May 112022
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘The Spirit of Banffshire’.

I think it was filmmaker Tom Weir who said that in order to have a future, we also need to have a past. He went on to say that the task of recording the best of Scottish history shouldn’t be made too easy.

After all there were lots of false prophets and folk with political agendas.
But Tom, bless his soul, was only partially correct. The preservation of the best of Scotland can be made really easy.

You just need to throw open the barn doors and invite people to contribute their memories for all to see. And that is exactly what the Banffshire Memories Project has done.

A year or so ago, Andrew Simpson – Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire – sent out a call for stories about historic Banffshire and a shedload of tales flooded his inbox.

Compiled from these stories, in essence this is a book with around one hundred and fifty authors which is a dangerous game if ever there was one. But, unusually for such an ask, the finished product delivers pretty much what it says on the tin.

Compiled especially for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee the book celebrates the history and records the memories of ordinary folk who live and work in what is nowadays termed ‘Historic Banffshire’.

Nowadays in the hands of Moray and Aberdeenshire councils the old county boundaries may have gone, but the memories persist and the spirit of the old county lives on in the hearts of many residents to this day.

Spurred on by editors Andrew Simpson and Eleanor Gillespie, the project has enabled more than a hundred local authors to make it into print; many for the first time ever.

Now at this point I have to declare an interest since the volume includes a couple of my stories. But, in essence, my contribution is just a few paragraphs amongst a mass of tales penned by folk who maybe never imagined such celebrity.

First up is Nan Morrison who recalls watching the 1953 Coronation on a 12-inch black and white television.

“It had a lasting impression on all of us” she writes.

Helen Lyon recalls how Coronation Day in Aberchirder was a public holiday and how folk wrapped up in bonnets and scarves to watch the parade of floats which went around the town.

It was a wet and windy day and she writes that “some of the outdoor events were moved into the Memorial Hall”  and that the schoolchildren got souvenir pencils and mugs.

But its not all about the Coronation. There are memories from wartime and schooldays.

Tarlair art deco swimming pool gets a mention, courtesy of Nan Morrison, and Ann Dean writes about Scalan.

Now, I knew, or thought I knew the history of Scalan. But Ann’s tale is not about the training of priests. It centres around the tale of Sandy Matheson. He worked the place until 1981 and is remembered as perhaps the last Tomintoul link with hand sowing, reaping and stooking.

I could go on. But in the big scheme of things, this is a must have book for anyone even remotely interested in the local history of North East Scotland.

Co-edited with Eleanor Gillespie, Andrew’s book marks the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen with profits being donated to charities associated with those members of the Royal Family who have visited Banffshire over the past seventy years.

Highly recommended. Five stars. Eminently readable.

Fully illustrated (197pp) , The Spirit of Banffshire is available by emailing: Banffshirememories@gmail.com (£12 plus £2.50 p&p)

And from the Banffshire Field Club website @ https://banffshirefieldclub.org.uk/

ISBN: 9781800686670

Apr 142022
 

Mike Shepherd reviews “The Poetry Mannie: The Doric Poetry of Bob Smith, Edited by Duncan Harley.”

The Doric dialect is getting a lot of welcome publicity at the moment, not the least because of the efforts of the Doric Board who have supported the publication of this wonderful book of poems (which is yours for £6.45).

There is something particular to the Doric dialect that lends itself to poetry, even if the roll call for Doric poets is not that long.

Yes, I believe I know what that something could be. Having once been told that English is dismally short of words to express the subtleties of human feeling, and that other languages cope much better by comparison, I reckon this is why we Scots have filled in the gaps with highly-expressive dialect words.

Try, for example, translating the word ‘couthy’ into conventional English using a single sentence. That’s not easy.

And because poetry can be considered a vehicle for expressing the nuances of shared experience, Bob Smith’s Doric poetry certainly does that. To live in North East Scotland is to fully connect with the experience described in the following excerpts:

Saturday Afternoons at Pittodrie watching the League Cup.

