge - we crewed on a 40 foot yacht earlier this summer and that's definitely too big for the two of us to handle. But we are looking at yachts a step up from 23 foot.

Which means that Happy Daze is looking for a new owner. If there is someone out there on the west coast who wants the perfect boat for learning to sail, please tell them to get in touch.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Want to imagine an independent Scotland?



Clearly 1.6 million of us have been trying to imagine what Scotland might have been like if we'd achieved independence last week. The perfect read, if you'd like to continue dreaming of a future independent Scotland, might be my novel Bear Witness. It is set in an indeterminately-dated point in time, after the population has voted yes for independence, and it's about one woman's vision of what 'rebirth' of the nation might involve.

After someone commented to me,'I liked your referendum outcome in Bear Witness rather more than the one we actually got!', I decided to do a post-referendum special offer on the novel. You can get yourself a discount, free postage, a signed copy, a free bookmark and a virtual bear hug by buying it from my website here.

Dream on!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

New media for Scotland, anyone?

Remember Northings? I think it's time to get it working again.

Chewing over the post-referendum bitterness, spitting out the pips and trying to find something that feels like a way forward, I find myself coming back to the things that make me angry. There's energy there.

One of the things that most infuriates me is that there is virtually no main-stream media willing to come out on the side of independence for Scotland. We have, apparently, 37 national newspapers, and only the Herald is pro-independence. The BBC is structurally biased in favour of the establishment. Even the Guardian thinks self-determination is a good thing for Palestinians, but not for Scots.

It is clear therefore that we need to create new Scottish media platforms that have an editorial openness to all opinions about the future of this country, in order to balance the space available for the views, opinions, news, ideas and knowledge of all people and communities, not just unionists.

One of the most distinctive things about Scotland is the cultural sphere, which is completely different from that south of the border. Up here in the Highlands, I perceive it as a Gaelic-rooted culture that relates strongly to the land and sea, that wears emotion openly and honestly and is laced with a quiet, wry self-deprecating humour. One of the things I love about living here, and why I will never live anywhere else, is because I feel surrounded by a great intensity of creative people - artists, craft makers, writers, musicians, story-tellers...

We used to have an online magazine that celebrated this creative intensity. It was called Northings. It was set up as an online community, to enable us to talk to each other, highlight news and upcoming events, review performances and exhibitions, delve deeply into the creative work of individuals, discuss movements and trends. It was great. I loved it. But when HI-Arts was killed off last year, it was mothballed. The creative voices of the north were silenced. I blogged about it here. It was a travesty.

Perhaps this is the time to find a way to revive Northings, and claim back our voice. Perhaps Northings could embrace the hopeful visions that the referendum has stirred up, and continue to showcase the depth and breadth of the culture that makes this part of Scotland so special. Perhaps the National Collective could use it as a platform. Perhaps it could also provide a space for views, news and opinions about our culture in the widest sense, including politics. We need to find ways to continue the conversation about the future in all parts of the country.

There are some excellent independent online fora, like Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland, Wings Over Scotland (there must be more, please tell me!) but cultural stuff doesn't get much coverage, and anyway, we need at least 37 of them, for balance. If, like me, you think Northings has a valuable legacy that could be the springboard for an ongoing conversation, get in touch. If enough of us want to do it, we'll find a way.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Why I am voting Yes for an Independent Scotland

I am voting yes because I've concluded it's the ethical choice. I have long been ashamed of the role that the United Kingdom plays in the world. We consume far more than our share of natural resources, both individually and through corporations that base themselves and finance themselves in this country and carry out policies of resource appropriation and economic pillage in other countries poorer than ours. We condone and take part in unacceptable military interventions in other parts of the world, and we pose a nuclear threat.

I hope that Scotland, as a new, small, peace-loving country will be able to behave better than the UK currently does. I hope we can live both here and abroad, in more socially equitable and environmentally gentle ways.

I have considered hard the fact that the UK is a large, powerful, rich nation, with a seat in the Security Council at the UN, with a powerful position in the EU, etc. Scotland will be a small country, with much less power. Is it an abdication of responsibility to give up on the UK, rather than to try to stay within it, and change it to be a better country? I have worried about this, but all my life I seem to have been going on marches, demonstrating, petitioning, voting and writing to my elected representatives and over and over again I have seen the powers that be, in Westminster and in the City of London, ignoring us and acting with aggression and greed and without a proper mandate from the people. The political and economic system in the UK is riddled by class inequality and corruption. The electoral system is geared to reinforce rule by the powerful few over the powerless many. The City of London is over-protected and unaccountable, the military is cowed by America, an upper-class English elite has control over our government, the judiciary and the media.

I know I am not the only individual in Scotland to conclude that we have no legal, non-violent way to influence the behaviour of the UK. It is not an abdication of responsibility to turn away from the UK, and seek a new country in which we can have some, meaningful influence.

It will be difficult to change our society, but after listening to many debates and talking to many people I conclude that there is a real will in Scotland to make this a better country. I have worked in the Scottish Parliament and I know it is a more civilised and consensus-based parliament than Westminster, so I have faith that we can operate a different kind of politics. Our climate change targets and legislation is far stronger already than the UK's as a whole. Our welfare system, to the extent that we can change it from Holyrood, is already fairer than the UK's. I believe that an Independent Scotland will create foreign policy and financial regulation that will be more ethical than the UK's.

I believe that we have the brains, the resources, the creativity and the social consciences that we will need. I believe that we will be able to work with other small, peaceful nations, in the UN, in Europe, within the world's financial system, even if necessary within NATO, to push for global reforms to rein in the excesses of countries like the UK. We will not have so much power, but we will have moral authority. We will be only modestly just, but that's better than being powerfully wrong. It's a choice between might and right.

