A wee walk

A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

A pretty perfect day

Is it possible to be wearing sweaty underpants you haven’t changed in three days, have legs itchy with two-day-old midge bites, have feet that ache, and to intermittently groan from exhaustion and still think you’ve had a perfect day?

If your answer is yes, then The Great Outdoors Challenge may be the event for you.

The previous day had featured a 17-mile walk, which turned into 20 miles when I couldn’t find the footbridge into Blair Atholl. I didn’t get to the campground in town until 10 o’clock, the end of nautical twilight, with just enough to raise a tent by.

I wanted an easier day when the sun rose.

The next morning I broke camp, left Blair Castle Caravan Park, and headed northeast up Glen Tilt.

Glens are river valleys; every river has one. Some glens are famous; one is even called The Great Glen. Glen Tilt, however, isn’t, especially famous. But it has everything of the best of them.

I walked briefly through the woods on dirt roads until I came to a sign welcoming me to the estate—the privately owned land—through which I’d be walking.

This was followed by a sign that had no threats of punishment or declarations of liability, and that assumed adults could behave responsibly.

The walk started out with a little history—a monument to the last public hanging on the estate, in 1630, that was erected in 1755. I didn’t visit the monument; it was too early in the day for a diversion. I wasn’t clear whether it was a celebration of capital punishment or of the end of it.The last public hanging in Scotland was in 1868, the last judicial hanging in 1963.

Soon after, I passed this sign. I knew from my route planning there was a gun range nearby, but I didn’t know whether it was a military installation or a recreational venue. It was the latter.

It wasn’t clear to me whether the path was closed after May 12 or just on May 12. As I pondered, a couple walked by without a glance. I stayed on the road just to not be a rule-breaker, but I ran into them two miles up the road. They said the prohibition was only for that one day.

The rivers that form the watery spines of glens are wide and big at the bottom of the glen, where they leave to join a larger watercourse or flow into a loch or reservoir.

They’re fed by streams (“burns”) coming off the hills.

Sheep were much in evidence, as we’re signs of previous inhabitants.

I roused this lamb from a lie-down in the middle of the road.

This one was all clipped and ready for the Westminster Sheep Show.

I passed the named destinations on the estate sign—Marble Lodge

and Forest Lodge.

Lesser buildings raised their brows to glimpse walkers on the gravel road.

The sun was out and it was warm, almost hot. On one side of the river was (almost) treeless luxuriance.

And on the other, signs of catastrophic wall slump and scree fall.

I stopped several times for water and gorp, and once for an unscheduled lie-down from which I awoke with the first deep snore. If I’d taken my boots off I would have gone back to sleep. But I got up and “cracked on,” as they say here.

I was going to stop at a place called the Falls of Tarf for the night.

There was a footbridge there from the days when bridges in the middle of nowhere were endowed with unnecessary beauty.

It wasn’t early, but it was still light. The place where I started the Challenge is 1 degree of latitude south of Juneau, Alaska. The place where I stood was only a little farther south—and the days we’re getting longer. So I decided to crack on to the next place with good pitches, the ruins of a lodge about 3 miles up the trail.

The shadows grew long and I grew tall.

A barely gibbous moon appeared over the hill.

I passed a section of the opposite hill that someone someplace undoubtedly thinks has a message left by space aliens.

The wonderful thing about walking up a whole glen is that you witness a basic lesson in geography. The farther up you go, the smaller the river becomes. Eventually it’s a brook, and then nothing.

I never have the presence of mind to look for the nothing. But I do notice when, all of a sudden, I’m walking beside a stream flowing in the opposite direction. As they say here, I’ve “gone over the watershed.”

Soon after I noticed that I’d reached my destination, one of Scotland’s “dangerous buildings.” Never was I happier to court such catastrophe.

I set up my tent, had chicken tikka out of a foil bag, and a wee dram of Old Poultenay.

Like I said, not perfect. But pretty perfect.


As noted, I picked this year’s route because I thought there was a good chance of meeting people along it. I have not been disappointed.

One’s reaction to chance encounters is usually “not enough” rather than “too much.” Of course, how could it be otherwise? Too much, then just walk on.

One also realizes there’s a big world out there in purpose and direction, not just identity and timing.

The first person I met on the trail was Hugh from Leicester. He’d done two or three crossings, was serious but not obsessed, fast. I wanted to know more of his story but I haven’t seen him since the morning after the first night when he was packing up beside the sea loch. I hope I see him again.

The next person I encountered was Mikhail. He was going in the opposite direction from me, so unlikely to be a Challenger. It turns out he’s Polish and headed to Cape Wrath, most northwest point in Scotland. Could there be a better named place?

There is no no single route to Cape Wrath, only headings. Mikhail was not going the whole way. He planned to get off the train closer to the coast but got impatient. He got off at Ft. William.

”I just decided to come on this way,” he said. He’s going to be out six days, no time to waste.(So much for meticulous route planning, which is the way of the Challenge.)

“It is so beautiful here,” he said in barely accented English. “We don’t have this at home.”

Not long after, I ran into two more men heading in the opposite direction from me. I was surprised to see that one of them was barefoot. He’s Roy, an Israeli. The other man is from France; I didn’t catch his name.

Roy said he was tired in walking in wet feet. You can see how small a “kit” ( as they call it here) he has. You can hardly see his backpack. He’s never been to the United States, but is coming next year to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—Canada to Mexico down the West Coast.

Roy plans to make Cape Wrath in 10 days, the Frenchman in 14. A chance encounter, they’ve been walking together for 36 hours, but will soon part ways.

Farther along, I met Jessica from Amsterdam. She said she’d just finished bathing in a pool of frigid, tannin-stained water in a stream the path crossed. She had a Garmin beacon like the one I’d bought. We agreed the instruction manual, in six languages, was no help, although she’d managed to figure out more than I (no surprise).

That night I had three fishermen as neighbors at the east end of Loch Arkaig. I was over a hump in the shoreline; I don’t think they even knew I was there. Their camp included an elaborately protected privy. This man was heading to it as I left.

This was the day I left the road and went up the hillside to get a cell signal so I could order a replacement keyboard from Apple.

(It’s arrived, but I can’t connect it despite following the directions, which are in seven languages. It’s a “magic keyboard”; all I wanted was one that worked. This is a disappointment but not a surprise; see “waterproof” boots in a previous post).

After a tiring day—the hillside was trackless and I had to walk along the fall line of the slope—I got to a forest road and started to look for a place to camp. I didn’t find one, but I did find a bird-watching blind the forestry company had put up.
There was a nice view, but no eagles.

I proceeded downhill to the lakeside, hoping to find an acceptably private stretch of shore. They were hard to find. I eventually rounded a corner and saw a tent on a patch of grass next to a rocky foreshore. Beyond it was a small peninsula that might have dry ground. A man and woman were sitting outside the tent.

“Would you mind if I looked for a pitch out there?” I asked.

“You on the Challenge?” the man asked. I nodded. He gave me a thumbs-up sign. “There’s room right here.”

The right here was right next to their tent. I hoped they weren’t on their honeymoon. I protested, then thanked them, then stepped off the road onto the patch of grass, and heaved off my pack.

