Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Poetry please

“I think it is possible to write serious poetry which can be entertaining and fun. Some people find that hard to accept and think the best poetry must be solemn. I have never agreed with that. There can be very good poetry which entertains you, makes you laugh.”

That's Edwin Morgan, Scotland's Makar - or national poet - speaking on his 89th birthday. You can read the whole article here: Champagne moment.

If you don't know about Eddie and his work, there's everything you'll need at his own rather wonderful website, which you can find here. Scotland's favourite poet. And here are some pix of Eddie's birthday bash, and the Scottish Poetry Library blog: party pictures.

Due to public demand on Facebook, I also include a reference to an article about a cafe at Cape Wrath. It's right here, at Cape cafe.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Evangelicals fight back in gay minister row

The Times, 22 April, 2009

The dispute over homosexual relationships and clergy threatening schism in the Church of Scotland worsened yesterday with the evangelical wing of the Kirk accusing its house magazine of an ignorant attack which mocked their faith.

The Rev Ian Watson, of the Forward Together group, said he was deeply offended by the leading article in the latest issue of Life And Work which supported the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister, to a church in Aberdeen.

He added that Muriel Armstrong, the magazine's editor, had deliberately misrepresented the debate, made prejudicial comment on church court matters which were sub judice and failed to provide balanced coverage of "a decisive issue" for the Church.

Mr Watson said that he was outraged by Ms Armstrong's suggestion that traditionalists only selectively quoted Biblical law, specifically "anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus".

"We respect the whole of scripture, there are Old Testament and New Testament texts which are hostile to homosexual practice. She [Ms Armstrong] has not just been unbalanced, she has mocked the evangelical position," Mr Watson added.

Ms Armstrong — who is set to retire from her post — called for Mr Watson to join with her in a broad church. "It is a shame to talk of schism. One of the great strengths of the Church of Scotland is that it is a broad church and that we can have different points of view," she said.

Senior figures in the Kirk fear that the issues of civil partnerships and gay ministers, could prove as damaging to the Presbyterian ministry as the row which almost caused schism in the Church of England at last year's Lambeth Conference.

The row over homosexuality in the Kirk has festered since the appointment of Mr Rennie to Queen's Cross Church in January. Mr Rennie, a divorced father of one, lives with his male partner. His appointment was challenged by a minority in the local presbytery who took the matter to a Kirk commission which referred the matter to the annual General Assembly in Edinburgh for a decision.

Both sides in the debate see next month's debate as decisive, with liberals determined to defeat traditionalists, forcing them to accept the will of the Church or quit. Even Ms Armstrong's supporters admit she deliberately intended to influence the debate, while her critics accused her of interfering in the "due process" of Kirk administration.

Ms Armstrong said that traditionalists in the Kirk had over-ridden established practice. "Queen's Cross Church called Scott Rennie by a substantial majority and the Presbytery of Aberdeen sustained that call. A group of people chose to challenge that," she added.

The Forward Together group is confident that it represents the majority view. Its supporters are expected to submit a motion to the General Assembly, which will seek to establish the centrality of heterosexual marriage within the Kirk.

"I am confident that if Presbyterians are allowed to debate the issue they will endorse the traditional Christian values of sexual faithfulness within marriage and abstinence outside marriage," Mr Watson said.

"I believe homosexual practice is a sin and will keep you out of heaven, just as adultery is a sin. For me it is a Gospel issue. It's like playing football and picking up the ball and running.

It's not the same game. That's how I see it and that's how the vast majority of Christians see it." He added that if the Kirk accepted practising homosexuals, it would be out of step with the World Church..

Schism looms for Kirk over gay rights

The Times, 21 April 2009

A potential rift within the Church of Scotland over gay relationships emerged yesterday after the Church's house magazine backed civil partnerships and openly gay ministers.

Accusing religious traditionalists of selectively quoting the Bible to support their attacks on homosexual relations, the editorial in Life And Work urged the Kirk to show strong leadership on an issue that has threatened to split the Church of England and could prove just as divisive in Scotland.

The article, which was written by the magazine's editor, Muriel Armstrong, comes ahead of next month's General Assembly in Edinburgh and has been timed to influence a key debate on whether openly homosexual ministers can be appointed to the Church.

Ms Armstrong rounds on the "selective literalists" who use parts of the Bible to bolster their own views but ignore other parts that undermine them. She says that these commentators "presumably no longer accept biblical teaching on sexual matters such as polygamy and sex with slaves" but are happy to quote Leviticus 18:22 on homosexuality: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." The Church said yesterday that the magazine was editorially independent.

"It is not the voice of the Church of Scotland, which is not trying to steer debate on this important issue," the Rev Angus Morrison, convenor of the council of mission and discipleship said. He added that he had already received "a couple" of e-mails expressing concern that the magazine was interfering in the "due process" of the Church.

Senior figures within the Church fear that the issue of gay partnerships could prove as damaging for the Presbyterian ministry as the row that has split the Anglican Church.

