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Love Scotland podcast – Season 4

A lady stands on a paddleboard at sea, looking towards a steep cliff with a lighthouse on top.
Image: James Appleton
Hosted by journalist and broadcaster Jackie Bird, each episode tells some of the thrilling stories behind the Trust’s people and places, showcasing how everything we do is for the love of Scotland.

S4, E12: Scottish Christmas traditions: authentic festive displays at Castle Fraser

In this week’s episode, Jackie is getting ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly. As people across Scotland prepare for their own festive celebrations, we take a look at how the National Trust for Scotland creates authentic Christmas displays in its properties.

Dr Jo Riley from Castle Fraser has been leading a research project into traditional decorations and how they have changed over time. From garlands to gifts, candles to clementines, Jo has examined exactly how previous residents in homes like Castle Fraser would have celebrated.

To mark the end of this season of Love Scotland, Jackie and Jo discuss the pagan roots of the festive season, why mistletoe didn’t always mean romance, and who it was that first brought yule logs to Scottish shores.

Find out more about Dr Jo Riley’s research

A pink title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. How Scotland celebrates Christmas. A history of festive decorations, traditions and celebrations.
A pink title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. How Scotland celebrates Christmas. A history of festive decorations, traditions and celebrations.

Season 4 Episode 12

S4, E11: Scotland’s coasts with Cal Major: advocacy and conservation on Scottish coastlines

In this week’s episode, Jackie is joined by adventurer, filmmaker and campaigner Cal Major to discuss Scotland’s coasts and the challenges facing them. Cal has built a reputation as one of the UK’s top stand-up paddleboarders (SUP), completing the first ever SUP from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2018.

In 2021, she paddled 800 miles of Scotland’s coastline. As someone who has spent so long at sea, Cal knows only too well the real-world implications of the climate and biodiversity crises. She is now a keen campaigner and advocate for action that will help protect Scotland’s coasts, including the Our Seas campaign of which the National Trust for Scotland is a member.

Find out more about Cal Major

Find out more about the Our Seas campaign

A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland's coasts with Cal Major. Conserving our coastlines through adventure and advocacy.
A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland's coasts with Cal Major. Conserving our coastlines through adventure and advocacy.

Season 4 Episode 11

Transcript

Transcript for Scotland’s coasts with Cal Major

Three voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Cal Major [CM]

[MV]
This is Love Scotland with Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome to Love Scotland. My guest today is an ocean adventurer and campaigner. Cal Major worked as a vet but has always loved being in and around the sea. So, in recent years she has taken to the waters around Britain on her stand-up paddleboard to campaign for marine conservation. Now, I am reluctant to use that over-worked word ‘passionate’, but for Cal I’ll make an exception. She’s passionate about reconnecting people with the sea and the coasts. Last year, she paddled 800 miles around Scotland’s wild coastline to raise awareness of our marine environment and the protection it needs.

You probably know that the National Trust for Scotland looks after a number of coastal places on the mainland and around the islands of the Hebrides, and it’s also working to help shape Scotland’s marine and coastal policy. So, we’re all rather biased in favour of marine conservation, but Cal takes it to another level. Hello to you, Cal!

[CM]
Hello! Thank you for having me here today.

[JB]
Well, thank you for staying on dry land long enough for this podcast! Tell us about your love of the sea, and how does a vet become an ocean adventurer and campaigner?

[CM]
Ooh, that’s a good way of putting it, actually. I still feel like I’m a vet even though I’m not in clinical practice at the minute. I think it’s massively informed who I am, how I approach things, how I approach challenges, and my passion for animals. But I’ve always had a really strong love for the sea. I learnt to scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when I was 18 years old, and it was as if an entire new world had been opened up to me. This amazing underwater world full of different species and colours, and everything was a different pace – it was just so wonderful.

That sparked me to understand the seas a little bit more, and then I just spent heaps and heaps of time in and around the sea when I was training as a vet and when I was working as a vet in the first few years. I spent a lot of time surfing and paddleboarding and swimming – anything I could that got me in or around the sea. It was a huge part of my life. I didn’t really have the words to explain what it meant to me at that point in time, but I just knew that it was somewhere I really, really loved to be, that helped me live the most healthy and happy life I could. When I started to learn more and more, and see with my own eyes more, how human activity was damaging our seas, particularly things like plastic pollution which obviously is really visible and really tangible – that started my journey into becoming an advocate for our seas and to using my voice, both as a vet and as an individual and then an adventurer, to stand up for the protection of our seas.

[JB]
Why paddleboarding? I’ve seen many of the films that you’ve made of your travels, and they are beautiful and they are terrifying! You’re out there, miles from the coast, effectively on – how can I describe it? – a wobbly ironing board with a stick. Now, there must be easier ways!

[CM]
Yeah! I think there are easier ways! Kayaking, for one, is a much easier way. I discovered paddleboarding through some people that I lived with down in the South West, when I moved to the South West for a couple of years. It became this incredible new way for me to explore further afield. I found that I could get to little coves I couldn’t get to otherwise and compared to kayaking, which I’d never really done before, I didn’t really have that as another option to be honest! But, you’re basically walking on water; it’s the closest thing that we humans have to walking on water. The elevation that it gives you, the vantage point, the things that you can see from the paddleboard into the water is phenomenal. It’s a really freeing way of experiencing the ocean. And because it’s very quiet, you can get to all these little places that you can’t really get to, and see wildlife without disturbing it, which is so phenomenal.

[JB]
You managed to cover about 20–30 miles a day. I’m intrigued about the set-up. What sort of back-up did you have? Were you part of a huge team?

[CM]
Hmmm, it differed with all my different adventures I’ve had over the last few years. Specifically when I was paddling around Scotland, because we were filming that expedition, my boyfriend who is a filmmaker, who is responsible for all those beautiful films that you have seen …

[JB]
Oh, they are! I would advise anyone to really head to your website because they’re beautifully shot and they’re very moving.

[CM]
Thank you. He’s incredibly talented. So, he spent quite a bit of time on the water with me in a kayak for that trip. Previous expeditions, so when I paddled around the Isle of Skye, I had nobody on the island; I was completely alone. I think that was one of my most moving experiences actually, and one of the most formative, because I was completely alone, I had to look after myself on the water and off the water. Each expedition I’ve done has been different in that regard, as to what kind of land support I’ve had. When I was going round Scotland, there was a period of time when my mum and dad came up in their camper van and would meet us every few days and re-fuel us!

[JB]
Oh, how lovely!