He was Graeme Dunshire, on his 16th crossing. The woman was Liz, his longtime companion, whose last name I don’t know. She’s accompanying him for a week, not the whole Challenge, as she has commitments at home,

I was appreciative of their generous gift to me of their privacy. Before bed I gave them a bag of homemade gorp—quite tasty and famous among my outing friends—of which I had an extra.

Graeme and Liz turned out to delightful and helpful travel companions, even though we didn’t travel together. Graeme is a builder and joiner; he told me to look out for house he’d worked on that I’d pass that morning. I don’t know what Liz does.

The next morning they headed off before me. Soon after I started I met a man named Tim, also on the Challenge. We got into deep conversation and eventually got a bridge and waterfall that seemed like a good place to stop.

Graeme and Liz were there. Graeme graciously pointed out we’d missed a turn a while back that was going to take us on our route, which was different from theirs.

Tim and I turned around and got back on the right route. We walked and talked. It was a nice morning, intermittently sunny with no rain in the air.

I’d seen the designation for a museum coming up on the map and mentioned I’d like to stop. Tim was game , but more interested in coffee and ice cream, which he’d been told was on offer.

We got there before it opened and sat at a picnic table. Soon a car with two people appeared. Soon after so did Graeme and Liz, from a different way About 10 minutes before the official opening time a young man came out and said we could come in.

I thought the topic was going to be about commando and other World War 2 training that had taken place on the estate, but it turned out it was the museum of the Clan Cameron, whose home grounds we were on.

The Camerons have a complicated history I only vaguely understand. They were mortal enemies of a couple of other Highland clans, and supporters of the Catholic Stuarts and their attempt to reclaim the English and Scottish thrones in the person of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They struck me a bit like the Indians who fought on the side of the French in the French and Indian War.

The prince’s invasion and uprising failed, but that wasn’t the end of the clan. It spurred emigration and there are now millions of Camerons around the world. The museum is a bit of a Mecca for them. Here’s a map of the homes of Cameron-blooded visitors to it; they’re the black pins.

The commonness of Scottish ancestry in the U.S. and Canada is evident.

One of the visitors was another Challenger who looked like he’d stepped out of one of the paintings. (You’re hard core when you don’t even take off your pack.)

We all had some snacks and headed off in different directions.

Amazingly, a couple of days later I was coming down off a ridge to Loch Ossian. I saw two people heading toward me at a place where several trails converged.
They crossed a small bridge.

It was Graeme and Liz again, heading on a different route, but still eastward, of course.

Some people surprise you on the trail. I walked around a corner in a forest track and came across “the wee minister.”

A sign said a previous sculpture in metal had been destroyed in the 1970s. (No mention whether it had been an an act of God or man.) This was the replacement. I put all the coins in my pocket in his collection box. It’s supposed to be good luck.

There are fleeting companions. I thought I was in the middle of nowhere

when I heard a distant rumbling and in a few minutes this came by.

There are some companions you never see. I got to the foot of Loch Treig about 7 o’clock and really wanted to stop. It was drizzling. I looked around for a water source but couldn’t find one other than the loch, which required going across a swampy shore.

The person in the tent at the extreme left might have had an idea. But nobody came out as I walked around, and I didn’t want to disturb them, so I walked on.

There are people who you’d like to get to know better, like these guys taking a smoke break outside the village shop in Kinloch Ranoch.

The most memorable companions, however, are those with whom you share distilled accounts of important experiences and history.

Tim and started out with small talk about routes and equipment, as is often the case. His pack was on the bigger side of the bell curve, but nothing like mine. I asked how much it weighed. He didn’t know.

“I fill it with what I need and that’s the last I think about it,” he said.

We talked about tents, and the trade off between a light one and a comfortable one. He has a Hileberg, as do I—a Swedish beauty that used to be considered but, comparatively, is no longer. He bought his in the 1980s with the 50-pound inheritance his father, a coal miner in Nottingham, left him.

Tim’s father was one of “Bevin’s Boys,” named after Ernest Bevin, who was Minister of Labour and National Service during World War 2. They were young men persuaded (and some eventually conscripted) to go into the mines when Britain’s coal production lagged. He worked there for more than 40 years.

Tim went on a school field trip down into a mine when he was 15. He couldn’t imagine working there. Instead, he worked at the post office for more than 30 years before retiring a few years ago. He now does part-time maintenance and ushering at Albert Hall in Nottingham, and hospitality for the city’s football club.

Tim grew up in council housing and knew nothing about camping or hillwalking as a child. But he knew he wanted to see Scotland, so he took a trip there when he got out of school at age 17.

“I would look up at the hills and say to myself, ‘I wonder what it’s like up there.’ I had no idea you could actually go up on them.”

In Braemar, he met an Australian couple from Melbourne. David was a printer and Caroline was a librarian. He talked with them and they told him they spent the free time and money they had traveling the world, seeing things and going to places they never get to unless it was a specific intention.

“I never realized you could live a life like that,” Tim said. “It had never occurred to me it was possible.”

After that, Tim started hillwalking. He corresponded with David and Caroline and they invited him to come to Australia, which he did for one of his holidays in the 1980s. About 10 years later, he took unpaid leave from his job and went again, for a couple of months.

“One of my mates at work said, ‘What are you doing taking unpaid leave.’ I was 33. I told him, ‘I’ll never be this age or this fit again. I’m just going to go’.”

Tim does hillwalking when he can. He belongs to an outdoor club in Nottingham.
He’s 56 and this is fourth Challenge. His aged mother is looking after his dog while he’s on this one.

I asked him if David and Caroline are still alive.

“Yes,” he said. “They changed my life.” His eyes filled with tears. I asked if he still kept in touch with them.

“Yes,” he said. “They’re coming over in June.”

Knockin’ on Knoydart’s door

”It’s better to be chicken than stupid.”

That’s what my inner guru told me when I woke up at the Morar Hotel the morning of the start of The Great Outdoors Challenge, 2024

Morar is the toughest starting place on the west coast—steep, without trails or tracks for the first two days, with cliffs you’re tempted to get close to for ease of passage. I’d been encouraged to plan an alternative start in case I didn’t feel ready for it on starting day.

It was raining when I got up. I was hoping to meet some other Morar-starters in the hotel, get advice, and insinuate myself into their climb for the first two days, but there were none there.

Morar is reputed to have the most beautiful and isolated views on the west coast, but rain was predicted for at least a day so I wouldn’t be offered them. I’d purchased a find-my-crippled-body GPS beacon from REI (for $400) two days before I left Baltimore, but didn’t want to be so inhospitable as to use it.

Excuses? Of course.

I didn’t feel comfortable—I was too scared—to leave alone from Morar. So I took the train to Mallaig, seven minutes to the north.

I started from Mallaig on my first Challenge, in 2014. It didn’t seem like old hat going back there.

Mallaig is a fishing village of about 850 people and about 50 active boats. Both numbers are greatly reduced from the old days. The herring—the main catch—are gone. Now the boats go after langoustines (large shrimp) and mackerel, among other species. About 3,500 farmed salmon are stunned, bled, and shipped out of Mallaig on trucks each day, too.