A minority in the Presbytery of Aberdeen has already challenged the appointment of an openly gay minister, the Rev Scott Rennie, to Queen's Cross Church in the city.

They have appealed to the Commission of the General Assembly, with a final decision on the matter to be made next month.

In her editorial Ms Armstrong also champions the right of gay ministers to serve in the Church. She said said that two years ago the Church had effectively shelved its decision on the issue and that the moment had come to challenge those who use the "familiar arguments" of tradition, orthodoxy and the "plain meaning of scripture".

"The question of the integrity of a relationship didn't enter the [traditionalists'] argument. It has been suggested that if the Kirk stuck its neck out on this one it would upset other churches that are still in a reflective no man's land on this issue. Isn't it time for leadership? "What is clear to the lay-person is that not everything Biblical is Christlike.

Every student of the Bible is a selective literalist. Those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus wouldn't publicly advocate slavery or stoning women taken in adultery. They presumably no longer accept Biblical teaching on sexual matters such as polygamy and sex with slaves.

"And yet there are many who continue to be bound by a few Biblical verses — none of them in the Gospels — about homosexuality, nowadays understood as a matter of genetics rather than lifestyle." The debate on gays in the Church will involve members from every Presbytery, drawn from Scotland and overseas. It is likely to polarise opinion, just as it has in other Churches.

The Rev Lindsay Biddle, chaplain of Affirmation Scotland, a pro-gay group, said: "This is about lifting the veil and saying, 'We include you' to people inside and outside the Church, regardless of sexual orientation. We are catching up the rest of society. I know people whose sexuality is accepted everywhere they go — the only place where their orientation is a problem is within the Church."

Friday, 17 April 2009

In the footsteps of Culloden

It is the dead of night, and in a deep, dark forest six miles from the Duke of Cumberland’s camp at Nairn, a squad of fearsome ‘Jacobites’, dressed in plaids and carrying muskets, gather around an officer.

Out of the darkness ‘Captain’ Ian Deveney’s voice rings out: “Help yourselves lads. My sporran’s full of Maltesers”. A huge, bearded man looms up in the darkness. “Why not? They’ll keep the blood sugar up,” say Callum Mitchell, in a cheerful, sing-song voice, and dips in his hand.

It may not seem completely authentic, but this ragged band of 20 men has set out to recreate one of the most fateful events in British history, an abortive night-time attack by 4,000 Jacobites, led by Lord George Murray, on the eve of the Battle of Culloden. Murray’s aim was to fall upon Cumberland’s men, who had been celebrating their leader’s birthday, and slaughter them when they were either asleep or blind drunk or both.

But over 12 miles of rough terrain, groping through the dark, and in the teeth of terrible storm, Murray’s half-starved army began to break up, and before they had closed in on their enemy, the attack was aborted. As dawn broke on 16 April, bedraggled and broken they returned to Culloden field, where within one hour the following day, they were put to the sword, by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s Hanoverian army.

No such fate awaits their 21st century followers. By day Mr Mitchell works shifts at the Michelin tyre factory in Dundee. Mr Deveney runs his own business in Inverness, a specialist in creating living history for schools. Others on the march include Willie Whyte, a lifeguard from Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, Ian Shields, an orderly at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and Bill Logan, who trains guide dogs and lives in Nairn.

There is a serious purpose to this exercise, says Tony Pollard, the battlefield archaeologist who led out the group from the Culloden House Hotel, in “real-time”, at 7:10pm on Wednesday evening, precisely 263 years after Lord Murray began his epic march.

Using a route recreated from 18th century maps and accounts, the notion is that the march will increase understanding of the condition and morale of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army as they readied for their final, fatal battle.

Dr Pollard’s accomplices have largely been recruited from re-enactment societies. For many of them, the event is both a challenge and bit of a craic – the chance to wallow in a little bit of history, and to meet with old friends as they march a round trip which is almost equivalent to a marathon in length.

There is a sense of cheeriness – leavened by Mr Deveney’s Maltesers – and when a helicopter flies overhead, there is a gale of laughter when someone shouts “It’s OK lads – it’s one of ours.” Some of the men discuss “the joys of kilt”, which, over long distances, run to chilly knee caps and an unpleasant chafing sensation around the groin.

Culloden, though, remains a sombre place, believes Dr Pollard, who has studied this wild stretch of moor land for the last ten years. Visitors become “hugely emotional” when they step on to the field which marked the end of Stuart claim on the throne, in the last battle fought on British soil.

“I’ve visited battlefields all over the world, but there is something special here,” says Dr Pollard, who is based at Glasgow University. “There is a growing trend for people to have their ashes scattered at Culloden. You can see the white ashes blowing around the graves. The battle was the end of an era, there’s no going back. People can come here and say ‘That is where it all happened – the destruction of the clan system’. There is a lot of romantic nonsense spoken about it, but it is a powerful story,” says Dr Pollard.

Murray’s men finally gave up their attack two miles from Nairn. At 1am, after a 12 mile trek, the 21st century foot soldiers, exhausted by a sudden and unexpected yomp across a ploughed field, likewise turn back for Culloden.