[CM]
It was just glorious. James could charge his kit in their van, and they’d be there literally on the beach with food for us, and that kind of thing! There’s a whole range of everything, from being completely alone with nothing but a tent and the food I had in my bags, to having people meet me along the way at various strategic locations with a van or with food or with resupplies. I’m really, really careful about safety because at any point in time the weather can change and I could get into trouble, so I’ve always got lots of methods of communication. I always wear a life vest. I’ve always told the Coastguard where I’m going to be and when I should be getting back, and they’ve got a link to a tracker. There’s lots of people who can see where I am at any point in time.

[JB]
I think that’s very important. I think that ‘don’t try this at home’ message is something we possibly should include, because your adventures do look so beautiful and they’re so worthwhile.
Now, we know how beneficial green spaces are to our moods and to our general health, but there’s also something that I hadn’t heard of called ‘blue health’. That is the belief that being in and around water is good for us. I obviously knew that was the case, I’d felt it personally, but I’d never heard it called blue health. You’ve got experience of that.

[CM]
Yeah, and there’s so much evidence and research coming out now, and has been over the last few years – clinical trials that have proven that being around water is beneficial for us. I think it goes back to something quite evolutionary, our human need to be around water both as a source of drinking water and the way it makes us feel. There must be something so deeply ingrained within our humanity that makes us feel like that. And for me personally, it’s been a place of real solace and real joy and many different things to me over the years. As I mentioned before, when I was first working as a vet, I would surf every weekend and get in the water as often as I could because it was fun. I didn’t realise at that point in time that that equated to my mental health; I didn’t ever really have those words in my vocabulary. It was more about, well, it feels really good to be here and it keeps me sane, and it allows me to do my job and I really love being here; it’s really good fun.

Over the years, I’ve had my own journeys with mental illness. I’ve had depression and anxiety over the years triggered by various things, and the ocean has always been there for me in different ways when I’ve needed it at different times for different things. There was a period of time when I felt like I couldn’t really surf for a while, but I went cold water swimming and that was so beneficial for my mental health, making me feel like a human again, like myself again. And now I just desperately need to be by the sea to make me feel like the person I am. I think once you have that connection, and once you can really vocalise and understand what that means to you, that’s the basis of wanting to look after it. Once you know categorically that the water or the sea – or for some people the mountains – is where you feel most at home and most like the person that you feel you are, you can’t help but want to stand up for them and to look after them.

[JB]
Yes, I wrote this down from one of your presentations. You say, and I think that sums up what you just said: ‘people will protect what they love, but they can only love what they know’.

[CM]
Yeah. That was a lesson I learned a few years ago. I’d been talking to people about plastic pollution for quite a few years and it suddenly dawned on me that actually to care about the impacts of plastic pollution on our seas and on our wildlife in our rivers, then you have to understand why the rivers or the seas or the wildlife are important. And really, that means why they’re important to us. But without that personal connection to it, which comes from spending time there and understanding it, then we’re not going to want to look after places. That really changed the way I approach environmental matters and campaigns, and what have you. It became that I was no longer trying to lecture people about plastic; it was more about how can we get people to care more. How can we reach outside of our echo chambers and introduce more people to this amazing natural world that we live in, and have more caring citizens that are going to stand up for it.

[JB]
So clearly, you’re hoping that your adventures connect people with nature and, as I said in the introduction, in 2021 you paddleboarded around the coast of Scotland. That’s an expedition you’ve described as your most extreme and challenging yet, but did you under-estimate how difficult it was going to be?

[CM]
I think I entered that expedition with a very healthy respect for the Scottish coastline. I’ve spent a lot of time paddling in Scotland up until that time – paddling around the Isle of Skye, really starting to understand the wildness of the coastline. Having said that, I lost sleep every night until I got to Cape Wrath. Cape Wrath was the most horrendous paddle I’ve ever had in my life. It was so terrifying. That whole north coast, the roof of Scotland, where the tides are crazy but also you’ve got massive mountains that the wind funnels down off; huge lochs that you have to paddle across; and enormous wildlife. All sorts of different factors that made that section particularly a really, really challenging part of the expedition. I think I knew that that was going to be challenging. I think having had all the experience I’d had before, I’d really built up to this challenge. I’d wanted to paddle around Scotland for years, but I built up to it. But I was still pushed to my absolute limit on the north coast of Scotland!

[JB]
You talked about enormous wildlife, and you filmed a lot of your travels. We have a clip now from what I think is one of the scariest moments. It was filmed just after you experienced some unexpected company in the shape of some orca whales.

[Audio clip of Cal sounding teary]
I just saw an orca. I saw three orca. Its massive fin just came up right next to my board. And I was like, oh is that a dolphin? It was huge. It was the biggest fin I’ve ever seen, and it was three orca, and they just swum underneath my board and around me, and they just investigated me, and they just swam off into the mist. It was one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had. I was a bit scared, to be honest. People often ask if you saw an orca on the water, would you be scared? And I was like, no, they’re fine. And I was quite scared! It was unreal. And they’ve just gone now. That’s it. Oh my god.

[JB]
Oh, Cal. I so love that clip! I love the emotion and I love the honesty and how it captured just everything you were feeling.

[CM]
Yeah, thanks! My stomach flips every time I hear it. Honestly, people said you know you might see orca around Scotland. And I was like, yeah, but really no, it would be so unlikely to see an orca. And anyway, even if I did, they’re no threat to humans in the wild; they’ve never purposely attacked a human. And then when it happened, there was literally an orca underneath my paddleboard who turned on her side and looked up at me. And I looked down at her and locked eyes with her, while two males, whose fins were 6ft tall, were circling my board! When that happened, the reaction, as you could hear, was a really uncool reaction! It was completely visceral. There was no controlling it; it was utter fear but also an acknowledgement that those animals – the males can be 10m long; that’s 3 times the length of my paddleboard – they are so powerful, and they were so graceful and so powerful in the water. Even with a flick of a tail, they could have thrown me off my board. But they didn’t. Somehow, they were so graceful that even when swimming under my board, they didn’t affect me. It was a real mixture of ‘this is the most incredible moment I’ve ever had on the water’ and ‘oh my god, they’re so big. They can do anything they wanted right now’. It was such a privilege to have that experience. It deepened my connection to the sea in a way that I didn’t think was even possible.

[JB]
Yes, well, you certainly managed to convey that. There’s also a moment from the momentous to the small and poignant, where you untangle some fishing hooks from a trapped, shivering seabird. I was in bits watching that.