One of the deckhands was Alastair MacKellaig, 69. He made and sold ice for 40 years, retiring nine years ago and taking his current job. Mallaig isn’t what it used to be, he said.

“Some of the boys would make 500 pounds a week when the herring was here. They bought a new car every year. The fishermen’s wives redecorated their houses twice a year.”

The ferry serves several villages on the jagged coastline, mostly carrying tourists. There were a half-dozen Challengers on the boat. They’re not hard to spot—white, gray-haired, and dressed in orange.

Our destination, 45 minutes away, was Inverie, at the edge of what was once a 17,000-acre estate.

There’s a lot more tourist activity there now than 10 years ago. Before our packs were unloaded there was a bucket-brigade to take crates of vegetables, bags of potatoes, flats of berries, and boxes of pastries ashore.

The Old Forge, a watering hole where Challengers sometimes grab a last pint before heading off, wasn’t opened yet. There was a coffee shop doing brisk business. I stopped there for coffee and a scone. Another patron offered to take my picture as I maneuvered for a selfie.

It was raining lightly. It was time to walk. I headed out of the village up a dirt road that, like so many, has a meticulously built stone wall along it. There aren’t many places in the world where moss grows this luxuriantly.

I was going up and over some hills, with my destination the end of a “sea loch,” a long fiord from the Atlantic Ocean. It would be about 2,400 feet up and 2,400 feet down, sea level to sea level.

Here are a few views looking back. In one are two ancient graveyards near an old house and some new ones.

Soon I came upon something I remembered from 10 years ago. I’ve seen a number of these in Scotland—monuments that aristocrats have built to themselves.

This is the Brocket Monument that was put up by Arthur Ronald Nall Nall-Cain, the 2nd Baron Brocket, in honor of his father. (My question: why not go for the hat trick and be Arthur Ronald Nall-Nall Nall-Cain?)

The second Baron Brocket was an unsavory figure. Here is Wikipedia on him:

Brocket became known in society as a Nazi sympathiser.[3] He became a committed member of the Anglo-German Fellowship, and his homes were used for entertaining supporters of Germany. Brocket, who considered Minister for Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop a close personal friend, was so enamoured with Nazi Germany, he attended Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration in Berlin in 1939 . . .

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Brocket continued to work for an understanding between Britain and Germany. He urged a negotiated peace settlement and tried to arrange talks with Hitler . . . However, Brocket was informed that the proposal to grant Germany control over Poland and Czechoslovakia was not acceptable to the British government.[5] Brocket was interned at the outbreak of war and his properties sequestrated by the War Office . . . The house and estate was taken over by the British Army when Brocket was interned; it was used to train commandos . . . After the war, the British government returned ownership of the estate to Brocket. He ordered that anything which might have been used or touched by [commandos] removed from Inverie House; all the cutlery, crockery and toilets were dumped in the sea at the mouth of Loch Nevis.

He was kind of an extreme version of Lord Darlington in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.”

The rain came and went, never hard. Mist blew in and out, obscuring the tops of the hills and then revealing them. The path became a freshet of its own. It wasn’t full immersion until the end when I had to go through sphagnum bog, but my feet got wet pretty quickly. What did I expect? My boots were “waterproof”; it says so right on the inside next to the water stains!

I passed a ruin, but didn’t take time to explore it.

The deer can spot you from great distances. I guess that’s why they’re still around.

In the far right corner is the bog I had to walk across. And because the tide was in, I then had to go over the end of the land, not around it on the shore.

I finally got to Sourlies, the camping spot. There was a bothy, but it had three people in it, and in any case I preferred to sleep in a tent. I pitched mine next to a man named Hugh, who’d overtaken me late in the afternoon. (We’d chatted for a while.)

It had been a long hard day. (And, alas, one of the shorter ones!) I was in a beautiful place. This is a view out of the tent a little after 10 when I went to sleep.

Notice to readers

All is well except for a wee visit by Murphy and his law.

On my first night out sitting in the tent I fired up the iPad mini and wireless battery keyboard to get started and discovered the keyboard had broken overnight. I’d used it at the Morar Hotel the night day before.

I tried changing batteries, putting the batteries in the wrong way, banging it, and tonight, four days later, trying just-bought batteries. Nothing worked. I’m kissing it goodbye and binning it tomorrow.

Figuring it was truly broken, yesterday I deviated somewhat from my route to see if there was a cell signal higher up the on the hills. (I’d been walking along a loch.) There was.

So, for 90 minutes I did research and calling and managed to place an order for a new keyboard from the Apple store in Glasgow. It will be delivered at an (indoor) stopping spot in three days’ time.

This is where I placed my order.

All of this is to say that the posts will be coming slowly, and they will be heavy on pictures and light on narrative arc for the next few.

I hope you’re still around when verbosity is born anew.

The start

On departure morning, everyone at Wildflower Hall—Deborah and Paul Richard, and me—arose a bit nervous, hearts beating faster, with one of us (me) casting around for an escape route in the deep recesses of the mind.

I joked it felt like I was packing the car and being driven to college by my parents before the start of freshman year. Actually, it’s more like going to sleep-away camp for the first time, except that that didn’t bother me in the slightest.

It’s interesting how when you get old everything changes except your adolescent fears.

But before we leave, let me show you a little of Wildflower Hall.

Deborah and Paul have owned it for 25 years. For most of that time they’ve split their time between her and Washington, about 1/3 and 2/3. Paul was the art critic for The Washington Post, Deborah an event planner whose events include the annual Kennedy Center Honors (which she still helps run).

This is Paul. Deborah didn’t want her picture taken.

It’s a hundred-year-old house (added onto, of course) that sits on a hillside outside the village of Colintraive, in Argyll. It overlooks the Y-shaped meeting of two fingers of Atlantic water that reach many miles into the west coast of the country. This junction is called the “Kyles of Bute.”

Bute is an island just across the way. It’s fully inhabited—monks lived there when the Christian Era still had only three-digit dates—and now has three cheap and beautiful golf courses, several towns, a small population of Syrian refugee immigrants, and a restored castle tower, built in 1500, that just went on sale for $581,000.

One gets from Colintraive to Bute on one of the shorter car-ferry trips I’ve been on—seven minutes. It’s at the narrowest passage between the two pieces of land. Until late in the 1800s, cattle drovers would swim herds of cattle across the water at low tide on the first leg of a long walk to markets in Falkirk and Glasgow.

Colintraive has a “heritage center” in the village, about a mile from Wildflower Hall. Wall displays summarize the last thousand years, and old farming and fishing equipment fills an adjacent room. When I was there, a couple was exclaiming delight in finding forebears in the laminated copies of census records from the early 20th century.

There’s a community “poly tunnel” garden and a bowling pitch, with no action in either when I was there.

However, there were things to do on this visit other than check out the local attractions. Chief among them was stuffing my stores of freeze-dried food, gorp, and topographic maps into three padded envelopes and sending them to places I’d be passing through so I could restock. (Even without them I’m heavily laden.)

