Friday, 14 September 2018

Katag MacLeod, Swordale, 1929 -2018


Katag MacLeod, Suardal

Sometimes my father would lift a packet of sugar and remind us that the two pounds he held in his hand was the weight Katag MacLeod (Katag an Nìonag) had been when she came into the world.

Born in an age before the NHS, Katag’s premature arrival in April 1929 left her with skin so translucent that all her mother Lily, my great-aunt, could do was cover her in olive oil and swaddle her in a shoe box. 

The sugar baby turned out to be a real fighter.

Katag, our neighbour, our cousin, a second mother to the village children of Swordale, was buried this week, aged 89, having borne many trials and illnesses with great dignity.

She was a strong woman, Katag, and life made her stronger still.

At a young age she lost her two half-brothers within weeks of each other, Murdo (3/11/39) and John MacKenzie (23/11/39 on the HMS Rawalpindi. Norman MacLeod, 25 Swordale, was also lost along with six other Lewismen on the ship ). They were among the first naval losses of WWII. Murdo Iain ("Fred", 19 Swordale) is named after them.

Her elder brother, Iain Dan, emigrated soon after the war. Katag was left with her younger sister,  Mairi, to comfort their mother and father, Donald MacKenzie. 

She was married herself in 1966 to the boy next door, Kenneth MacLeod, “Am Bowan”, and presented none of that tragedy to the world.

They were a fun-loving couple who indulged all the village children.  Katag and Bowan introduced us to cassette tapes, to war comics, country and western music and mail-order catalogues.

She was brilliant photographer, casually taking her Kodak to the peat banks, breaking the convention that photos had to be formal. These were the pictures of we 'd pore over for longer. She leaves a great photographic legacy of village life.

Katag loved innovation, and new gadgets. A few years ago, I showed her the camera on my mobile phone and we took her first selfie. Though her eyesight was fading, she immediately wanted an upgrade to her own basic mobile.


Katag and Bowan had no children but as youngsters we couldn’t appreciate that particular pain, we just benefited from how they turned it into love for us all.

Nephews from Seaview,  and from Kyle of Lochalsh, who would spend the summer at 19 Swordale, expanded our horizons and became part of our village. Katag carried that bond with young people across generations to her grand nephews and nieces.   

In 1977, when Bowan was only 54, he collapsed on a Sunday night on their kitchen floor, having suffered a heart attack, leaving Katag a widow for the next four decades.    

Am Bowan, my father’s best friend from childhood, died cradled in his arms. They had volunteered for the Royal Navy together, my father accepted for wartime service, Bowan rejected either because he was colourblind or lied about his age, possibly both.

Even if he was too young, even though the village was reeling from the loss of Katag’s brothers, he still wanted to volunteer. They were a remarkable generation.

The MacLeods were generous in every way.  Bowan gave Aonghas Dhòlan (Angus MacKay, No 16) his first sheep, allowing the young boy to choose the best ewe from his flock - if he could hold it down. I still have Bowan’s trademark black work beret, which Katag gave to me.


One evening Bowan gifted my brother a pocket watch. Dòmhnall was so enthralled that the next morning he sat, half awake, staring at the watch face while blowing his nose with a handkerchief. Still dozy, he threw the watch instead of the hanky into the open stove. I suppose it’s safe to tell that one now.

The village came out for Katag’s funeral on Tuesday.  Aonghas Iain Eachainn (20 Swordale) pointed out in prayer and in tribute how she was a cornerstone of the village family.

Between showers we carried the coffin to the graveyard and laid it beside Bowan’s headstone.

A heavy lift,  the men said, which is a way of saying it was no bother at all. Swordale will miss Katag, the sugar baby, who was so light in life.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Salmond's £80,000 warning to Sturgeon


From my Daily Record column

Of course he has the money to pay for it. Court actions are for the rich and no one bothers the Court of Session without the wherewithal to put money where their over-extended mouth is.