[CM]
Oh, yes. There’s a little gannet that we found around Troup Head who had become entangled in a massive fishing line with these big, barbed hooks. It had one through one of its feet and into its tail. And one of the hooks was stuck onto a rock, so it was bound basically on this rock and couldn’t move, which was good for me because I could clamber up onto this rock and get it. I managed to disentangle this little gannet and poor thing! Fortunately, the wounds weren’t life-threatening and I felt really glad to have been able to help it.

But then we actually went up to the top of Troup Head that evening on land to look down at this incredible gannet colony, just incredible, and saw maybe three or four other gannets which had entanglement, so either rope or … Gannets nest in pairs and they pair off, and we saw this pair of gannets – one had a bit of rope around its leg, and the other one was desperately trying to peck the rope off its leg. I saw another one with something wrapped around its beak; it couldn’t open its beak. It was really eye-opening for me. You hear about entanglement quite a lot in marine animals, but to actually see it for yourself and know that in that moment there’s nothing I could do, was really challenging. So, a real mixture of feeling grateful of being able to help that one gannet, and then ‘oh gosh, but this is the tip of the iceberg’.

[JB]
Indeed. The effects of the fishing gear, the effects of plastic is absolutely tangible. But there are so many other threats that the fragile coastal habitats face. You’re very vocal about the destruction of the in-shore seabed. What’s happening there?

[CM]
Around Scotland, the seabed basically … well, it’s absolutely incredible. I got to see it with my own eyes, snorkelling underwater a couple of times last summer and a few times since as well. And it’s just amazing. You have these incredible reefs that are formed by things like flame shells and merle, which is a coralline algae – almost a little bit like a coral reef. We have amazing kelp forests, sea grass. And all of these habitats on the seabed are really fragile and slow-growing but yet absolutely essential to the entire ecosystem. That’s where you get fish nurseries; you get all the little stuff that grows and feeds the bigger stuff, which feeds the bigger stuff, which feeds the whales. These ecosystems are really, really important.

Over the last few years, they have been really, really harmed by bottom-towed fishing gear, so things like trawling and dredging – trawling for prawns, dredging for scallops. Up until the 1980s, this is something I learned while I was paddling around the coast from various people that I interviewed, there was a limit to where you could trawl or dredge. You weren’t allowed to bring these big, heavy, bottom-towed gear within 3 miles of shore, which basically meant that those really fragile in-shore ecosystems could thrive and continue to support fish stocks around the coast. And then in 1984 that limit was lifted, and so after the 80s you got this massive boom of trawling and scallop dredging within those fragile in-shore ecosystems, which the science shows has led to a collapse in fish stocks. It’s not just about the really beautiful, lovely-looking habitats on the seabed; it’s about the whole ocean ecosystem. This stuff is out of sight and out of mind. Even to me, until I was learning about this stuff, I didn’t know about it and I’m an ocean advocate. I didn’t know just how extensive this had been – and that’s the case with so much of this. The general public don’t understand it; they can’t really relate to that seabed because it’s just little critters as opposed to big whales. But it’s so vital that we help people to understand what’s going on so that we can have people having informed conversations about what’s best to do for those areas, because they’re not just important for the fishing community, which they’re massively important for; they’re important for coastal communities; they’re important for every single one of us.

[JB]
You made the point that whenever there was an outcry when you posted pictures of the dead whale that was entangled, the fact that people rightly get very, very angry about that – but you make the point that the destruction of the seabed barely raises an eyebrow because it’s something we can’t see. But there is a campaign – it’s fairly new – of which the National Trust for Scotland is a member called Our Seas. That’s brought together more than a hundred organisations to tackle the harm that we’re doing. Is partnership and co-operation, as well as getting a message out to as many people as possible, is that the way forward?

[CM]
Absolutely. And I was really delighted to hear about what the National Trust for Scotland is doing in this realm as well, because it does take courage to stand up for these things because there are going to be voices that are going to be in opposition to this kind of thing. I think the more people we have using their voices, co-operating, collaborating, and making it known that this is of benefit to the majority rather than a minority, then that’s going to be what helps to push these campaigns forward. It fills you with hope and determination, and a sense that actually you’re not alone with this and there’s stuff that we really can do.

[JB]
This is an ideal point to take a little break from your adventures. We’ve covered a lot of the threats to marine life so far, but you’ve touched on what is one of your main messages – and that is hope. We’ll talk some more about that when we come back.

[MV]
The National Trust for Scotland cares for thousands of miles of coastline, from the sea cliffs of St Kilda to the magic of Fingal’s Cave; from the tight-knit community of Fair Isle to the seal pups at St Abb’s Head. You can help to protect this incredible heritage and to safeguard it for future generations. Find out more online, including how to donate to the Trust’s Wild Scotland appeal, at nts.org.uk/donate

[JB]
Welcome back to the Love Scotland podcast, where marine campaigner Cal Major has been telling me of her paddleboarding adventures. Now, Cal, you travel the country, you talk about environmental threats, but it’s not all doom and gloom. You believe that we can change things.

[CM]
Absolutely. That’s not based on naive optimism; that’s not based on putting a positive spin on things. That’s based on all the incredible work that I’ve seen around the coast, from passionate communities and individuals working together to make tangible change, to actively restore the marine environment, to campaign for better protection of the marine environment, to clean our beaches and our rivers, to change policy. There is so much happening, and I think the news is really good at focusing on the doom and gloom, the negative, the stuff that creates outcry. And it doesn’t tell us all the good stuff that’s happening. That’s where we need to place our hope – in all the good stuff that’s happening and in just how resilient the natural world, especially our ocean, is when it comes to bouncing back. If we take the pressures off our seas, it’s been shown that they bounce back really quickly. You just to have look at some of the Marine Protected Areas and the No Take zones around the coast to see how quickly they’ve rejuvenated and started to thrive.

[JB]
Do you think we’ve got the language of conservation right? I have a theory. We talk about bio-diverse ecosystems … now, we know what that means but these sorts of descriptions, are they relatable to people who perhaps don’t have a background in conservation?

[CM]
Well, I don’t think we all need to be talking in conservation language. It comes back to what we were saying earlier about actually just needing to have a connection to the sea. These biodiversity crises and climate crises and all the rest of it that we face, they don’t need every member of the public to be a conservationist. They just need as many people as possible to be aware and awake to what is going on, and to use their voices in their own ways – whether that’s a small way or a big way. And so, I completely agree, I think we need to be reaching people on different levels.

One of the things that I do is I run a small charity called Seaful – and one of our aims is to help people find that connection to the ocean. We take people snorkelling and we just show them for themselves what’s underwater there.