Over the next hour, Dave Robertson, a former marine from Bewley, sprains his ankle and his carted off to hospital. Eight more of the “army” drop out with fatigue; another man is hospitalised with leg pains; and Dr Pollard himself has had to take two painkillers to ease the “chafage” under his kilt.

By the time they stagger back to Culloden battlefield at 5:30, only half of the troop have survived the night. “I was exhausted at one o’clock, and I completely understand why the Jacobites threw in the towel,” says Dr Pollard, still hobbling through the pain. “That ploughed field sapped morale, and the group began to break up. On the way back, the road just kept getting longer. I stopped giving a damn about anyone – I just wanted to get back.”

High casualties, low morale, exhaustion: no wonder Prince Charlie’s army was so terribly defeated. But at least Dr Pollard has proved that each and every one of those original Jacobite marchers had an iron constitution.

Read the story online and in the past tense in today's Times: Culloden in the past tense.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

"There is a sense of quiet over the city"

They were roustabouts and drillers, managers and technicians. The oldest, David Rae, was from Dumfries, a 63-year-old grandfather, who had already had told friends he wanted to retire. James Costello, of Aberdeen was one of the youngest, just 24, a computer planner with his life in front of him, “one of the industry’s brightest prospects,” according to his boss. As early as dawn yesterday it was clear that all 16 men had died in an instant, when Bond Super Puma AS 332L Mk II came down in the North Sea, 14 miles north east of Peterhead.

These lost lives brought a jarring stop to the communities of north east Scotland, where self-image and success are intermingled with North Sea oil and gas. Eight of the dead came Aberdeen and towns close to it, places such as Oldmeldrum and Kintore; all had worked out of the city.

Assistant chief constable, Colin Menzies, had noticed an eerie stillness as he walked through streets from police headquarters to be at the harbourside as the first bodies were brought ashore at a little after eight o’clock.

“There was a sense of quiet around the city,” he admitted. “We are used to seeing and hearing helicopters in the sky every few minutes over Aberdeen and it has been like that for the 30 years. Most either know somebody who works in the offshore industry or have themselves been involved. This really is close to people’s hearts.”

The first cortege had made its way through the dock gates before the sun had even risen over the harbour. A lone police motorcyclist led out the briefest of processions from Albert Quay. First a hearse. Next, a black van, wearing the livery of a local undertaker. And at the rear, a second hearse.

By the bleakest of ironies these bodies had been brought ashore by the Caledonian Victory. Just six weeks earlier, the support vessel’s rescue craft had plucked 15 men, alive and well from the icy waters off Peterhead, after another Super Puma helicopter, flying in thick fog, had ditched into the North Sea. Another three men had also been saved.

What then had seemed to many “our miracle of the Hudson” – a reminder of the Airbus A320 that ditched in New York in January with no loss of life – had brought a moment of unbelievable joy, shared by police, coastguards and rescue workers.

This time, when the Caledonian Victory’s bow doors opened dockside at 4:30am it was these selfsame officials who faced bleak and unenviable tasks. Identifying and preparing the dead for the short ride to the city mortuary; interviewing rescuers who had found the corpses bobbing up and down on a calm sea; screening off the harbourside with tarpaulins to keep prying eyes out of the most sombre business.

As the identities of the dead leaked out, so did the details of their lives. Stuart Wood, who worked for Expro, was a keen footballer and a “great personality”. At 62, Alex Dallas, had only just moved to Aberdeen for his job – his neighbours already admired him as “friendly and sociable.” Bill Munro of Bond Helicopters, paid tribute to the “dedicated” and popular young pilots who had died, Captain Paul Burnham, 31, and co-pilot Richard Menzies, just 24.

At the 12th century Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting, a book of condolence was opened in a chapel dedicated in 1990 to the oil and gas industries. A steady steam of signatories came to pay their respects.

Donald Wood, a teacher at Aberdeen University has been friend with a Bond Helicopters pilot who was killed to years ago. He said he wanted to show solidarity with the workers who risked their lives everyday. For others, the grief was just as immediate. Mary Rose, a receptionist at Canadian Natural Resources, whose North Sea headquarters overlook Aberdeen harbour, had felt almost too close to events. There was a realisation among all her friends that the men she worked with every day could be cut down at any time. “The mood is sad,” said Mrs Rose. “Everyone at my work realises that they have probably worked with these guys. But the men I’ve seen today are realistic, they have to be. They go to work in these helicopters, they go to do their jobs.”

Reverend Andrew Jolly, the chaplain to the oil and gas industry, had watched this dignified procession of visitors. Like A former army chaplain, even that experience could not prepare him for Tuesday’s events. Easter, he hoped might bring faith in resurrection and eternal life, but he acknowledged the crash was a test of faith.

“When you are part of a community you feel the pain and sorrow when something like this happens,” said Reverend Jolly. “Whether you are on-shore or off-shore, you feel it. Aberdeen has taken the oil and gas industry to its heart. We all feel this pain.”