Deborah and Paul drove me an hour to a Scotrail station at Arochar & Tarbet, for a 9.38 a.m. train. It was not two hours late, it was not full to standing room, and it was not raining—all the case when I was here two years ago.

Four hours later the train pulled into Morar.

The one hotel is full and there was a party of 40 at dinner tonight, so I guess Morar isn’t the backwater it once was. Still, there can’t be more than 25 houses here.

It was low tide in an estuary that reached in from the Atlantic. It was time to run dogs and throw balls on the mudflats.

The mud, like the dry land, has lots of mountains.

I walked up a hill (on steps) close to the hotel. At the top, a Catholic parish had erected (and replaced at least twice) a large cross. It commemorated “a very successful mission” by the Redemptorist Fathers in 1889.

My interest, however, was getting a view of what I was in for.

The problem was that the GPS route on the navigation app on my phone didn’t look like what I was seeing. I won’t go into the details of the confusion, but it was considerable.

As noted in an earlier post, Morar is the hardest place to start from, with two days of trackless walking on the top of a craggy bench with steep sides. It’s potentially dangerous for a solo walker, which is why I’d like to talk to one of the seven other people scheduled to start here. However, none of them are staying in the hotel, the front desk man tells me.

If I don’t leave from here I’ll leave from Mallaig, five miles up the road, which is the starting point for about 60 people.

Either way, you won’t be hearing from me for at least four days. It’s three nights of “wild camping” (as they call it over here) before I get to electricity and the internet.

By then my decision will be old news. And I hope not “news.”

A few more thoughts on Covenanters

On the cab ride back to Cumnock from Priesthill Farm, where I’d visited John Brown’s grave, the driver pulled off the road.

”You see to the left of the telegraph pole, way out there?” he said, pointing out the window. “There’s another one.”

I could barely make out an obelisk with a conical top. It rose out of a rectangular enclosure, much like the monument at John Brown’s grave.

The Airds Moss Covenanter Memorial, which he was pointing to, marks where 112 English troops and about 60 Covenanters encountered each other on July 22, 1680. (The place name denotes a kind of bog.) Twenty-eight soldiers and nine Covenanters were killed, including their leader, the Reverend Richard Cameron. Five wounded Covenanters were taken to Edinburgh and hanged. Cameron’s head and hands were cut off and shown to his father, who was in prison there, and then publicly displayed.

Cameron’s fighting spirit was much admired. A regiment of Scottish infantry called the Cameronians was formed. It fought around the world for the next 279 years until it was disbanded in 1968.

The Covenanters are still heroes here. There are dozens of monuments to them. Many are more than two centuries old, tended by the Scottish Covenanter Memorials Association, established in 1966 three centuries after the fact.


Covenanter memorialization isn’t big business and there can’t be many Covenanter tourists (although I suppose I’m one). Local pride counts for some of it. But the bigger reason, I believe, is that people realize they represent something worth remembering.

The Covenanters bear a resemblance to the maquis, or French Resistance fighters, and the Italian partisans of World War II, although they were not nearly as violent. They were a living, voluntary statement that not everybody will go along with the demands of an occupying force.

True believers that they were, they kept up their opposition for more than two decades. Hundreds of people died in what was known as “the Killing Time,” roughly 1667 to 1688. John Brown was just one of the better-known victims.

The English army routinely executed without judicial proceeding Covenanters taken as prisoners in armed encounters. Most killings, however, were for religious and political crimes, including worshipping in secret “conventicles” or refusing to swear that the king was head of the church.

In the spring of 1685, two men, David Dun and Simon Paterson, were arrested by Highland troops in the employ of the English as they were returning from a conventicle. They were taken to Cumnock (where I’m staying), and shot. When Dun’s sister, Margaret, came to town to inquire after her brother she was shot, too. Nearby, in coastal Wigtown, two women (one a teenager) refused to swear religious allegiance to the king. They were taken to a cove at low tide, tied to stakes and left to drown as the water came in.

Alexander Peden, who performed the marriage of John Brown and his second wife (and predicted his martyrdom at the wedding), was the movement’s Mandela-like figure.

He spent time in exile in the Netherlands. He was imprisoned for four years on Bass Rock, Scotland’s Robben Island off the east coast. In 1678, he and 60 followers were sentenced to banishment to the “American plantations.” When the American captain of the ship that would carry them learned their crimes were religious he refused to take them aboard. Peden escaped to Ireland.

In 1686, six weeks after Peden died (of natural causes) back home in Ayrshire, a “troop of dragoons” exhumed his body and brought it to Cumnock. They planned to display it on the village’s gallows, but were dissuaded. They reburied it there instead, which was itself an insult. The Cumnockers responded by turning Gallows Hill into the village graveyard, making it hallowed ground.

And then in 1688, William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant, became king of England and Scotland. Two years later, Scottish Presbyterianism was accepted by the Act of Settlement. The Covenanters had won.

I walked around the Cumnock graveyard the morning after I visited the John Brown monument and before I took the train back to Glasgow.

Here is Alexander Peden’s gravestone, and a monument to him.

And the shared grave of David Dun and Simon Paterson—obviously a recent replacement for one no longer legible. Remember them!

The Covenanters were not tolerant people. Like the Puritans, they were religious fanatics. The Puritans were so intolerant that in 1690 they hanged one of their own, Mary Dyer, when she converted to Quakerism and refused banishment from the Bay Colony. Her statue stands in front of the State House in Boston, a permanent reminder of shame.

Like the Puritans, the Covenanters had an armature on which a new, more tolerant society could be sculpted once religion had been stripped away.

That society has become America.

With millions of descendants, the tens of thousands of Scots-Irish descendants in the United WP have an even better claim on being the progenitors of American democracy than the Puritans.

They resisted authoritarian rule. They refused to swear oaths of allegiance. They died (and occasionally fought) for self-rule in both church and civil matters. They had common dedication to principles. They eschewed elitism and hierarchy more than most people of their time. As the Alexander Peden monument says, they resisted “the graft and rage of power.”

In seeking freedom from several forms of oppression, they paved a way for the enshrinement of several forms of liberty beyond that of religion (thank you, Thomas Jefferson), although obviously not enough (see: Jefferson, above).

In important ways, the Covenanters’ personality and principles have bred true to the American present.

(“If we can keep it,” as Benjamin Franklin warned.)

John Brown the Martyr, Part 2

I took a cab from my hotel in Cumnock to the entrance road of Priesthill Farm, two miles north of the village of Muirkirk. It was a 15-minute, 40-pound trip. This is Ayrshire, 40 miles south of Glasgow—the Scottish Lowlands.

The farm fields are bright green with new growth, the moorland still mostly brown. Wandering across both are sheep—ewes with lambs a few weeks old.

John Brown was “of Priesthill” in the historical accounts of his life and death. He had a few animals (more likely cattle than sheep) and planted a small amount of ground, but almost certainly didn’t own land. Priesthill was probably a hamlet of a few houses. There’s a house with barns there now, but nobody appears to be living in it.

This is the part of the Ordnance Survey map–the U.K.’s topographic service–showing Priesthill in the right upper quadrant, and beyond at the end of a trail the “Martyrs Grave.”