A hunner and twenty meenits we did get
Yet naebody cwid fin the bliddy net
A penalty shoot oot wi did hae
Nae goals were scored fae open play

Saturday Nights.

Binge drinking quines – there’s nithing worse
They faa aboot an sweir an curse
Wi hurdies keekin oot their draars
They stumble oot o clubs and bars…

And that peculiar Aberdeen obsession with long-gone shops.

Did ye myn o’ Aberdeen Motors
Faar ye bocht an Austin “Devon”
Div ye myn o’ Isaac Benzie
Faar yer mither wis in heaven…

Or litter.

We hiv a problem in Aiberdeen
Keepin the bliddy pavements clean
Litter strewn fae pillar tae post
Plastic cups an half aeten toast…

To read Bob’s poetry is to laugh out loud, although his more serious poems do tackle subjects such as the bizarre doings of politicians and their chums in this part of the world, or the sublime aspects of nature, place, and landscape as per classical poetry.

Now you will enjoy this book so do buy it. And thanks to Duncan Harley, author of The Little History of Aberdeenshire and other books, for compiling Bob Smith’s engaging poetry.

Enjoy!

Dec 192021
 

Duncan Harley Reviews ‘North East Scotland At War’ 2 by Alan Stewart.

There are plenty of books out there which record the difficult years between the 1938 Chamberlain peace accord and the Soviet conquest of Berlin. Osborne’s ‘Defending Britain’ and Gordon Barclay’s ‘If Hitler Comes’ are the classics.
But this book is slightly different and there is certainly room for further historical accounts of the dark days when Hitler threatened our shores.

A year or so ago I reviewed Alan Stewart’s first book. Titled ‘North East Scotland at War’.

Five years in the making, the publication took a decidedly local slant and launched the reader into the minutiae of the defence of the North East against what was, for a brief few years, perceived as the Nazi threat.

The archaeology of those distant times was laid bare for perhaps the first time in a single local volume and various documents which record those difficult days inhabited the pages. At the time of publication, Alan was already working on Volume Two and that has now been published.
Relentless detail and an eye for wartime links to the North East of Scotland characterise this new book.

Subtitled ‘Events and Facts 1939-1945’, that is exactly what is contained in the text.

When reviewing book one, I glossed over the typos and the difficult grammar in favour of the content. In the big scheme of things, it contained shedloads of information gleaned from years of research and plus many previously unknown or forgotten stories.

Book two, I am happy to say, contains many fewer issues and is certainly worth a read.

Spanning years of research and containing many local wartime stories, Alan Stewart’s new book ‘North East Scotland at War 2’ will appeal to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the North East of Scotland.

Profusely illustrated and replete with a plethora of new information gleaned from both local and national records, this is a local history book which I am pleased to include on my bookshelves.

North East Scotland at War 2 – by Alan Stewart is available from the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen @ £21.99.

Cover image © Alan Stewart

Sep 282021
 

Duncan Harley reviews Slains Castle’s Secret History, a new publication by Mike Shepherd and Dacre Stoker.

Slains Castle on the very edge of the Buchan coastline is a widely misunderstood edifice and a confusion of associations with Dracula do little to explain the history of the place.
This new book by Mike Shepherd and Dacre Stoker is a gamechanger.

Readers of Mike’s previous books and followers of Dacre Stoker’s work – which includes Dracul, a Dracula prequel written in collaboration with J.D. Barker of Fourth Monkey fame – will already be aware of the Cruden Bay Dracula links.

But few however, will be aware of the true history of that Slains Castle we all love to associate with the Gothic Horror genre.

An extraordinary set of stories lie within these pages. Churchill visited as did Johnson and Boswell. The cutting off of the heads of dead Danes, an epic story of religious strife and a shambolic plan to surrender Scotland to the Spanish Crown inhabit this book. And the ‘tussle’ for the souls of the living takes centre stage.