So Alex Salmond is pulling a stunt in crowdfunding his legal action against Nicola Sturgeon’s Government over how her civil servants handled sexual harassment complaints levelled at him.

In crowdfunding campaigns, sums can be quickly raised by a few generous backers funnelling donations through micro-contributions. In turn, the naive and devoted part with their small amounts of cash and an impression of popular support is created.

Raising a populist £50,000 (now £80,000) is a banker for Salmond – and not just a financial one. It is a symbolic show of strength warning the SNP, Sturgeon and Scotland not to trifle with him.

It demonstrates he has a substantial well of loyal support should the ride get any rougher than it already is.

Salmond has, typically, taken a massive risk in ending 45 years’ membership of the SNP, jumping before his protege came under irresistible pressure to push him, with all the internal party rancour that would cause.

Already there are signs these divisions may just be delayed, not avoided. It is why Salmond hitched his money appeal to the lodestar of independence, a cause bigger than any individual, he said (subtext, but not bigger than me).

But if Salmond closed the door on his own membership, then his dream will have died.

The whole situation is a nightmare. For Salmond, who cannot address the complaints against him, for Sturgeon in a stomach-churning fight between political expediency and personal morality, and for the women whose harassment complaints are sidelined in this spectacle of legal distraction.

Having had the courage to come forward, they will go through hell wondering if the process and substance of their complaints will be legally undermined and their credibility shredded.

Salmond’s fight for “fairness”, as he labels it, only serves to telegraph to them, and us, what forces are stirred when women choose to cross a powerful man, as he undoubtedly is.

With his connections to the ruling party and his well-deployed ability to command media attention, the former first minister is wrestling for the conductor’s baton. The police and the law courts must play in this unwilling orchestra, and the strings connecting the village web of political, legal and civic Scotland are tuned up too.

This weekend, we lament the passing of my former paper, the Sunday Herald, launched as the Scottish Parliament first convened, at a time when things could only get better.

In the years since, Scotland has become a toxic and divided polity where allegations of sexual harassment are viewed through a “for us or agin us” prism, where MPs air state conspiracies and connections appear out of thin air.

In the early days of the Sunday Herald, we attempted to map out the real links between politics, law, media and the PR industry in cosy village Scotland.

It is perhaps time to draw that map again. For the least edifying aspect of the last week is how influential commentators, with a stake in currying favour with the ruling party, attempted to shield the First Minister from media scrutiny under the guise of concern for the complainants.

Sturgeon could deal with this situation in no other way except the way she has. The rules apply to everyone regardless of status. But the rules of politics are incontrovertible too and this scandal has the potential to consume her premiership.

Sturgeon, by her own admission, had three meetings with her mentor at which the situation was raised and has questions to answer, personally and publicly.

What Sturgeon knew, and when she knew it, is only the beginning of it.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Runrig - the parting glass

From my Daily Record column

So that was what Liam Clancy meant with “the parting glass”.

When Malcolm Jones raised his guitar for the last time, when the emotional rip current caught him, it really was “soraidh leibh”, goodbye to Runrig.

The unassuming Malcolm, always more attentive to his guitar work than the applause, was most affected by the crowd at the end of Saturday’s final gig.

Don’t worry Malcolm, in the dark, under the ramparts of Stirling Castle, there were many tears.

Younger readers will find out later, but a great trick of ageing, I noticed on Saturday, is that everyone stays the same when the 45 year soundtrack of our lives is played. 

Like the “sìthean”, the little people, Runrig on stage still looked like the boys from the village hall, the ones who took their music to the world.

Lifelonrg friends spooled by with the songs. There was Iain “Smithy” Smith, a born for the stage musician, whose mandolin drove Donnie Munro’s evergreen set. 

Great that Donnie was given his due, that Gaelic threaded every minute, that Gary Innes’s accordion echoed of the late Robert MacDonald, of Blair Douglas, of the ceilidh chords that set Runrig on the way.