[JB]
You took some children from inner city Glasgow snorkelling, and that was very effective. Tell me what happened there.

[CM]
After I’d finished paddling round Scotland, I went back to Glasgow, which is where I’d started, and we took a group of kids to the Isle of Arran, which is one of the places I stopped off at on my trip. I’d recced the snorkel site that morning, and there was barely anything to see and the water was cold. I mean, it was the warmest it’s ever going to be at that point in time in September! It’s still cold!

[JB]
Yes, I think warm might not be the best description!

[CM]
Exactly! Anyway, I was really nervous that these kids were going to get here and think it was just too cold and they were going to want to get out. We planned to get them in for 20 minutes. We got them there and got them kitted up, they were quite nervous. I was a bit nervous. Got them in and after an hour and a half I had to drag them out because they were going to miss the bus back to the ferry! [Fantastic!] They just absolutely loved it. Even though this was by no means one of the best dive sites I’d ever snorkelled at. There was a bit of seaweed, a few crabs, some sea squirts, the odd fish – the kids were enthralled. They were absolutely mind blown. You could just see the awe in their eyes.

There was one girl, and afterwards I asked her ‘how was it for you today? How was that experience?’ She said it was really amazing, really good, but also made her a bit sad because now she’s seen what’s underwater, just how much life there is underwater, she feels angry that we treat the ocean as a trash can. I didn’t have to teach her that; I didn’t have to put those words into her head. That’s what that experience translated to for her. There’s the hope that that experience will have translated into something different for each of those children, even if it is just sowing the seed of an appreciation that there is life in the water. One of the girls was saying they couldn’t believe how much life was underwater, because oftentimes when we look out at the sea, it’s dark and it looks cold and uninviting. You can’t imagine that anything could live there. Finding ways to connect people to how much life is in our ocean is really important. And that will also nurture hope as well. Just seeing what life there is there – that nurtures hope and the reason to do something about it.

[JB]
So, there’s forming that connection but there’s also protection. We know that national parks on land get special protection. The National Trust for Scotland is advocating that Scotland’s next designated national park could include coastal and marine areas. What do you think of that? Do you think that would be effective?

[CM]
I think it’s a fantastic idea. I think it would also give people a better understanding of what’s there to protect. When we hear that something’s a national park on land, our instant feeling is ‘oh, there must be something really special there that’s being protected’. I think giving the ocean and coastal areas that designation as well would have a similar effect. I think creating highly protected marine areas is an absolute no-brainer, not just for conservationists like myself but also for the fishing community. We can restore the health of our seas; we have more productive seas for coastal communities, for tourism operators and for everyday people like you and I who just want to go and enjoy the ocean and the incredible wildlife that it supports. So, I think it’s a really great step.

[JB]
Let’s play another clip from your travels. It’s when your paddleboard takes you, Cal, to St Abb’s Head and you experience its amazing seabird colonies.

[Audio clip of Cal]
I didn’t realise how much I’d missed cliffs with birds on until I came past St Abb’s Head. It’s just lovely; it’s so nice to have that focus point when you’re out paddling, to able to see so much wildlife, and birds are amazing in that regard because you can see them – they’re really visible, there’s so many around. Cliffs and seabirds to paddle past definitely makes it a much more enjoyable experience on the water. They’re so noisy! They smell – and that smell has become so familiar and so weirdly comforting! Really, really nice paddle this morning – very, very glad to be on the water.

[JB]
Oh, lovely. Since your trip, I have to make clear that obviously the bird colonies at St Abbs have been hit by bird flu but hopefully things will improve this year. I suppose, Cal, that plays into your message – that if we stop destroying things, and give nature and wildlife a break, they will overcome; they will thrive.

[CM]
Absolutely. And things like the bird flu pandemic this year has really hit bird colonies hard. But they’re under a lot of other pressures as well – they’re under pressure from plastic pollution, from climate change, from over-fishing of their food stuff. So, if we can actually take some of those other pressures off them, then when these episodes like the bird flu hit them, they’re going to be more resilient to help come back from that.

I think it’s funny with conservation. We talk about conservation as if we humans have this ability to change the world and look after the world, but actually a lot of conservation is just putting into place measures to stop damaging human activity in the first place. It’s not so much about necessarily us doing something to help those animals; it’s us stopping doing the things that are not helping those animals, if that makes sense!

[JB]
That’s a really interesting way of putting it and so right. Finally, Cal, what do you hope people will take away from this story of your journey, especially those around Scotland?

[CM]
I would really like the people to really start to deeply understand just how important our seas are to every single one of us, even if you don’t spend time there, and to have a sense that we all have the right to spend time there, the right to care about the ocean, the right to stand up for it – the responsibility almost to learn about it and stand up for it. And to start to understand what’s out of sight and out of mind. To start to care about the seas a little bit more and to become a little bit prominent in our conversations around climate and biodiversity, and protection of our natural world. So that we’re not just looking at terrestrial ecosystems but looking at the planet as a whole and really appreciating just how essential our ocean is.

And I would absolutely love if just a couple of people were inspired to go and spend some time at the coast, just some mindful time, and just start to appreciate how amazing it can be to be by water. Maybe take some binoculars and look at some birds, or do a bit of rock-pooling and foraging around seaweed – just spend a bit more time there and appreciate what we have there, what’s worth protecting and the fact that we can have a role in protecting our seas.

[JB]
That is a lovely challenge to leave people with, Cal. Thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing your stories and your enthusiasm.

[CM]
Thank you. And I also would just like to say how deeply inspired I’ve been by all the people I’ve met at the National Trust for Scotland, all the conversations I’ve had – it really is an incredible organisation full of passionate people who have the chance to make these differences. It’s just wonderful for me to be able to find like-minded people to have these conversations with, so thank you.

[JB]
Great to hear from you. Cal’s film series about her paddle around Scotland’s coastlines – Scotland: Ocean Nation – will be available soon. She’s also working on a book, so you can look out for that, and you can watch those glorious films and find out more about her adventures at calmajor.com

To discover more about the Trust’s work in conserving Scotland’s coastlines, and some of the places mentioned in today’s chat, please head to the National Trust for Scotland website and search out a piece, if you can, called ‘Turning the Tide’.

That’s it from us for now. It would be great if you would subscribe to the podcast so that even more people can share it and so that you don’t miss an episode. Until next time, goodbye!

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions, on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland.