There are tales of a French conspiracy to Anglicise Scotland and the role of the Earl of Errol in shaping Scotland’s future is explored in major detail. But no spoilers here.

This is in essence a history of Scotland as told through the lens of Slains. The castle itself dips in and out of the tale, and it’s only on page 197 that we get to the essence of the Dracula connection.

I would have preferred an earlier link if truth be told. And this perhaps suggests that the authors were conflicted in purpose. In part diary, there is however much to recommend in this book.

Spanning from 1164 to the present day, this take on the untold history of Slains is an important addition to the history, and the mythology, of North East Scotland.

With a foreword by Alan Hay – archivist of Clan Hay – Slains Castle’s Secret History, is published in paperback by Wild Wolf Publishing on 20th September and, if you’ll excuse the pun, is a book to get your teeth into.

Highly recommended. Five Stars.

Slains Castle’s Secret History by Mike Shepherd and Dacre Stoker.
ISBN: 979-8469387046

Jul 192021
 

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s latest publication, Long Shadows – Tales of Scotland’s North East.

Authors are told that when they write the blurb for the back jacket of their book they should focus on explaining what the reader will get out of it when they buy it.

So let’s apply this recommendation to Duncan Harley’s new book, Long Shadows. What will you get out of it?
You will be entertained for sure.

Duncan is a walking encyclopaedia of curious and interesting facts about everything that’s been written about Northeast Scotland.

If something extraordinary happened in your town or village, it’s probably in this book.

I can assure you that after reading it you will never dare repeat that ‘nothing interesting ever happens…’ in Buckie, Kintore, Ellon or the likes.

Now I do like quirky stories, and there is plenty in here to tickle the fancy – unexpected tales; little known tales. Take the story on page 54 about the artist Joseph Farquharson from Finzean.

In 1883, Farquharson painted The Joyless Winter Day which hangs in the Tate Gallery. It depicts a shepherd tending his flock in a raging Deeside blizzard. The execution of the painting was tricky because as Duncan explains:

“sheep cannot easily be persuaded to stand still.”

He adds:

“To solve this difficult problem, Farquharson commissioned a flock of life size plaster sheep from Monymusk born craftsman William Wilson of Kelly’s Cats fame, and used these to mark out the positions of the original live subjects in order to preserve the scene as the work progressed.”

The downside of all this ingenuity was that Joseph Farquharson ended up getting the nickname from his fellow artists of ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’.

Or the connection between the horror writer Stephen King and Buckie.

Did you know (a phrase you will find yourself repeating after reading Duncan’s book) that in the course of investigating a terrorist act in If It Bleeds, fictional private investigator Holly Gibney discovers that Buckie Academy is twinned with a bombed US High School.

The two schools take a mutual interest in each other’s local sports teams – Buckie Thistle thus picking up a small fanbase in a fictional part of the US.

Long Shadows comprises thirty-three chapters starting with Aberdeen and ending up with Turriff.

In between are tales from local towns and villages, or in one case, the forest at Lenabo where there was once an airship base during World War I. The airships would fly silently out over the North Sea scouting for German submarines to shoot up with machine guns. The story is laid out in chapter 22.

Now I do know about this. My paternal grandfather, who was too old to fight in the trenches, helped to build the Lenabo base. If that makes me sound ancient – be aware that both my grandfather and father became parents in their forties.

Having written this I now take a peek at Duncan’s back-cover blurb.

“In his two previous two books, Duncan exposed readers to an exciting mix of history and mythology. The intention of this new book is to expand greatly on these themes in an entertaining and informative way.

“Please enjoy these wee snippets of Scottish history and smile gently at the past. Long Shadows – Tales of Scotland’s North East is guaranteed to enthral both residents and visitors alike!”

I must agree.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it. It’s available on Amazon at a price of £17.95 and looks to be selling fast. Do buy it.