When you stand in a particular place, particularity comes to mind. Who was this John Brown?

Not a lot is known. He was born in 1626 and wanted to become a preacher, but a speech impediment prevented that. He became a “pack-horse carrier,” ferrying goods to market for people, and bringing things back for them–a FedEx driver in a place with no roads. His religious devotion gave him a name, “the Christian Carrier.” His first wife died. He almost certainly spoke Scots, a variant of Middle English. (Gaelic was restricted to northern Scotland and the islands off the west coast.)

He was married to his second wife by a famous Presbyterian preacher and seer, Alexander Peden, who ruined the wedding festivities by telling the bride: “You have got a good husband . . . keep linen for a winding sheet beside you; for a day when you least expect it, thy Master will take him from thee.”

That day was May 1,1685, when John Graham of Claverhouse and his mounted troops caught John Brown cutting peat. They brought him to his house, where his seven-year-old daughter told her mother what had happened. When Brown refused to agree to attend Anglican services, he “kneeled down and prayed loud and fervently, in words that appalled the soldiers,” the author of the 322-page genealogy of his descendants wrote.

Graham ordered his troops to shoot him, but they refused, so he drew a pistol and did the deed himself. A man of curiosity, he then asked Brown’s wife, Isabel, what she thought.

“I always thought much of him, but now far more than ever,” she’s said to have said.

Graham didn’t like the answer. ” ‘Twere but justice to lay thee beside him.”

“If permitted, you would do so,” Isabel observed. “But how will you answer for this morning’s work?” He mounted and rode off with his troops.

If even half of that is true–or a quarter–it’s still a hell of a story.

On my day at his grave, the sky was overcast and misting enough that water droplets eventually formed on my eyeglasses. It was chilly, too, but the walk was mostly uphill, so I got warm enough to unzip my jacket halfway.

I expected to find the monument and grave on high ground, but it wasn’t. It was across a ravine with a step-over stream running down it, and halfway up the other side. It appeared out of the mist like a navigational beacon on an ocean of grass.

Up close, it looked like a pale and startled corpse had sat up in its coffin to look around.

One account says that Brown was buried where he was shot. That means he would have been buried outside his front door, which seems unlikely. The grave also didn’t seem like a good house site; I suspect the family lived on the high ground where uphill path finally leveled off.

Brown’s grave is inside a stone enclosure. (The size and cut of the blocks testify to what people thought of him.) A stone slab lies on the ground.

Its inscription is unreadable, but fortunately someone recorded it in a drawing. It features an acrostic that reads from top to bottom “IOHN BROWNE,” or JOHN BROWNE in modern orthography. (I don’t know why there is a variant spelling of the last name, which is spelled correctly elsewhere on the stone.)

I can’t say I understand the acrostic, but the inscription around it is comprehensible.

Here lies the body of JOHN BROWN martyr who was murdered in this place by GRAHAM of Claverhouse for his testimony to the Covenanted work of Reformation Because he durst not own the authority of the then Tyrant destroying the Same, who died the first day of May A D 1685 and of his age 58.

That’s 339 years and three days ago.

The monument was added later (in 1826, to be exact). Time, water, and lichen have rendered it nearly indecipherable, too.

At the corners of the stone enclosure are the remains of hardware that might have been grommets for a covering or anchors for a fence. One piece has rusted so that it looks like a miniature lion threatening anyone who’d even consider disturbing Brown’s bones.

This is his spirit’s view each day. (I took a picture of the two of us.)

And then it was time to go.

I walked back to the road, never to return, as his wife and children had. Two of them eventually came to America. The wisdom of crowds being what it is, they probably walked down this very path.

John Brown laid down his life for his religion, an act that’s gotten a bad name in recent decades. (Personally, I think the world could use less of it.) But that’s only part of what he did. He showed courage. He remained calm. He eschewed violence. He died for principles.

A few other people who did those things when circumstances called came to mind.

Nathan Hale, the American patriot hanged by the British at age 21. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before Germany’s defeat. Jean Moulin, a leader of the French Resistance tortured to death by Klaus Barbie in 1943. Arrigo Paladini, an Italian partisan who, like Moulin, revealed nothing under torture, and escaped execution only because the truck taking him to the killing grounds wouldn’t start on the day the Allies entered Rome (June 4, 1944).

Almost nobody has heard of John Brown, the “Christian Carrier,” Covenanter, martyr, but he’s in their company.

I’m sure his shade couldn’t care less. However, I do. Who doesn’t thrill at learning there’s a hero in the family? Who doesn’t hope that, somehow, long-ago courage breeds true to the present?

There’s little chance of that. In fact, there’s a 37-percent chance I share no genes at all with John Brown, my seventh-great grandfather, or his brave wife. Statistically, I should inherit 0.2 percent of my genes from each of them. But linkage events during meiosis can lead to unequal segregation of genes, so my inheritance may be 0.0 percent.

If that’s the case, John and Isabel Brown’s contribution to me is homeopathic, so dilute that only the vibration in the solvent–the “resonance,” as homeopaths call it–remains.

The funny thing is: that’s enough.

I stand on ground calcium-rich from his dissolved bones and listen to his words, the demand of the officer, the pistol shot, the crying of his wife and children, the retreating hoofbeats, in silence.

I’m grateful to be called one of his descendants. That’s plenty.

John Brown the Martyr, Part 1

Today I’m going to visit the grave of John Brown, an ancestor on my mother’s (not my father, Bruce Brown’s) side of the family.

My parents visited the grave 50 years ago. My sister, Ellen, and my second cousin, Michela Nonis, also visited it when they were 16 years old and traveled alone through the British Isles. (What a different world we live in today!)

I’m interested in history, and family history, and I want to see this grave before I’m in one myself.

So who was John Brown?

For starters, he’s not from the Brown side of my family, although he’s certainly from the Brown side of many Brown families. He’s an ancestor of my mother, Sally Jane Mosser, whose mother was Dorothy McCormick—whence the Scottish lineage.

When an ancestor is a martyr it’s tempting to think of him or her as a reasonable person, or at least someone committed to a laudable creed. I have no idea how reasonable John Brown was, but his religion was an unappealing one.

At the time of his death, Scotland was a “nation governed by a harshly repressive Kirk [church bureaucracy]; a nation of unforgiving and sometimes cruel Calvinist religious faith; of trials for blasphemy and witchcraft; of a cranky, even perverse contrariness in the face of an appeal to mercy or reason or even the facts,” wrote historian Arthur Herman in “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” (2001).

The restoration of the Stuart line after the Cromwell interregnum threatened this world.

The British monarchy had resumed its efforts to control worship, and in particular to force people to attend Anglican services. The people who refused were known as “Covenanters.”

The name came from a document that circulated for signatures in 1638.

“The National Covenant was more than just a petition or declaration of faith,” Herman wrote in his book. “It was the Presbyterian version of democracy in action. In the name of true religion, it challenged the king’s prerogative to make law without consent, and affirmed that the Scottish people would oppose many change not approved by a free General Assembly and Parliament.”

