Saturday, July 25, 2009

What now for Lewis in the new age of reason?

The first 'Sabbath ferry' has come and gone, with the cheers of hundreds of well-wishers replaced by the normality of everyday public transport that most of Scotland normally enjoys. It's early days, but the Calvinist god has yet to visit his wrath upon CalMac or those islanders who have campaigned long and hard for this service. The hardline Presbyterians, despite their warnings of dire consequences, have gone back to bickering amongst themselves. The purer they get, the fewer. But for the rest of us, the dark ages are receding into the past.

Leodhas agus Na h-Eileanan Siar remain remarkable places. They possess beauty and culture. And a declining population.

So what now? Well, despite the progress-phobic Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the islands have two hardworking representatives in both the Edinburgh and London parliaments so things aren't looking that bad. Here though, is an opinion of a Gaelic-speaking outsider.

Gaelic - Use it or lose it. It is a national treasure and the Islands are probably the last place where Gaelic is still used in industries like crofting and fishing, the media, in cultural events and now at official level too. As Brian Wilson of the West Highland Free Pravda once said, 'there is no value in just being the same as everyone else'. The Welsh do a lot more for their language than native Gaels do. Gaelic Medium Education should be the standard for all kids in the Western Isles. At the very least, they would speak better English but it should also go a long way to sustaining our indigenous language. We should throw the Scots' cringe on the same scrapheap where Calvinist scaremongering now lies.

Renewable energy - waves, wind and sunshine. Well Na h-Eileanan Siar has two of them in abundance. But windfarms should be run by the local communities and primarily for their own needs. Any surplus can then be sold on. Same goes for the huge coastline and Atlantic swell. Use it. Jobs for local people, clean energy and any profits can go back into creating better services for the community. Why shouldn't Carlabhagh have a sports centre? If Norway can do it for their 'remote' communities... Maybe John Macleod (continuing) could be harnessed and his hot air used to heat old folks' homes and his Daily Mail columns dug into the machair to compost crops of tatties?

Traditional industries - crofting, fishing, Harris Tweed and building. Support them with tax-breaks or whatever. If multi-national companies can be 'enticed' to relocate to Scotland with £millions in grants and tax-breaks then why can't the same logic be applied to rural communities with fragile economies and declining populations?

Cheaper fuel - Here's an idea. See them toffs in Edinburgh's New Town with their huge 4x4 wanktanks? Tax them to fck and then use those taxes to subsidise fuel in the Western Isles where people actually do need a car or SUV. There's a cruel irony that oil tankers carrying fuel sail past the islands so it can be offloaded near Glasgow then transported back up to the islands by road.

Whisky -Add this to the traditional industries. The new Abhainn Dearg distillery in Uig will have it's first legal whisky ready for the Stornoway Mod in 2011. There's also a planned distillery in Barraigh. Tax reductions on whisky would go a long way to helping them survive and expand.

The land - If the grey carbuncle of Fort William can reinvent itself as the 'outdoor capital of Scotland' then the Western Isles can go one better. Use it to attract extreme-sport enthusiasts and Australians to fling themselves of Rubha Robhanais and bungee themselves back to the lighthouse. Plant new crops. Apparently, cannabis can grow virtually anywhere and needs next to nothing in terms of fertiliser or pesticide. Turn it into medicine, clothes, boat sails... cupcakes?

Back to the future - Bring back things we used to have. Shinty for recreation - Camanachd Leodhais are already underway, replant the forests, use the Norse mills for small-scale and localised power, hunt the whales and dolphin with cameras and enthusiastic tourists...

This might be a bit of effort of the part Comharile nan Eilean Siar, the Scottish Parliament and the expensive one in London... but, ged 's fhad a-mach Barraigh, ruigear e.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Good Edinburgh Whisky pubs part 3 - Mathers

Broughton Street would surely make an excellent anthropological study. About ten years ago, i overheard a local woman telling her boy, 'aye son, i remember when this used to be a working class area'. As i one-time resident for many years, many years ago, i've seen it go from rough and run-down to a trendy 'metrosexual' centre for absurdly dressed Ben Fogle-type refugees from the south of England as well as those wanting good cheap scran at places like the Basement, Blue Moon or the Rapido chippy.