Jun 242020
 

Duncan Harley reviews Mike Shepherd’s latest book, ‘The World Makers – Who Gets to the Top and Why’.

At first glance Mike Shepherd’s new book might well appear to be a detailed instruction manual on how to reach beyond the greasy pole and become a super-achiever.

And, there is certainly a glut of content here to sign-post the ambitious.

Tales of Olympians, top scientists, infamous and not so infamous politicians, ground breaking engineers and innovative business leaders – over achievers the lot of them, inhabit the pages.

But, as Mike points out early on in his introduction, the ambitious amongst us will undoubtedly gain insight here but the tales within might actually deter them from ever trying to get there in the first place.

Described as gossipy by the author, this is certainly no dry academic tome and throughout the 300 or so pages of discussion there are dozens of entertaining and often supremely bizarre tales involving the unexpected aspects of human behaviour exhibited by the gifted few.

Mathematician John von Neuman – who worked on the Manhattan Project, could memorise entire telephone directories and seemingly was able to recall any of the entries on request.

Moroccan Emperor Moulay Sharif who fathered some 1,200 children. Heiress Evalyn McLean who took the art of gloating to new levels by parading the Hope Diamond on the collar of her pet pooch.

Henry Morton Stanley who rose from penury to prominence as the man sent by the infamous New York Herald press baron Gordon Bennett Jr to find the missing David Livingstone.

Churchill, who despite episodic attacks of the Black Dog and a fairly mixed early career, rose to some prominence in the 1940’s. And many many more.

A stoic belief in one’s own destiny, an obsession with achievement, intense ambition and on occasion an intense and incorruptible – as in the case of Thomas Plimsoll of Plimsoll Line fame, desire to do good all feature within these pages alongside much discussion regarding the nature of those single-minded achievers.

Throw in a bit of hubris and a measure of narcissism and you get the drift of this book.

Many of the featured hyper-achievers deserve to be celebrated but inevitably many others do not. Florence Nightingale certainly falls into the former category – for her achievements after the Crimean Campaign.

Saparmurat Niyazov – tyrannical dictator of Turkmenistan, resides firmly in the ranks of the latter. But no spoilers here.

At the core of the discussion though is the idea that these big ideas of those few in number super-achievers shape our world and, like it or not, the rest of us have to fit as best we can into the framework they create.

On an optimistic note Mike concludes that the folk at the base of the pyramid can usually rub along just fine with those at the pinnacle but tempers this with the brutal thought that the actions of those achievers, whom he labels world makers, might just be a little extreme.

He may very well be right.

The World Makers by Mike Shepherd is published as a Kindle Book (291pp) and is available from Amazon @ £2.99

Oct 142019
 

Duncan Harley reviews Tessa Williams’ ‘Hotels of the Stars’.

Months ago, at least it seems like it, I was sent a copy of Tessa Williams’ ‘Hotels of the Stars’. Described in glowing terms as featuring ‘A-list Haunts and Hideaways’ the book, amongst others sat amongst my pile of promised reviews.

Inevitably some never make it to the top of the pile and kindness occasionally precludes that promised review. In the case of Tessa’s tome, a bit of illness got in the way and now that I am much better, I thought it timely to pen a few words.

A journalist by trade she is no stranger to the content having spent a portion of her life penning for the likes of Marie Claire, Elle and Vogue.

There are no Holiday Inn’s or Travelodge’s here and nor should there be.

With an introduction by Albert Roux this book reveals the inner details of that cosseted world of the super-rich and those super-famous-folk who inhabit the likes of London’s Dorchester, Fort William’s Inverlochy Castle and L’Hotel Paris. Raffles, The Chelsea Hotel and the various Ritz’s also feature alongside The Rock at Gibraltar and that iconic Kempinski in Berlin.

Not that I have visited many of the establishments on this list, well maybe – The Balmoral – but, in the big scheme of things, after ruffling amongst these pages, I feel that I have at the very least an understanding of how the other half live.