I'm choosing right.

I'm voting Yes.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Retreat to Assynt in 2015


Dates have been set for two retreats at Glencanisp Lodge next year: 4-9 January (the perfect week to kick start your new year's resolution to write the novel, finish the play etc etc) and 31 May - 5 June. The retreats are for writers or other creative people who want some peace, quiet and space to develop their work in a spectactular place with the occasional company of other like-minded people.

Glencanisp Lodge is a beautiful 12-bedroom house, about a mile from the fishing village of Lochinver, in Assynt, north west Scotland. It belongs to Assynt Foundation, a community body that also owns about 44,000 acres of land including four mountains and countless lochens. By coming on this retreat you help to support this community organisation, in a remote and economically fragile part of Scotland, and you also get to visit what Norman MacCaig called 'this most beautiful corner of the land'.


You'll have a room to yourself (unless you choose to share) with table and lamp, bed linen and towels are provided, and the prices are full board (not including alcohol). The kitchen is stocked so you can help yourself to breakfast and lunch as you please. We eat dinner together in the evening and afterwards we often share work and conversation by the fireside.

There is a 'creative warm-up' session each morning to kick start your day and a scattering of walks and writing workshops organised during the week. All of these are optional and you are free to take part in all, some or none of them. Our central concern is to ensure that your creative juices are helped to flow in whatever way is best for you.

Prices and booking


Prices must increase from last year but are being held as low as possible and there are a range of costs to reflect the various different size of rooms in the house and hopefully to suit all purses.

For the January retreat (4-9 January), the room rates are £450, £425, £400 per person. If shared, £300, £275, £250 per person.

For the June retreat (31 May - 5 June), room rates are £525, £475, £450 per person. If shared, £400, £325, £300.



To book, contact Jane Tulloch at Assynt Foundation, on 01571 844100 or email jane@assyntfoundation.org.uk



In 2015, we, the people of Assynt, will have owned Glencanisp Lodge and the mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg for ten years, so it will be a special time to visit.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What's wrong with this map?

I'm just home from a jaunt to Edinburgh for the festival - the highlight of which was undoubtedly Paul Lewis playing Beethoven, which deserves a blog post in its own right. I also went to the Generation exhibition of contemporary Scottish art at the National Gallery (Steven Campbell is a highlight but David Shrigley stole the show). The map above is on the wall there. It shows all the art venues taking part in the exhibition. There are more than 60 of them around Scotland, and although they reach up to the islands, and down to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway in the south west, there's a huge hole in the north west.

Why? It's not as if there are no contemporary artists or galleries in this part of the world. What about An Talla Solais in Ullapool? What about the craft village at Balnakeil? What about all of the artists in Assynt? I have ranted before in this blog about the way our arts agency, HI-Arts, was eradicated, and I can't help wondering if things would have been different if it had been there to advocate for all of the Highlands and Islands to be properly represented.

I've recently become the proud owner of a Peter White painting. I never thought I could afford such luxury, but I bought this when the aforementioned An Talla Solais held a sale. It emerged from Peter's practice of drawing and painting from photographs of people who died in concentration camps and gulags. I wrote about this practice in an interview with Peter here. It's an immensely powerful painting, an honouring of a victim of inhumanity, and I feel proud to be able to welcome this unknown person into my home, give them a place at the table, show them some respect. I am moved by this painting daily: that beautiful mouth, those questioning eyes.


An Talla Solais ran its art sale in an effort to improve its dire financial situation. Could this have anything to do with being overlooked by the mainstream arts world, we have to wonder? If anyone down in the Central Belt is reading this, hello! We have art up here as well and we're trying to keep it alive. We are not nowhere, and our artists are not nobodies. Please put us on your map!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Bears in captivity

Sorry not to have posted for ages. Summer in Achmelvich involves avoidance of the computer as much as possible! There's a boat to sail, there's a garden to tend, there are mink to catch (unfortunately) and there are birds and seals and people to watch.

But haunting my desk are letters and cards from Animals Asia, with images of bears in cages. I'm not going to reproduce them here, because they break my heart. They are mostly bears rescued from bear bile farms.

Bear bile farming is an unspeakable practice - bears held captive in order for bile to be extracted from their gall bladders for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Its active ingredient, ursodeozycholic acid, is supposed to be good for the liver so it is used, amongst other things, as a hangover cure. The trade is huge, and bile farmers claim that they are helping to prevent the slaughter of wild bears, yet the conditions under which bears are kept are cruel and the extraction of their bile is life-threatening. There are good synthetic and herbal alternatives - rhubarb is apparently just as effective.

So, it is a non-brainer that bile farming shouldn't be allowed, and I am 100% behind those brave people who are trying to fight against it, particularly in countries where challenging campaigning can be risky. Organisations like World Animal Protection, MoonBears.org, Wildlife SOS, Free the Bears, Hauser Bears and Animals Asia are all trying to change perceptions and laws in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, India and other countries where bear bile trade is strong. There's a facebook community of people advocating for caged bears here. If you are interested, each day you can find an uplifting or horrific story about bears being rescued from a life of dancing, from baiting or from cruel zoos.

The thing that really breaks my heart is that when these campaigners win victories, and secure the release of captive bears, they usually can't be released into the wild because they are too ill, or damaged, or do not have the skills to fend for themselves. So they must be taken to sanctuaries. Animals Asia is currently trying to raise millions of pounds to create a bear sanctuary. I know it's necessary, and I hope that they achieve their goal.

However, we also need to remember that bears need protecting in the wild, through the protection of their natural forest habitats. We will have done a kind but stupid thing if we succeed in achieving more comfortable cages for captive bears, but fail to save their wild forest habitats. This keeps me awake at nights.