For show notes, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

S4, E10: Alan Cumming’s Scotland: the Hollywood actor on Robert Burns, life in Scotland, and his love of history

This week, Jackie is joined by actor and presenter Alan Cumming to discuss his life, career and love of Scotland. Fresh from the critically acclaimed run of Burn – a dance-theatre piece that re-examines Robert Burns using his own words – Alan discusses where his passion for Scottish history and culture comes from.

As a long-standing supporter of the National Trust for Scotland and as one half of Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland and Beyond, Alan has seen many of the nation’s most beautiful and fascinating places. He reveals all about his recent stay at House of Dun and Fyvie Castle, and what he learned about Robert Burns through his letters.

Find out more about staying at House of Dun and Fyvie Castle

Find out more about Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

A dark purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Alan Cumming's Scotland | The actor and presenter reveals his love for the National Trust for Scotland.
A dark purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Alan Cumming's Scotland | The actor and presenter reveals his love for the National Trust for Scotland.

Season 4 Episode 10

S4, E9: Iona and the Vikings: how raids on Iona introduced a new age

In this podcast episode, Jackie discovers what brought the invaders from the north to Scotland, and what encouraged them to stay. Joined by Dr Adrián Maldonado, the Glenmorangie Research Fellow at National Museums Scotland and an expert in the Scottish Viking Age, Jackie looks at how the Vikings interacted with the Picts, how they knew which islands to attack, and what happened to the last of the Vikings.

The islands of Iona and Fair Isle are cared for by the Trust and both have connections to the Vikings.

If you enjoy this episode, you might enjoy some of our previous Love Scotland instalments too. For more island history, try the July 2022 episode called Inside Canna House. Or, if you’d like some sea-faring adventure, try the September 2021 episode called The Smugglers’ Caves of Culzean.

A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Iona and the Vikings | Jackie Bird discovers how Scotland was shaped by the Viking Age.
A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Iona and the Vikings | Jackie Bird discovers how Scotland was shaped by the Viking Age.

Season 4 Episode 9

S4, E8: Scotland in the First World War: the homes that became hospitals to support the war effort

In this episode, released on Armistice Day 2022, Jackie looks at a small but crucial part of the First World War effort: the stately homes that were requisitioned to become hospitals. In particular, she’s keen to find out how the National Trust for Scotland’s Pollok House was used at this time.

The property in the south of Glasgow became an auxiliary hospital and helped to treat wounded soldiers throughout the conflict. Harriet Richardson Blakeman, an architectural historian with a special interest in hospitals, joins Jackie to discuss how Pollok and properties like it were converted into make-shift hospitals.

Jackie discovers who benefitted from the hospitals, what steps were taken to ensure the best healthcare possible was being provided, and what happened to these new hospitals at the end of the war.

A green title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland in the war: the homes that became hospitals. How Pollok House and other properties were used to support the war effort.
A green title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland in the war: the homes that became hospitals. How Pollok House and other properties were used to support the war effort.

Season 4 Episode 8

S4, E7: Sam Heughan’s Scotland: The Outlander actor and Waypoints author meets Jackie Bird

What does Sam Heughan love about Scotland? The Outlander star and author of new book Waypoints joins Jackie in the studio to discuss some of his recent adventures. Together, they chat about some of Scotland’s most important historical sites, the value of spending time in the great outdoors, and how Outlander has helped to rejuvenate interest in the nation’s past.

Having filmed in several National Trust for Scotland locations, Sam has become well-acquainted with some of the most beautiful places the nation has to offer. He reveals some of his favourite places to film, how the experience of Outlander has affected him personally, and what drives his passion for Scottish history. Plus, he reads a short extract from Waypoints.

A pink title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Sam Heughan loves Scotland | Outlander star and Waypoints author Sam Heughan joins Jackie in the studio.
A pink title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Sam Heughan loves Scotland | Outlander star and Waypoints author Sam Heughan joins Jackie in the studio.

Season 4 Episode 7

Transcript

Three voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Sam Heughan [SH]

[MV]
This is Love Scotland – with Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome to the Love Scotland podcast. And for my guest today, that phrase ‘Love Scotland’ could not be more apt. Sam Heughan is an actor best known to millions around the world for his role as Jamie Fraser in TV’s Outlander. The phenomenally successful series is about a nurse from the 1940s who time-travels back to Jacobite Scotland and falls in love with Jamie, a Highland warrior. Being part of Outlander has brought Sam fame and opportunities, but the filming of it – often in the rugged parts of Scotland it depicts – also recently reignited that love of his country and its wide-open spaces. So much so that Sam has written a book about one particular journey in the wilds. It’s called Waypoints and it’s out now. Sam, welcome to the podcast.

[SH]
Thank you so much. What a lovely introduction.

[JB]
Thank you. Your book, genuinely, it came to me late; I devoured it in a couple of nights, and I really enjoyed it. It surprised me on two fronts. One, I’ve always hankered after doing the West Highland Way – and after reading this, I am now definitely going to do it.

[SH]
You seem like you are determined to do that, through gritted teeth!

[JB]
So, job done, job done! Also though, I was really surprised by how honest it was about your life.

[SH]
Thank you.

[JB]
Is that something you knew you were going to do at the outset, or did that honesty develop as you were writing it?

[SH]
That’s a really good question, because I think it’s two things, the book. It’s a love letter to Scotland – it’s the West Highland Way, it’s about the walk that I did. The other half of the book is a memoir. It felt like, forgive me, the right waypoint in my life to write it. I’ve been through this journey as a jobbing actor, growing up in Scotland and trying to break Hollywood and break the industry. And then finally getting some success from Outlander. It’s something that I never thought I’d be as honest. The loss of my father actually during the beginning of Season 1 of shooting Outlander was a big moment in my life. I didn’t know him; he left when I was 18 months old, but going to see him in his last moments and visit him and learn a bit more about him definitely had an effect on me. And I think just writing about that has been quite cathartic.

[JB]
In the foreword, I think that sums it up, it’s described as a parable – the longer journey to becoming the leading actor that you are today. It’s got highs and lows, but what shines through is resilience. And we’ll talk a little about that later.

[SH]
Or stupidity! Determination!

[JB]
No! Well, in a way, because I was struck by your impetuousness. This is a walk of about 100 miles with a little mountain climb at the end.

[SH]
A wee one, yeah!

[JB]
Tell me about the madness that prompted it.

[SH]
Well, I suppose my life is a little bit mad. I work on this TV show; they’re long days. I’m not going to say we are digging coal or saving lives, but we’re certainly on a job that is quite demanding of your time. It’s a stamina; it’s quite draining on your energy. I has this small gap this time last year, almost to the very day, before Halloween, that I had this week off before I had other commitments – and this was something I always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to do the West Highland Way; now’s the time. So, with very little preparation – and in hindsight that’s definitely something that I should have thought about – I went to a local outdoor store, bought everything in the store and set off the next day. I think from that very first moment I was really questioning, why am I doing this? As you find out in the book, by day 2 I almost gave up.