Replete with quotes such as ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolates in one go’ – Truman Capote and ‘When I was growing up, I had three wishes. I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table’ – John F. Kennedy, this is much more than a coffee table trophy.

In all, there are around 37 featured hotels – each with a historical narrative. And each illustrated with iconic images to salivate over.

For my money, the piece featuring Claridge’s on P48 gives full flavour to the intention of this book. Alongside a descriptor ‘The hotel was also a home for the Hollywood Royalty … including Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant’, we learn that Spencer Tracy described the place in glowing terms:

“When I die I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.”

You really couldn’t make it up!

Hotels of the Stars by Tessa Williams is available from Amazon @ £35 in hardback.
ISBN-13: 978-1909399983

May 312019
 

A new book detailing Donald J Trump’s activities in Aberdeenshire launches next week.

Campaigner Suzanne Kelly, contributor of hundreds of articles to Aberdeen Voice over a period of nine years,  releases her book ‘Trump in Scotland:  The Real Real Deal’ on Monday 3 June.

Her book comes out one week before former Trump compliance attorney George Sorial and former Aberdeen Press & Journal editor Damian Bates release their book, ‘The Real Deal’.

Ms Kelly is known for breaking stories on Trump’s activities at the Menie Estate and for her campaigns against Trump’s honorary degree from Robert Gordon University, an award which was subsequently revoked. 

She also launched a petition to block Trump from the UK under its existing hate speech laws.  This was signed by 586,000 people – which was at the time the highest number of signatures on a Parliamentary petition.

She said: 

“I have reported on Trump’s activities in Scotland for many years and have heard first-hand from the residents and film maker Anthony Baxter on a variety of unacceptable events.  We’re talking about water lines being cut, security guards overstepping their remit, journalists being arrested, environmental monitoring simply being abandoned.

“I will have one or two revelations that are new, and a lot of the material may not be well known outside of Scotland:  but it should be. 

“This is a collection – for the first time – of a host of past and ongoing instances of organisations bending over backwards for the Trump brand, despite the promised jobs, tourism and local income never materialising.”

Suzanne Kelly on collapsed Trump course, 2012, photo by Rob Scott.

There are nearly thirty chapters covering different aspects of the Trump development, quoting a wide variety of sources.

“In the past I have invited Sarah Malone Bates, Trump spokeswoman and wife of former Press & Journal editor Damian Bates, to debate the issues with me in public.  That offer still stands.”

The book launches with a party at BrewDog Gallowgate from 4pm on Monday 3 June to which the public are more than welcome to attend. 

The book is published by Milhouse Publishers, and will be available on Amazon in paperback, e-book and audio book formats.

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Apr 112019
 

Mike Shepherd reviews Duncan Harley’s ‘The Little History of Aberdeenshire’.

Duncan Harley’s fascinating new book is described as a little history of Aberdeenshire, yet covers a 4,000 year time span from the Neolithic when peasant farmers built the stone circles that dot the countryside through to North Sea oil.

Along the way we read about battles, plagues and the arrival of the modern era when Aberdeenshire finally became accessible to the outside world: turnpikes, canals and railways were built.

This is anything but a dry and dusty history tome.

As with his previous book, The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire, Duncan throws in lots of quirky and curious facts to liven up the tale.

Did you know that the bulldozers building the Aberdeen bypass uncovered a whole load of new archaeological finds including ninety Roman bread ovens at Milltimber? That it took years to complete the monument to the battle of Harlaw near Inverurie, because of a reluctance to add the armorial shields representing the highland clans?

The expense involved was considered as ‘paying for the arms of the enemy’ (and this 500 years after the battle took place). The shields were finally added in 2011 for the 600th anniversary.

Or how about this? Stonehaven’s oldest building, the Tollbooth at the harbour, was severely damaged during the Second World War when an anti-shipping mine beached next to it.