When I recorded Seumus Heaney’s paean to Sorley MacLean he said the Raasay bard saved Gaelic poetry in the 20th century and so saved the language forever. Quite a claim but, you know, poets.

That honour now belongs to Calum and Rory MacDonald, the band’s soul brothers, whose music ensured Gaelic’s recovery. Their authentic Highland charm was ever the secret tune of Runrig’s success.

Where these boys led with song, others followed with words and deeds, pens and policies. 

Without that 1970s “Runrig generation” we’d have been drinking a parting glass to Gaelic long ago.

Some of them were there on Saturday, forever young, dancing like the fairies, toasting the joy of a wedding, not a wake.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Holding on to the Trump rollercoaster


From my Daily Record column today

 The Westminster press corps at Chequers, the hat didn't help get me question

AS we sat in the baking sun at Chequers, watching Theresa May’s white-knuckle podium grip while Donald Trump freewheeled through the world order, it struck me we’re only a quarter of the way through.

Not a quarter of the way through the press conference. Believe me, we journalists didn’t want that one to end.

No, depressingly, it struck me we are a quarter through a Trump presidency.

Close up, this guy is a phenomenon, an unstoppable force, who will stand and win again in 2020.

Barring impeachment - maybe the 12 innocent Russian spies aren’t so innocent - or personal calamity, nothing will stop The Donald’s second term.

That will be eight years - and many afterwards to clean up after him.

Victory looks inevitable. Trump won on populism against a toxic, elitist opponent the last time. “Crooked Hillary” stuck with voters. We could be in for the same kind of re-run.

Left-leaning senator Elizabeth Warren is trying to forge alliances (Trump calls her “Pocahontas” as a slur on her claims of mixed heritage). But rich Democrats seem to think Trump can be fought from the centre ground which, as we know, is gone.

When people look at British polling and wonder why Labour aren’t 20 points ahead of the shambolic Tories, I say look at it the other way.

Labour, with their most left-wing leader ever, seemingly determined to taint British socialism with anti-Semitism, are polling within touching distance of power.

In Scotland, a party with a prospectus for Brexit 2.0 chaos rest on the belief that separation will magically insulate us from global storms.

That represents a lot of anger against a broken system, where voters despair and political campaigns blithely cheat their way through the democratic process.

But Trump is better at stirring his base to anger than the liberal left are.

In one week in Europe, he slotted old allies as foes and cuddled up to a kleptodictator, selling the pass on the Middle East and his own intelligence services, until he remembered he had mis-spoke.

In Helsinki, the architecture of the world was re-arranged, nothing less, the post-war consensus dismantled in front of our eyes.

We are only two years in. People say we are rushing back to the 30s but we will sooner be in the 2030s, where “fake news” and instant, emotional politics will make democracies easier to sway.

The antidote must be as radical and counter the political darkness with optimism, of course.

There was quite a bit of that, and tremendous humour, coursing through the thousands who marched against Trump in Edinburgh, where I went on Saturday.

The homemade banners were hilarious. “Yer Maw” was my favourite.

But the mistake the left make is not to take Trump seriously, to see him as a balloon buffoon.

He’s not. He’s astute and cunning. When he plays the media, as he did at Chequers - charming down one side of the aisle, brawling down the other - he has four decades more expertise than any of us.

After a weekend full of Trump, I went to see Paul Simon play in London’s Hyde Park, to be reminded of another, more beautiful America.

I swayed with the baby boomers as they bade farewell to the balladeer of plaintive songs, goodbye to their blessed generation. It’s going to get harder for their grown-up kids.

He’s not much given to political pronouncements, Paul Simon, but he’s profound enough for me.

“Strange times,” quipped the poet and the one-man band during his last encore, and we all knew what he meant.

He added, quite simply: “Don’t give up.”


Friday, 13 July 2018

Dear Mr President - a letter to one island son, from another

Here's my Daily Record letter to Donald John, whose mother hails from the Isle of Lewis, as I do.


Dear Mr President, 

Welcome home, or fàilte dhachaigh, as they would say in Tong, the village that was birthplace of your mother and my own.