By a half-century after the Covenant was written, however, many Scots were tired of chaos. They submitted to the British monarch’s required worship.

“The new church was greatly detested, both as superstitious and foreign; as tainted with the corruptions of Rome, and as a mark of the predominance of England,” wrote the author of a genealogy called “Matthew Brown,” a leather-bound book published in 1900 that meticulously (and, for me, thankfully) describes the direct descendants of one grandchild of John Brown the Martyr.

“Disastrous wars and alien domination had tamed the spirits of the people, and there was no general insurrection, and a majority of the people, with many misgivings of conscience, attended the ministrations of Episcopal clergy,” the author wrote.

But not John Brown.

He and fellow dissenters gathered in isolated places, often outdoors, to worship. They brought edged weapons, and sometimes guns. The practice was most prevalent in the western lowlands, south of Glasgow. Priesthill–an ironic name for the place where Brown’s hovel stood–was in the middle of Covenanter country.

“Hunted down like wild beasts, tortured, imprisoned by the hundreds, hanged by the scores, exposed at one time to the license of the English soldiers, abandoned at another time to the mercy of bands of marauders from the highlands, they still stood at bay in a mood so savage that the boldest and mightiest oppressor could not but dread the audacity of their despair,” wrote the genealogist.

(That’s compelling writing for an obscure author, whose name was Robert Shannon. ” Audacity of despair”–that’s even more memorable than “audacity of hope.”)

The persecution was so great that John Brown had to give up his occupation as a carrier and intermittently go into hiding.

He was cutting peat at his holding when English troops came for him on the morning of May 1, 1685. Their leader was John Graham of Claverhouse, who later became a Jacobite hero, killed at 41 in the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. To Covenanters, however, he was–and still is–a merciless enforcer. He’s the Klaus Barbie of what was known as the “Killing Times.”

This is a depiction of Brown’s death from the book “The Scots Worthies” (1844).

A more dramatic rendering is entitled “The Martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill, 1685,]” by Thomas Duncan (1807–1845).

When Brown was killed his household consisted of his wife, Isabel Wier; a seven-year-old daughter, Janet, whose mother was Brown’s previous wife; and a two-year-old son, John. Isabel was pregnant with a boy, James, born later that year. Brown was 38 or 39; his wife’s age is unknown, but she was presumably younger.

How long she and her children stayed in Scotland is unknown. What’s certain is that a decade after John Brown’s death, life in Scotland became even more difficult.

Starting in 1697, the country had three harvest failures in a row. Tens of thousands of people died in what became known as the Lean Years, which ended in 1703. “For an already impoverished and sparsely populated country of fewer than two million souls, the 1690s set a benchmark of collective misery and misfortune Scots never approached again,” the historian Herman wrote.

Brown’s survivors eventually immigrated to the “Province of Ulster” in Ireland, which is now Northern Ireland. It’s believed that Isabel remarried, but if she had more children they’re lost to history.

Her sons James and John, with their families and some friends, immigrated to America in 1720. (John’s wife delivered twins at sea.) They settled in Pennsylvania about 10 miles southeast of present-day Harrisburg on Swatara Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

John, the older brother, had seven sons and no daughters, and James, the younger, had six sons and no daughters. This is one of many reasons why Brown is such a common name in America.

Whether my father’s Brown ancestors, who emigrated from England much later, have kinship with this line of Browns seems doubtful. But I haven’t investigated.

What’s certain is that my mother, Sally Jane Mosser (later Brown), is descended from John Brown in two ways. Her mother, Dorothy McCormick (later Mosser), was descended from the Martyr through both her mother and father.

Dorothy’s mother was descended from Jean Brown, one of John Brown’s great-granddaughters. Her father was descended from Mary Brown, Jean’s older sister and also a great-granddaughter of the martyr.

(Dorothy’s parents had John Brown as a direct common ancestor, but technically they weren’t in a “consanguineous” marriage. That requires a second-cousin or closer relationship of the husband and wife, which they didn’t have.)

What’s interesting is that the descent of John Brown’s “blood” took three generations to reach Dorothy through her father’s line, but only two generations through her mother’s. It took three generations for Mary Brown’s descendants, but only two generations for Jean’s, to reach the 1850s—which is when Dorothy’s parents were born.

The reason is that in the maternal line the blood link was carried by children born near the bottom of the birth order in large families, while the paternal line descent was carried by people born at the top or middle of the birth order. The paternal-line descendants started farther back in time; it took an extra generation for them to get to the 1850s.

To be precise (non-family can skip this paragraph) Jean Brown’s descendants of my grandmother were from the later-born of several generations. Jean was the 5th of 8 children, her daughter Martha 11th of 12, and her daughter 7th of 10. In contrast, Mary Brown–Jean’s sister–was 2nd of 8; her daughter Hannah was 1st of 10; her son was 4th of 6, and his son was 5th of 8.

One of Jean Brown’s granddaughters was Margaretta Hill, born in 1854. One of Mary’s great-grandsons was Horace Greeley McCormick, born in 1850. They married and were my maternal grandmother’s—Dorothy’s—parents.

Like most married couples, they were roughly the same age. But in their case they were genealogically a generation apart when it came to one particular ancestor—John Brown.

This out-of-sync descent blood yields an unusual result.

The Martyr is both my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (“sixth great-grandfather,” as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., would say) and my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (“seventh great-grandfather”). You might ask, how can that be? If you chart a family tree, it’s just what happens.

John Brown the Martyr may stand out in my family history, but he’s only a face in the crowd. I—and you—have 256 sixth great-grandparents, and 512 seventh great-grandparents. That’s so many it’s hard to think of them as relatives. But they are.

Tomorrow I’m going to stand over the bones of one.

Six times, I hope

I’m back in Scotland to once more to spend two weeks walking from the west coast to the east coast of the country.

Why, you might ask?

I’ll answer only because I’ve asked myself the same thing.

There isn’t an overarching reason. But among the top few is that it’s a physical accomplishment still possible (at least I think so) in my early 70s. That can’t be said for running a marathon or swimming across Chesapeake Bay or climbing Mt. Ranier (which I never did)—all of which I might still be capable of doing, but for which I lack the willpower. I still have the willpower to walk across Scotland.

The sense of accomplishment lasts a few weeks—a bargain.

The Great Outdoors Challenge was my “discovery,” with a major assist from Roger Hoyle, and lesser assists from Kathy Lally and Will Englund, who introduced me to Roger in Moscow in the fall of 2013. So, I feel proprietary about it.

The people who do the event—“Challengers”—are energetic, talkative, and modest people with interesting stories to tell. They speak English and tend to be old. They inspire and are pleasure to tarry with.

The Challenge is the only perfectly run event I’ve ever been around. The coordinators who run it (and the other volunteers they impress to help them, and us) are models of selfless and thoughtful devotion to a complicated enterprise. No corner is cut, no detail is overlooked. Watching it unfurl each year is both education and entertainment. It’s the way things should work.

Scotland is beautiful, and Scottish people friendly.

Going away for most of May also prods me to finish things. After a career of nail-biting deadlines all I do now is bite my nails and break self-imposed deadlines.