These and many more nuggets make Duncan’s book an engrossing read. If you enjoyed Duncan’s first book or you are curious about the history of Aberdeenshire, then this is the book for you.

Highly recommended. 

Published by The History Press. £12.00 in hardback.

 

Dec 192018
 

Duncan Harley reviews ‘And I Am You’ – the new novel by Judy Mackie.

Layla is a splendidly timeless song penned by Eric Clapton and co-songwriter Jim Gordon of Derek and the Dominos fame.

Inspired by an Arabian love story – Layla and Majnun – Clapton’s song made 27 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and won a Grammy in 1993.

Clapton was of course in love with Patti Boyd – the wife of his friend George Harrison.

Clapton and Boyd would eventually marry for a few years and Layla – the song not the lady – would become ranked amongst the greatest rock songs of all time.

They all remained friends. In fact, Harrison attended the Clapton and Boyd wedding and gave his blessing to the unlikely pair.

Lyrics include the immortal lines:

‘Let’s make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.’

And now, some decades after the release of Clapton’s Layla, North-east author Judy Mackie, inspired perhaps by the lyrics, has penned a novel deeply rooted in those far-off but timeless events.

In this exquisitely penned Gothic tale a lonely lady, recently abandoned by a long-time lover, examines her life and finds herself in another person’s body.

Judy is of course well known for her stewardship and editing of Leopard Magazine and her love for all things North-east comes through strongly in this, her dark debut novel. And I Am You is set variously along the North Sea coastline with locations as diverse as Cruden Bay, the massive blowhole of the Bullers of Buchan and the tarry-sheds of Fittie.

Betrayed and abandoned by her husband and with a career in the doldrums thirty-eight-year-old academic Layla Sutherland longs to escape her shattered existence while half a world away, Australian journalist Stevie Nightingale is desperate to shed her identity.

A ground-breaking procedure developed by an Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Blunstone, offers both Layla and Stevie salvation in the form of not just an identity swap, but a full-blown body swap.

The eccentric professor has discovered a previously unknown portion of the brain which, when transplanted, offers the subject the possibility of switching bodies whilst retaining consciousness within the new host.

His discovery of the ‘Me Gland’ throws up both moral and ethical dilemmas but, in the true traditions of eccentric scientist tales, nothing can halt the pursuit of knowledge and once the taboo of using humans for experimental purposes is broken, there is ultimately no easy way back from the unspeakable brink.

“He’s not mad and he’s not evil,” says Judy,

“he thinks he’s furthering human knowledge.”

And I Am You, aside from being set in Bram Stoker territory, has all the elements of a contemporary Gothic thriller. A vast baronial mansion occupied by an obsessed researcher hides a secret hospital wing within sound of the Buchan coastline while two damsels in distress agree to help him crack the age-old secret of the seat of consciousness.

What could possibly go wrong and what might be the ultimate cost of tampering with our sense of self?

As medical ethics go out the window, Layla finds herself inhabiting Stevie’s body while retaining her own identity. Likewise, Stevie inhabits Layla’s body. At first all seems smooth and, alongside a practical exploration of the reality of the situation, elements of conflict creep in.

Layla for example meets up with errant spouse Calum, but in the body of the blonde-haired Stevie. Things, to say the least, become complicated.

Will Buller the dog sort out who is who? What will the subjects experience when, or perhaps if, the body-swap is reversed? Who, or what, is the mysterious stalker?

Blunstone makes clear early on that:

“Quite clearly, body swapping is not for everyone. But for those of a certain mindset the opportunity to occupy someone else’s body is surely the most profound experience a human being could have.”

As I raced towards the final pages of Judy’s novel, I began to wonder if the eccentric professor’s premise that body swapping is not for everyone might be slightly off the mark. After all, who amongst us hasn’t imagined what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes?

And I Am You – by Judy Mackie (289pp) is available for download from Amazon Kindle at £4.99