[JB]
You had been filming just before you set off. You went out for a jog in Glen Etive – and I have to say that is one of the National Trust for Scotland’s places – it’s beautiful, it’s moving but at the same time, you could have decided to do anything. But it comes back to what was happening in your life at that time. And what scenery does to you, what the great outdoors does to you. You were raw; is that why you decided, on that particular day, I need some sort of spirituality, perhaps? If that’s not over-playing it?

[SH]
No, absolutely. Firstly, I think Scotland does for me – and for many people – landscape gives you a sense of spirituality. There’s a connection that we have to the land, Scottish people, or if you come here – there’s a tangibility. You can feel the people that have lived here in the past. It’s very much present and especially in Glen Etive or Glencoe, which is where we were. The history that is there. I think we all have a connection to Glencoe when you go there. It’s so dramatic. You’ve got the Buachaille Etive Mor, the Great Herdsman mountain there. You’ve got the Devil’s Staircase, and all the stories about the massacre that was there. We had been shooting there with Outlander a scene that actually became the opening of Season 6, but actually we shot it at the very end of Season 6. We were there and that morning I decided to go for a run, and I ran along a segment of the West Highland Way – a very short part of the run. As I was doing it, I was thinking why have I never done this? The beginning of the West Highland Way actually starts really close to my house, so it felt right. And actually, again also Glencoe has featured in my life in Men in Kilts – it was the starting point for this mad road trip that I went on with my co-star Graham McTavish. It’s definitely somewhere that I always wanted to do, and the walk that I always wanted to do. And I guess, as you said, about being raw, I needed time out. I needed to switch off.

[JB]
There’s a scene in Local Hero, which is a movie that I try to get into just about every podcast, where the locals are being berated for wanting to ruin their own environment. And they say, ‘you can’t eat scenery’. That may be the case, I understand that, but if you turn that around, scenery can feed you. Incomers, visitors like us, I think it feeds our soul.

[SH]
It does. Yeah. And it’s like nowhere else, I think. I’ve recently been in America, and I did a bit of a road trip up to Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana – and the scenery there is obviously incredible. It’s vast; very, very different to ours. But there’s something about Scotland and something about the wild places, especially when you’re on your own.

I talk about in the book, after a couple of days of walking and you don’t see anyone, you don’t speak to anyone, you do kind of lose it a little bit. But also, the scenery takes over and I think I was at the first few days fighting it, trying to assert myself on the landscape. And then as soon as I relaxed into the walk and allowed it to dictate when I stopped and when I walked for hours, I really enjoyed it.

[JB]
So you set off on this madcap scheme. You have got far too much equipment. Spoiler alert. The backpack does not end the movie with you. Ok. So that’s all I’ll say.

[SH]
Sorry. No backpacks were hurt in the making of this, but …

[JB]
When you set out, did you know you were going to write about it?

[SH]
I did. Yes, I did. I knew I was going to be writing a book. I knew I wanted to do an adventure around that. I didn’t quite realise it would be as much of a memoir; it was more about just an adventure. And by the end of day two, spoiler alert, I was going to give up. I was so close to giving up and I thought, well, no one really knows that I’m doing this walk so I could just go home, go back to bed and no one will know that I failed, and it will be fine. But then I thought, well then there’s no story, is there? So, there’s no book.

I guess initially that was what motivated me to leave my front door on that blustery, autumnal day. But I was seeking something else. I was seeking some sort of solitude and solace and a place to reflect. And I mean, where better to reflect upon your life and your journey, than the great Highlands of Scotland.

[JB]
And what about the device that’s used in the book of weaving your walk and your life story? Was it always going to be like that, or did that evolve?

[SH]
It really evolved. And it was strange how much it did work as a device. Because, I was a jobbing actor. I was a jobbing actor and had many many successes but many failures. I think the ups and downs really, as soon as I looked back on the memoir side of it and then looked back at the journey in hindsight, I thought this really fits, really well. And even reaching the top of Ben Nevis or seeing the mountain and the elation that I got also married really well with the securing of this life-changing TV role that I’ve had in the last decade.

[JB]
It’s strange. We change, obviously, as we get older, and we gain experiences, but what happens to us in our childhood determines so much of the adult we become. Reading about it and how in your childhood you were entranced by legends, by Arthurian stories, by Robert the Bruce, you talk about swinging your imaginary sword and shield. I think it’s almost, right, this guy is going to be in Outlander. It’s going to play a part in his adult life – it’s almost like you were made for it.

[SH]
It is a very strange one. I don’t know if I believe in fate or destiny or anything like that. However, it does feel right. I was born and brought up in the south west of Scotland in the grounds of an ancient castle. I used to play in there and imagine myself in this castle. And I certainly was obsessed with the Arthurian legends and the Bruce. And here I am playing essentially a Scottish Highland warrior, the king of men. But even on the walk, I came across a lochan that legend has it that Bruce’s sword was thrown in there, which is very similar to the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian legend of Excalibur. But even that, it resonated with me on the walk.

[JB]
From my point of view, I’m always banging on about trying to take kids out into the great outdoors or taking them to historic castles. They may be old ruins through adult eyes, but from a child’s eyes, you’re forgetting that ingredient: that imagination.

[SH]
Yes, that’s lovely you say that. I absolutely agree. I think, as a child, it’s still alive – as soon as you’re told these stories, you imagine these people there. We’ve got so many great places, not just ancient castles but one of my favourites is the Antonine Wall here. The Romans that were here. I think it’s such a fascinating part of history in Scotland. I think for children it’s important that we get them out there. We’re so lucky in Scotland – we have so many great sites that you can take children, or adults that like to pretend they’re children, to explore.

[JB]
In the book – I keep coming back to this honesty – especially in terms of having a career, people would look at you now and assume it’s that overnight success. But my goodness, you worked your butt off. You had a lot of near misses. You had a lot of knockbacks. And it’s that resilience once again. At the outset, were you always going to be that candid about your failures?

[SH]
Probably not. When I look back at the writing, maybe I’ve lent too much into the failures and not just celebrating the successes. But no, it’s a huge part of being an actor or a creative in the industry. My mother is an artist and she always instilled in me that it’s not going to be easy, that it’s going to be a difficult journey. I don’t know whether it was, as I said before, stupidity or resilience or stubbornness, but I had a belief that I wanted to do this. I always knew I wanted to act or be in that world. I think also, if there’s something to take away from the book, it’s just encouraging people about perseverance and that hard work does pay off.