However, in the two months leading up to this event I hosted two of my oldest friends for a five-day visit after talking about it for 20 years; did a three-day volunteer program in a prison; made arrangements for two home-improvement projects to be done while I’m away; pitched a complicated story to a reporter; drained the hot tub; finished planting the vegetable garden; and (hours before I left) mulched two saplings.

I should go away more often.

That said, whether I go away to do this again next year is uncertain, which I know I’ve said before. It may be time to walk across Ireland, or around Wales.

However, I definitely wanted to come back one more time so I could visit a monument to a long-ago ancestor, John Brown (who interestingly is not from the Brown side of the family). He was shot in cold blood by the religion police, which in 1685 were also called the army.

Just this afternoon, as I waited at a bus stop in Auchinleck to go the two miles to Cumnock, where I am now, I chatted with a woman with three face nails and an accent that was hard to understand through. She asked why I was here. I told her “to see the John Brown monument at Priesthill.” “I’ve been there,” she said. “Very pretty.”

That’ll be the subject of the next two blog posts. Grab a drink and buckle your seatbelt.

Which gets me to my route for this year. (Despite what I’ve said, the Challenge is all about the route. But that’s a blog post in itself, which you’ll be happy to know I won’t write.)

This year’s route is not inspired, and not even very new. I’ll be traversing some unfamiliar territory, but also a fair amount that’s old. The route is also soft—eight nights of camping and five nights of staying indoors. But it has something to recommend it: I’m sure I’ll meet people.

Two of the five crossings I’ve done were at the edges of the permissible territory. In one I met no Challengers in 13 days; in the other only a few. This time, I want company.

Here is my route for this year.

It’s the barely perceptible pink line across the middle of the map. The discerning eye will note there are two start points, and two initial routes, on the left (western) end of the walk. The more southern starts at Morar, which leads to an unusually difficult first two days. The more northern is starts at Inverie after a ferry ride from Mallaig. It is easier and safer two days. I haven’t decided which one to take.

My pack (“rucksack” over here) weighed in at 41 pounds when I left Baltimore. There will be repacking and mailing of items, but I’ll be lucky if it’s less than 40 pounds when I take off.

It contains (among other things) 2 pounds, 11 ounces of wind shirt, rain pants, rain jacket, puffy jacket, mittens, hat, and scarf; a 4-pound, 14-ounce bombproof tent; 3 pounds, 5.1 ounces of sleeping bag and pillow; and 5 pounds, 14 ounces of electronics. The clothes, toiletries and first-aid materials, and other things I haven’t weighed.

I also have 7.7 pounds of gorp, which will be 13 days of lunches. (With some to share; it’s famous gorp.) I’m going to divide the gorp and mail most of it, along with varying numbers of freeze-dried meals, to pick-up spots where I’ll stop along the way.

That repacking will be done at the home of my friends Deborah and Paul Richard in Argyll, on the west coast. The British-made freeze-dried meals I ordered have already been delivered there. The Richards have, once more, agreed to be my final-days’ hosts and logisticians, as they have for four of my five Challenges. They’re also terrific company and I’m lucky to have them as friends.

I can’t resist adding some random facts I learned a few months ago.

In the buildup to the Normandy invasion, most American troops left from Glasgow and nearby Greenock to go to the southern coast of England, whence they left on D-Day. In “The Guns at Last Light,” the third volume of Rick Atkinson’s magisterial trilogy about the U.S. Army in Europe in World War II, he reported that 100,000 American soldiers arrived in Scotland in April 1944 alone.

The combat load of the average rifleman shipping out of Scotland was 68.4 pounds, Atkinson wrote. (That included a life belt.) The recommended weight of kit for assault troops going ashore in France was 43 pounds.

I’m carrying less than them. And that’s the only comparison I’ll make.


From The Washington Post, September 30, 2022

Some cities have a past that is beautiful in the present. Old buildings and public spaces effortlessly become tourist attractions long after their reason for being has disappeared. Venice is like that. So is Paris.

Other cities carry their past into the present as an unavoidable burden, sprucing up their edges with beautiful things, new and old, to distract attention. Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, is one of those. So is Baltimore, my home.

I spent most of a week in Dundee last spring while doing archival research in St. Andrews, 13 miles to the south across the River Tay, Scotland’s longest river. Every day I commuted to my hotel — 40 minutes by bus — in a “real” city, as I had between Washington and Baltimore for 22 years.

And I came away a fan. More than a fan, actually. When I left, in my breast was the defensive love felt by people who stumble into has-been cities and stay, as I’ve done in Baltimore for more than half my life.

Dundee, like Baltimore, is a city whose great days are a century gone.

It has a world-class industrial past, and a vast inventory of vacant industrial buildings in the present — like Baltimore. Both cities have a dominant and oppressive building material — red brick in Baltimore, and in Dundee a local sandstone that can’t make up its mind whether it’s tan or gray. As in Baltimore, some of these buildings — wonderful ones — have been repurposed, like the hotel I stayed in, an old linen mill.

Both cities have signature culinary products — crabs in Baltimore and marmalade in Dundee. Both have a lot of litter. Both are defaced or decorated with graffiti, depending on your taste. Dundee has the highest crime rate of cities in Scotland while Baltimore ranks third in the United States.

Where does one begin to learn about Dundee’s history and heart? Luckily, for a tourist, there is a place.

It’s called Verdant Works, a former jute mill in a part of the city known as Blackness. (Dickens couldn’t have come up with a better name.) Once the employer of 500 people, the mill is a keyhole through which most of Dundee’s history can be descried. Unlike many factory museums, its story is made vivid by docents only one or two generations removed from its inescapable clutches.

But before we spend an afternoon there, let’s look around.

A vibrant maritime history

Dundee is a port on the Firth of Tay, the place where the river widens into a tidal estuary before entering the North Sea. It was built on trade, and for many centuries it was Scotland’s second most important city, behind Edinburgh. Its maritime past is telegraphed in street names (Chandlers Lane, East Whale Lane), stone workshops along the waterfront, a compact Maritime Trail where its piers and shipyards once stood, and a small collection of historic ships.

Of the last, the most notable is the Discovery, a three-masted sailing vessel that also had a steam engine. Billed as the first ship designed specifically for scientific research — there was no iron or steel within a 30-foot radius of its “magnetic observatory” — it was built in Dundee in 1901 and owned by the Royal Geographical Society.

The Discovery’s most famous voyage was a four-year trip to Antarctica featuring two of Britain’s legendary explorers — Robert Falcon Scott, the captain, and Ernest Shackleton, the third officer. Visitors are allowed to go almost anywhere on it. (In that regard it’s better than Baltimore’s estimable Constellation, built in 1854 and used to catch slave traders, among other tasks.)

On the pier next to it is V&A Dundee, an offspring of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Like its parent, it’s dedicated to design, decorative arts and performance. Opened in 2018, the V&A is the antithesis of Discovery — no vertical lines in view, and clad in what looks like a grate from a pier. But it’s just as interesting, with a wonderful collection that includes a salvaged tea room from Glasgow that was designed by Scotland’s art nouveau genius, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The ship and the museum are the most visible pieces of a 30-year, nearly $2 billion development project along five miles of waterfront.