The Phoenix was infamous for it's fights and 'erotic' dancers. The Unemployed Workers Centre used to reside here until the Labour 'cooncil' cut funding and it became little more than a vegan-cafe and a place where the Irish Republican James Connolly Society assembled to launch a banned march that was violently stopped by Lothian and Borders fat boys in blue. There was the Lesbian and Gay Centre giving out free condoms in the fight against AIDS and occassionaly repelling gaybashing skinhead bigots from the BNP. The Basement, used to be the 'Blues Basement' and was similar to today's Henry's Cellar Bar with a variety of indie, rock and punk bands playing. Ironically enough, when it became the Basement as we know it today, the first chef and he who instigated the Mexican themed menu was the ex-drummer of local punk stalwards the Exploited. He was Californian btw...

There are still some havens though for Scots who....
  • are heterosexual
  • have an income of less than £50k per annum
  • wish to have a drink without picking up an Oxfordshire accent
Mathers, near the top of Broughton Street is one such place. A large blackboard on the right as you go in advertises it's wide range of malts at pretty reasonable prices for a city centre pub. It has the likes of Linkwood, Old Pulteneys 12, 17 and 21, Caol Ila 18, Edradour, Bruichladdich Waves and many others. We were pleased to consume Glenfarclas 105 Cask-strength at £3.25 and a Gordon & MacPhail cask strength of a Bruichladdich 15yo from 1988 at £4.80. It has sports on tellies, if thats important, and also live music and food.

Apparently it also the sometime haunt for the rich and famous according to auld DJ Jay Crawford who claims to have got pished with and subsequently humped the legs of:
Elton John, Whitesnake, Helen Shapiro, Desmond Dekker, Jim Diamond, The Average White Band and many others including Cliff Richard about whom he recalls "goat the evil tosspot weel pished on Ledaig, then ejected for dropping oor skants and singing YMCA." Click here for more star-gazing info from Jay.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sabbath ferry brings the dark ages to a close on the Isle of Lewis

Q- Why are Presbyterians against sex standing up?
A- Because it may lead to dancing.

And thus we saw the first 'Sabbath' ferry between Lewis and Ullapool sail. In Eilean Leodhais, the Presbyterian militias fear that within days, the island's youth will all be humming Paranoid and Warpig. Not long after we will see 'Sodom and Gomorrah' replaced by Gearraidh na h-Aibhne and Dail bho Dheas. Ozzy Dotaman will teach our kids satanic Gaelic and BBC Alba's weather forecast will be presented by Ronnie James Dio 'throwing horns' as sunshine bathes Tràigh na Beirigh.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Celtic headcharge

Les Ramoneurs de Menhirs are from Brittany/ Breizh. In Gaelic it's A' Bhreatainn Bheag, literally 'the Little Britain', referring to the nation's Brythonnic Celtic speech and not to backward Brits like Gary Bushell, Richard Littlejohn or even the Lord George Foulkes. Like Scotland's Oi Polloi, these punks have been around a while and now use their own Celtic tongue as well as French or English as a medium.

Though Oi Polloi haven't made much use of traditional instruments like the bagpipes, the use of traditional Breton instruments such as the bombard are central to Les Ramoneurs' sound. Occasionaly, they are joined on stage at huge Cetlic festivals by tradtional Breton singer Louise Ebrel who sings a kind of mouth-music very similar to our Gaelic port-a-beul.

The Bretons have their own water of life too, though it's a kind of strong cider brandy called lambic. On a visit to Breizh some years ago with a group of Scots and Irish cultural activists, i had the pleasure of swapping homemade lambic - 60% abv - for some of our own Poit Dhubh single malt - bottled at mere 46%.

To my knowledge, Les Ramoneurs have only made it to Scotland once. That was in 1998 when they played a handful of gigs with Celtic cousins Oi Polloi and Na Gathan from Skye. Most memorable though was the Celtic Punk Connections in Glasgow, timed to coincide with the commercial Celtic (tenuous) Connections festival. Apparently the high heid yins at Celtic Connections thought that real Celts, who actually speak Gaelic and Breton, were a bit too rough. There's punk for you - banned from the pubs... er banned from the Glesgow Royal Concert Hall.

Fortunately though BBC Alba's Rapal were interested enough to document the night. Click here to view.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Supermarket whisky bargains in the former DDR...

...and other bits and pieces. Am checking out the influence of Gaelic culture (also called a holiday) in the former DDR - the once socialist republic of East Germany. It's pretty scarce, though to date, i've seen posters for Highland Games in Leipzig, heard some punk music with bagpipes in a pub and of course, spotted whisky in many a local 'kneipe' and supermarket.