There will be great celebrations in the island village today.

The dish towels will be nailed to the fence posts, flying as flags, but not because a prodigal son is back on native soil.

It’s not all about you.

You see, there is a wedding in Tong today, a beloved daughter of the village is getting married.

She happens to be a cousin of mine, but that doesn’t mean we’re all related on the islands. It just shows we value relationships and know who our family are.

It’s a great shame Donald John, that you didn’t keep up your Scottish island connections, or the values of compassion, co-operation and tradition of welcoming exiles and visitors typical of these small places. 

It’s perfectly understandable how you have to give international publicity and promote commercial interests on your private golf course in Ayrshire, now secured in perpetuity at the expense of the British taxpayer.

Who wouldn’t want to play a round of golf with pals, rather than pay tribute by visiting their family home. 

When you took your oath as the 45th President of the United States your hand rested on Lincoln’s Bible and below it, I gather, the Bible your mother gave you in your youth.

So, she must have meant a lot to you, though not enough for you to take time out from the fairway to visit her birthplace.

Your elder sister Maryanne, who visited often with your mother, made a donation of almost £160,000 to a small care home in the Western Isles. She didn’t want the glory, she just wanted to honour the memory of her mother.

When you did set foot on the Isle of Lewis in 2008, your second ever visit to the Western Isles having previously only been there as a child, it was to promote your other golf course in Aberdeenshire.

These were the heady days before you fell out with your big pal, Alex Salmond, and transferred your allegiance to these other populists for a nationalist cause, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

You were asked then to make a contribution to the restoration of the island’s museum. You gave not a cent, and as a consequence I don’t think the museum makes mention of you, the most famous son of Lewis. 

The good book say a prophet is without honour in their own land, and I guess you thought there was nothing in it for you.

More’s the pity because your family story, your mother’s story, reflects the experience and the honour of so many Scottish and American families.

Mary Anne MacLeod, as she was in the 1920s, was one of millions of Scots who went to the New World as economic migrants and made their lives and families there.

The loss of that migration generation had a profound effect all across Scotland, in places like the Isle of Lewis, in fact all across Europe.

We miss them, and try to keep the ties with our cousins across the world from generation to generation. 

Their hard work, their spirit of adventure and enterprise, that was your country’s gain and our loss. People like your Scottish mother, and your German grandfather, they were the people who made America great.

But, because of your political views you cannot acknowledge your own family story.

You Donald, you lock migrants up and separate children from their parents to dissuade others from making the same journey your family undertook.

Your own mother, Donald, arrived at Ellis Island beneath the Statue of Liberty which proclaims “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

You have traduced that American legacy and, sad to say, with it the memory of your own roots. You threaten the very values of liberty that makes America one of the great nations, the pillar of our freedoms.  

The door will always be open for you and your family on the Isle of Lewis, of course it will be. People there are courteous and kind and do not forget the ties that bind. 

Your mother’s Bible tells us how the prodigal son was lost and then was found. But you Donald, you have wandered far from home.

For the sake of the millions of women like your mother, who will come to seek a new life in my European home and your American home, I hope you that you can one day accept who you are, a migrant son.

Then we could welcome you home with an open hand and a warm embrace.

Friday, 15 June 2018

SNP look to Parnell for Brexit delay tactics

The bust of Parnell, Irish Home Ruler, in Westminster
There is a bronze bust of the Irish Home Rule campaigner Charles Stewart Parnell in the corridor outside the SNP Commons offices which they took over from the Lib Dems.

These statues litter the Palace of Westminster. Lloyd George, the last Liberal Prime Minister, is at the bottom of the stairs on the way to the underground car park. So the mighty fall.

But it’s fitting that the 19th century Irish nationalist should be guard of honour for the SNP leader's office, particularly now.

Parnell held great sway over the Commons for many years and was expert in sabotaging procedures to force the government to take Irish issues seriously.