A 15-minute walk inland is the McManus, a gallery and museum that’s a good place to see art and artifact telling Dundee’s story. That includes eras as Britain’s most important whaling port; a textile and shipbuilding center; and, in the second half of the 20th century, the British home to American companies, including Timex and National Cash Register.

As in Baltimore, Dundee’s shipyards and factories eventually closed. (The city lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1980s.) Like Baltimore, it’s now trying to cobble a future out of tourism, biotech and lots of little companies.

There’s a lot to see in Dundee’s environs, including castles and archaeological sites. But if you have time for only one stop, make it Verdant Works. The museum stands in for the more than 100 jute mills that once operated in Dundee and employed, by the late 1800s, 40,000 of the city’s 170,000 residents.

The jute era


It’s a fiber made from the middle layer of a 12-foot-high grass that grows mostly in India and Bangladesh. Its closest competitor is hemp.

You make burlap from jute. From burlap (in the old days) you made the binding of cotton bales and sacks for coffee, cocoa, sugar, potatoes and lots of other things. Woven tighter, it became cloth for tents and the covers for artillery pieces. War was good business for jute. In one two-week period during World War I, 150 million jute sandbags were shipped out of Dundee.

Ian Findlay

So how did a city on the North Sea come to process fiber grown in South Asia?

In the 1700s, Dundee developed a linen industry, importing flax from the Baltic states and other high-latitude countries where it grew. By 1840, the city had overtaken Leeds, in England, in the production of coarse linen. The Crimean War (1853-1856), however, interrupted the flax trade.

Dundee’s industrialists realized they had the knowledge and labor to process, spin and weave other fibers. Imperial Britain had access to a flax alternative growing in its colony, India. Add a little time and Dundee became the jute capital of the world.

A small thing that made a big difference was Dundee’s whaling fleet. At some point the mill managers discovered that washing the raw fiber in a mixture of 90 percent water and 10 percent whale oil made raw jute less likely to snag in fast-moving machinery. This 10 percent solution was enough to keep Dundee’s whaling industry alive 50 years longer than in almost anywhere else in the world.

‘Only show in town’

The first docent I encountered at Verdant Works was Ian Findlay, a 73-year-old retired civil servant. His mother’s mother was a jute weaver. His father’s mother was a jute spinner. His father’s father was a maintenance engineer in a jute mill.

“It was the only show in town, to be honest,” he said.

On the factory floor I met another man, Iain Sword, also 73, whose jute pedigree wasn’t as long. His father left school at 14 and was a jute salesman, mostly to the carpet industry, his whole life.

Sword had been a banker around the United Kingdom before retiring to Dundee, his hometown. He was a jute Wikipedia, and no apologist for the mill owners. He told me that when Britain finally required public education, Dundee mill owners successfully petitioned to be an exception. They got permission to employ “half-timers” — children who’d work 30 hours a week in the mill for minuscule pay and go to school for half days only. They were so good at crawling under machinery and pulling out dust and fibers!

Iain Sword

In fact, 70 percent of mill workers in Dundee were women and children, who were paid less than men. The city was known as “She Town” and was the first place in Scotland where jailed “suffragettes” went on hunger strike. It was also full of men raising children and drinking too much.

In part as a consequence of these conditions, 63 percent of Dundee’s eligible men fought in World War I, where they were slaughtered in droves. A battalion known as “Dundee’s Own” sent 423 men and 20 officers into battle at Loos, France, in September 1915. All but one of the officers were killed, as were 230 enlisted men. The McManus has a spectacular painting of two dozen Dundonians — that’s what the city’s residents are called — standing in the ruined landscape after another battle, Neuve Chapelle. The painter, Joseph Gray (1890-1962), had been a newspaper artist in Dundee; everyone in the painting is identified.

“Working conditions were just very, very hard. It’s very difficult to think of what life was like,” Sword said, between explanations of how various pieces of machinery operated.

A glimpse of that life, however, comes through in a remarkable piece of public health research published by the Royal Society of London in 1886. The authors were three men — Dundee’s health officer; a chemist at University College in London; and a second scientist from that institution, J.S. Haldane, who would become the most important respiratory physiologist of his generation.

The team took air samples from tenements occupied by mill families — 29 one-bedroom and 13 two-bedroom dwellings — and from 18 dwellings of four or more bedrooms occupied by middle- and upper-class families. They measured temperature, carbon dioxide (a product of respiration and a measure of crowding), as well as “organic matter” (basically dust), and bacteria and mold.

“The samples were taken during the night, between 12.30 A.M. and 4.30 A.M.,” the scientists wrote. “The houses were visited without warning of any kind to the inhabitants, so as to avoid the risk of having rooms specially ventilated in preparation for our visit. In every case but one we were most civilly received.”

The average number of sleepers per room in the one-room flats was 6.6; in the two-room ones, 6.8; and in the houses of four or more rooms, 1.3.

At 52 pages, it’s a long and complicated study that highlights the dramatic effects of crowding. Compared with four-room houses, one-room ones had air with twice as much carbon dioxide, four times as much dust and seven times as many microorganisms.

The most important data, however, was provided by Dundee’s health officer.

The death rate of children was four times higher in one-room tenements than in four-room houses. Residents living in one room “have the chance at birth of living only one-half as long as those in better-class houses, or they die nearly 20 years sooner, on the average, than those of the better class.” At this the scientists couldn’t restrain themselves: “This is an enormous difference.”

Other research found that teenage boy mill workers were 4½ inches shorter and “a stone lighter” — that’s 14 pounds — than rural teenagers in Scotland.

Haldane’s more famous son, mathematician and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, later said of his father: “His experience of the Dundee slums may not have made him a radical, but it kept him one.”

What Dundee needs is its version of New York’s Tenement Museum, or even Baltimore’s modest Irish Railroad Workers Museum, to bring these conditions to life.

The jobs leave

Jute mill owners eventually found a way to make even more money: They moved the business to India, closer to the fiber’s source. Dundee lost a whole industry, much of its culture and untold thousands of people. Before, it had been a place where a boy with mechanical aptitude could advance — even if he left school at 14. “The loss of the textile industry pretty much led to the loss of all that,” Iain Sword told me.

But remnants of the jute trade are still visible in Dundee, if you keep an eye out. Passing a trash-strewn factory yard early in my visit, I saw at the far end a sign over a door: “Drivers should not stand under slings while bales are being hoisted.” Jute bales — compressed rock-hard to save space on shipment from India — weigh 400 pounds.

The city is also full of concert halls, parks, pools and other public amenities that might not exist but for the barons. They gave generously while mercilessly exploiting their workers — like Andrew Carnegie, a Scot whose wealth paid for more than 1,500 libraries in the United States.

Verdant Works shows this story and doesn’t just tell it. The exhibits are clever and moving. Physical objects butt up against photographs of people doing work with those same objects. You feel as if you’re in a diorama or onstage in a play. Mural-size photographs make faces larger than life. You can’t help pondering the individuality of the people staring at you.

It’s a place to feel the beating heart, and the stony heart, of a city.

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