[JB]
You mentioned in the book that when you were an up-and-coming actor, you would devour books by other actors, to learn what an actor’s life was like. Well, your book has now joined that canon because I think it’s a great waypoint, if you like, for young actors who see you immensely successful and can see clearly that you had very, very low points.

[SH]
And what not to do. I was very lucky. I went to the Conservatoire in Scotland, the Royal Scottish Academy at the time, and I remember going through the library each week there and they had a great number of books from greats there. It was really important to me, that period, still relatively young and impressionable.

I actually have been working with their Conservatoire recently. I’ve created a couple of scholarships there to encourage young producers or actors to also think about other things, not just waiting for the phone call, waiting to land the job – for instance, writing a book or creating your own content or writing scripts. Just to realise that there’s more to creativity and to the industry than maybe you would have first imagined.

[JB]
There was one scene that really shone through and stayed with me. It was one of your many jobs and you were serving cocktails at a fancy do, and you ended up serving a cocktail to a contemporary of yours, who had just made it big as an actor. And at that point, I think you’d had quite a lot of knockbacks. I felt at that point that those Heughan castle walls began to buckle just a little. Was that a particular low point?

[SH]
It was. I had been to America a number of times. I had been working on and off, had some relative success and then was back to square one. I was in my early thirties and, yes, I was working in London. I think it was the V&A. A lot of actors were employed to pour cocktails and be good hosts for the guests there. And yes, Richard Madden, of Game of Thrones fame, was there as a guest. I knew him from many years ago from the academy, and he came up and he put his drink on my tray, or I had to hold his drink. He didn’t notice it was me; he was very busy. I had to stand there and hold his drink. As he came back, he took it and walked off. And it wasn’t that I felt ashamed or was jealous of him or anything like that; it was more just that I realised that I was not on the path that I wanted to take. In fact, the walls of Heughan’s castle if anything were probably strengthened by that because it was like, oh ok, I really now need to dig deeper.

[JB]
I like that. That’s a great approach.

[SH]
Thank you.

[JB]
I’m also very heartened by your honesty about how you have to look in the industry, because you don’t hear men talking about – lots of women – about the pressures. Why was that important to include it?

[SH]
Oh yeah, very important. It’s a huge part of being an actor – or actress – but especially an actor, and I guess things are changing slowly. Certainly for women, I think, there’s a lot more awareness about body issues, but also about the pressures put on women. But I think men, we’ve never really spoken about it.

[JB]
It affected your health.

[SH]
It did. I was young, I had very little information. I knew I had to look a certain way. And so, the way I thought to look in the best shape I could was to not eat and to run as much as I could. And so, I really did get a hang-up around food and around my body shape for a long time. And thankfully, that led me on a journey of health and wellness and led me to educate myself and is essentially probably why I created My Peak Challenge, which is my charity fundraiser platform, because I want to share that information with people. You realise that people still don’t really understand where to look, or where to get good information about a healthy lifestyle.

But the body issue thing is something because there are pressures for male actors. We’re expected to take your top off, at any point. I have a six pack and be fine with it. And actually, I think it’s as exposing for a male actor to do that as it is for women.

[JB]
Let’s take a break for a moment, and when we come back, we’ll be talking to Sam about the life-changing role of Jamie Fraser in Outlander, about whisky, about kilts and motorbikes, although not all at the same time! Back in a moment.

[MV]
A donation to the National Trust for Scotland, no matter how small, will help to protect the places that make Scotland so special. With your help, we can respond quickly to mountain wildfires or fix damage from winter storms. And we can carry out vital work to ensure historical sites and fragile wildlife survive for future generations.
Just search National Trust for Scotland and click donate.

[JB]
Welcome back to Love Scotland. I’m with Sam Heughan, actor, producer and author, notably about his new book Waypoints, which charts the ups and downs of his career alongside a challenging and often funny trek along the West Highland Way. Sam, enough downs. Let’s talk about that utterly joyous moment …

[SH]
Let’s do it.

[JB]
… when you find out that you have landed the part of Jamie Fraser. Tell us about the run-up to it.

[SH]
Yes, I’d returned back from America and was working in a bar, as mentioned. I was also 34 years old and was really beginning to question, can I continue to do this? Living in a tiny bedroom in a shared apartment that I couldn’t really afford to pay my rent each month. And I was going to be 40 soon and can I continue on this path?

And at that point, you never know where it’s gonna come from. But I was asked to audition for the show that I’d never heard of, which was a book series Outlander. And as soon as I read the sides, which was pretty much taken from the book, I felt I knew him. It was strange because I think he was a combination of all the parts that I’d played. There were elements of theatre or TV that I’d done from different characters.

I went in and it was a really quick process – 2 weeks. We did a screen test with one of my best friends from Scotland, and it went really well. And before I knew it, I was on this train, this rollercoaster that hasn’t stopped for almost 10 years.

[JB]
Tell me about that supermarket moment.

[SH]
Yes, yes! Well, I think I was in – there are obviously other supermarkets available – but I think I was in Waitrose, which seems very posh for a man that at that time couldn’t afford his rent. I was probably buying the bargain vegetables or whatever was the throw-away things.

I got a call from my amazing agent, who happens to be Scottish, and she told me that I got it. I just celebrated, I think, for a week. It was a really special moment, but also interesting because I still didn’t really know what to expect and certainly didn’t think that the show would have this runaway success or that it would last this long.

[JB]
There are several instances in the book when you talk about, with great respect, the legions of fans of Outlander and their absolute passion for it. What is it do you think – this is a really difficult question – about it that elicits so much loyalty?

[SH]
Ok, I think firstly Diana Gabaldon has written something that really hits home. She’s on her tenth book. I think people really respond to this love story there, this idealistic love story, this unrequited love between these two people. The history side, I think there’s so many things in the books for everyone, but I think the show, to take it back to Scotland – that’s a huge part of the show. I think Scotland is a really big character of the TV show and I think people respond to that. People want to see the wilds of Scotland. Even when we’re in America, which we are now, shooting for America, we’re still in Scotland. It’s doubling for North Carolina and Philadelphia.

So, it’s hard to put your finger on what it is, but I think it’s the characters and the accumulation of all these factors: the historical side, the fantasy side.