Am currently in the large town of Zittau which is cemented to both Poland and the Czech Republic. This is where - if you are a linguistic pedant like me - you can find Sasannaich who are not English. 'Sasannaich' in the Gaelic originally means 'Saxon' and the 'land of the Saxons' is Sasainn, better known as Engurlannd. Co-dhiú... it amuses me no end that you can cycle from the 'Freistaat' of Saxony to Poland to the Poblachd Czech in about 3 minutes and still be on the same road. You pass two old checkpoints on the way as well as a few huts selling cheap fags and haircuts to the ‘rich’ Germans.

It's all relative though as Zittau and the surrounding countryside is very poor. It’s fairly hoachin with beautiful fairytale villages and hundreds of old factories, left over from the days when there was work for all. Wages in Zittau are as low as €400 per month for a shop worker and men think themselves fortunate if they take home a grand. Little wonder that many locals of 30 years or older still remember fondly the days of socialism and curse 'Kapitalismus'. Aye, they have the freedom to travel and study whatever they wish, but if you can barely afford the rent then what use is 'freedom'? Since the fall of the old regime, the population of Zittau has fallen from around 40k to 20k. Of 80 of Frau Katja's old schoolmates, only 2 remain in their hometown.

The mark of old regimes is still to be seen in and around the Oberlausitz region of Saxony. In the village of Hainewalde, close to Zittau, you can still see Socialist murals for their old youth groups. The mural seeks to unite the youth of all cultures from the world over. Sounds a lot better than the saluting of the Union Jack and the imperialist Brit Empire mentality that i got in the Cub Scouts. Along the road though is an 18th century palace/castle kind of thing known as Schloss Hainewalde. This was used by the Keepers of the Quaich, er, sorry Nazis as a base and small concentration camp holding 200 or so unfortunate and 'impure' prisoners. You swear that you have seen it in a film. After the war though, the idealistic Commies turned it into flats for ordinary locals. How idealistic, eh? Had they not heard of realpolitik??? Interestingly, the delapadated schloss is now being restored. A shiny new sign tells of it's history but with both the Nazi and Socialist eras missing.

Needless to say, 'Keepers of the Quaich' are thin on the ground here. In the absence of a Malt Whisky Society or some kind of 'Scots Club', a good malt is hard to find. Beer, on the other hand, is everywhere. It's cheap but miles better than almost anything we have in Scotland - Innis and Gunn excluded. But, whereas a 'local' beer such as I&G will cost the best part of two quid, here in Zittau, one of the local beers, Landskron, from nearby Görlitz will set you back a mere 50 cents odd. Alcoholism does not seem to be a problem and there are no neds to be seen, though many guys have the kind of huge gut that makes Andy Gorum seem like Kate Moss.

Wo ist der whisky? Well, in Kaufland, you can find a bewildering and meagre supply. Glenfiddich 12 is universal and you can buy it here for €23.Glen Grant and Loch Lomond malts, with no ages stated, are €14ish. Also on show though is 'Sir Connery' and 'Glen Forrest' single malts. Any info on these is appreciated! Are they Trabant fuel? And, are they still vastly superior to Ledaig?

Zittau also has an Irish pub - The Real Ones (???)- with a fair few Scotch malts like all the Diageo classics as well as Glenrothes, Edradour, Glen Grant, Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Balvenie Signature and Port Cask. I had a Bowmore 18 for €5. There was barely one dram left in the bottle though and i think it had been sitting a while. Tasted a bit like spicy air.

The real delight lay across the borders though - that's over into Poland and then another 2 minutes or so into the Czech Republic and onto the edge of town called Hrádek nad Nissau. There you will find Top Shop. It's different to our Top Shop as there are no large posters of yon guy from Spandau Ballet and Eastenders modelling hair laquer and cheap suits. There are no clothes even but a kind of duty free with many litre sized bottles including Ardbeg, Laphroaig QC, Auchentoshan - standard and triple wood - Balblair, 4 varieties of Bowmore, Highland Park 12 and.... what's that? A 70cl Highland Park 18yo for only €44? I dropped my 20 packets of dutyfree pierogi and cha b'e ruith ach leum to the counter with the HP.

Final thoughts....ditch the pound and go Euro. Oh, and it's still sickening to find Scots' whisky cheaper abroad. Ditch the taxes on malt.