As his namesake, SNP MP Stewart McDonald, pointed out yesterday he once kept the Commons sitting for 45 hours considering the 1887 South Africa Bill.

“It might be that those tactics are of interest to the House at this time,” said McDonald, with a twinkle in his eye.

In protest over the Scottish parliament vote on Brexit being ignored the SNP has promised to hobble the Commons at any time.

Parnell and the Irish Home Rule movement provide the template which the SNP hope to emulate with Brexit.

Kenny MacAskill, former SNP Minister and firebrand,  showed the way in his Glasgow Herald column today in which he promotes the plan. 

He wrote: "The model for the SNP isn’t Sinn Fein but its predecessors in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Under the great Charles Stewart Parnell it flourished in the chamber when it suited, but never forgot that its purpose was to leave.

"Hopefully, that will now be the template for the modern SNP, allowing the good work on the rape clause and other issues to be pursued but recognising that it isn’t its parliament and it is not respected there. It doesn’t mean being rude or malicious, simply ending the far too supine posture that has been taken and being more robust in defending Scotland’s interest."

The idea has some merit, look at massive publicity and membership boost the SNP had from this week's walk out.

But there are downsides too. The novelty of protest might capture the headlines once or twice, but  disrupting the Commons on a regular basis begins to get a bit wearing all round.

It also exposes individual SNP MPs to the charge (which you'd think their opponents would make regularly anyway) that they are sitting in the Commons not for their constituents but for their cause.   

The tactic is being roadtested, as far as I can see. At Business Questions on Thursday SNP MPs kept Andrea Leadsom answering questions until nearly 1pm, passing the ball backwards and forwards while the clock ticked down on the day.

The big Brexit clock is ticking down toward a deadline too and Theresa May can ill afford to have the Commons gummed up by delaying tactics.

Of course these kinds of tricks are played by all sides, all the time. 

Everyone blames everyone else for how little time there was to debate the devolution clauses on Tuesday.

Labour blame the government for squeezing Brexit clauses into two days (They had planned for one).

Tories blame Labour for calling votes on every amendment, everyone blames SNP MPs for loitering through the lobbies as if on a Sunday stroll, ensuring even less time and more outrage for the devo clauses.

The SNP’s first guerrilla attack, a walk-out over the disgracefully short time given to debate devolution in the Brexit Bill achieved its purpose.

The issue is on the agenda, a ministerial statement made, an emergency debate on Monday. But what next?

To keep the issue on the boil SNP MPs will have Parnell as a touchstone of disruption every time they walk past him to their leader's office.





Wednesday, 13 June 2018

He shoots, he scores... Blackford in Ally MacLeod land

My first World Cup report from Westminster, for the Daily Record

The World Cup doesn’t start until today but already we’ve had a controversial refereeing decision.

Like Willie Johnston being sent home from Argentina in ‘78, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford left the Commons chamber claiming to have been the victim of a great injustice.

But he left with the satisfaction of scoring a brilliant victory - even if he was given an early bath by the ref, sorry, Speaker.

Until now it has been hard to generate interest in the Torys' Brexit constitutional insult to Scotland.

Months of Mike Russell statements, Downing Street summits, overwhelming rejection by Holyrood, yet the whole season was a goalless draw.

With the Brexit bill in the Commons for the last time, the Tories were going to win.

So when the ball fell at Blackford’s feet in the 90th minute, he made a run for goal.

The rest was like an Ally MacLeod fantasy of Brexit negotiatons.

Blackford shoots, he scores, cheers from SNP terraces, but he is red carded for defying the ref.

For the middling midfield general it is his finest hour.

He is carried shoulder-high by his team, who forget to take the ball away with them.

He is man of the match, the shot is replayed for the rest of the tournament, even though Scotland isn’t in the competition.

Then we wake up, and nothing has changed except English MPs joshing that when it comes to the World Cup, it’s all “SNP”.

That’s short for “Scotland Not Playing”, and it’s as true at Westminster as it is for the World Cup.