[JB]
In those early days, it’s very difficult to think about it now when it’s such a success and you are so synonymous with a character, but Diana Gabaldon obviously saw something in you and described you as ‘Jamie Fraser to the heart’. So, after years of playing the character, how much is Sam Heughan in the Jamie we see on the screens now?

[SH]
That’s a great question. Look, every character you play, you have to put yourself in it; and I honestly, to tell you right now, don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to know until it finishes, until I’ve left the role and I look back and I see how much he’s changed my life. I live with the character every day, all day. We’ve been shooting now for almost 10 years and so it’s very much that he’s ingrained in my life. Everything I do is around that character and around the TV show.

So yes, there’s definitely elements of me in him but also I know I’m nothing like him. He’s probably a better walker than I am.

[JB]
He doesn’t ride motorbikes! You film a lot in studios, but you also film a lot in the wide-open spaces. I know this because every time I go to a National Trust for Scotland property, they say, oh, Outlander’s been here. Oh, Sam’s been here. Do you have a favourite? You filmed in Falkland Palace, Culross, Glencoe, etc. Do you know, or is it just a whirl for you?

[SH]
It’s so hard. You were mentioning there some favourites. Culross is incredible. It’s like stepping back in time there and we filmed in Edinburgh, we filmed up north. We filmed in a lot of castles. It’s really hard to pick a favourite. For me the area around Kinloch Rannoch is very special. Schiehallion, the mountain there, is where we have the standing stones where Jamie and Claire go through – that for me is something very special.

But what I love about as well it also gives me the opportunity to explore parts of Scotland I haven’t been to. Most recently, we were up near Aberfeldy, and I went up to climb some mountains there for a couple of days and it was incredible. I do feel very lucky. I get to see parts of Scotland that are just there on your doorstep; you don’t even realise.

[JB]
It’s also very lucky that the places, the heritage points, are still there. They have been looked after. We did another podcast about movie locations and the fact that the location managers are just awestruck by the existing heritage that we’ve looked after.

[SH]
Jamie Fraser’s ancestral home is at Midhope Castle, Hopetoun. And you walk in there and it’s incredible. These castles are just … ok, that one inside is derelict. Some of the castles we work at have been carefully maintained or restored. It’s amazing and I’m sure the location scouts are just in awe when they come over here and they get to see that we have so much to offer.

[JB]
Outlander has raised awareness of this, and I suppose it’s raised awareness of how important that heritage is.

[SH]
Yeah, absolutely. And not only that, I think Outlander … when we first started, we were in a disused electronics factory outside Cumbernauld. Yes, it was very glamorous. You had absolutely nothing there apart for some rats but now it’s got five sound stages. We’ve got huge workshops with thousands of people employed. Not only that, we’ve got sets outdoors. I think it’s not only helped the area with local businesses, but also Scotland in itself. The industry has really grown – we’ve got a lot more film and TV coming over here, especially with the tax breaks that are there.

But as we said before, look at the film locations. You’ve got James Bond and you’ve got Lord of the Rings coming here, and you’ve got all of these amazing shows that are coming to shoot because we have got not only the crews now, but also the locations.

[JB]
You mentioned James Bond. I can’t not ask this; everybody does. You went for James Bond. You didn’t get it … yet.

[SH]
Yeah. It was an amazing experience. I talk about it in the book but look, he’s a character that I think any actor or actress would love to play. Who knows where they’ll go with it. At the time I went, it was Bond 21. That’s the first, Casino Royale, that Daniel Craig did, but they were looking for a younger Bond. And I’ve got a feeling that’s what they may go for.

[JB]
We need a Scot; we certainly do. Now, I can’t talk to you and not mention whisky. You have your own whisky. How did that come about?

[SH]
Yes, it came about, well initially, because I was feeling homesick. I was travelling a lot and felt that when I went into a bar and ordered a Highland or a single malt, there was a little bit of Scotland that would transport me back to Scotland and the traditions we have here. I was approached by a number of distilleries or companies to work with them, and I thought, no, I really wanted to create something that I like, that is mine. It’s all been self-financed, designed myself, and it’s doing extremely well. I’m really really proud of it. I call it my baby because it is; it’s something that we’ve worked really hard at and it is essentially a premium Scottish blend that hopefully is everything that I love about Scotland in a glass.

[JB]
You really zoom about in a Harley. You parked the Harley out there; your motorcycle helmet is on the table between us. I’m amazed the insurers let you do this.

[SH]
Yeah, actually I’m not supposed to and I’m probably going to get sued at some point.

[JB]
Should we edit this bit out?!

[SH]
There was one time we were shooting up in Aviemore and I had I think half a day off, and they were shooting. I sneaked off and I went skiing. I foolishly posted a picture of myself on the slopes, and of course the producers were not happy. But I think at this point they’ve accepted that I like a bit of adventure but I’m quite careful. I’m not reckless.

[JB]
You have your pastimes and your hobbies like your motorcycling; you have your businesses. You have your fitness and well-being. You have the TV series with Graham, Men in Kilts, that you mentioned. I’m intrigued – is this diversification a result of those hard early days and the powerlessness of being an actor, that you have set around yourself alternatives that you will not be that powerless again?

[SH]
It’s a really interesting observation. I think you might be right. It’s two things. I think it’s the opportunity that Outlander has given me; I think it’s the opportunity that Scotland has got, my love for Scotland. I love this country and I want to share it with the rest of the world, all the great things that we have to offer. But I think you’re also right. As I said before, being an actor you’re usually waiting or being dictated to, and I think creating your own material or whatever it is, it’s really important. It’s a creative outlet and it’s so rewarding when you finally have whatever you’ve put all your time and effort into and it’s in your hand – whether it’s a book or a bottle of whisky or whatever.

[JB]
Or both! That sounds like a good night in.

[SH]
It does sound like a good night in!

[JB]
The book is incredibly well written. As I say, I genuinely enjoyed it. I know you’re supposed to say that when you’re interviewing someone. I’ve got it in front of me and I’ve marked out a passage, handing it over to you. Would you mind reading a bit for me?

[SH]
Ok.
Sometimes I think of myself as a loner by design; perhaps I just like my own company. It’s certainly manageable or maybe if I don’t forge those meaningful connections I can’t be hurt, right? I know that’s not the answer but it’s how I’m wired in some ways. I’ve always had an awareness that I hold back. It’s only now looking back, with all the time in the world to make sense of it, that I start to wonder if this walk might be a turning point in my life. In order to be our best selves, we have to learn and grow, right? Though it may take more than 100 miles to change my habits, it’s certainly a start.

[JB]
So the question is, was it the start of a turning point or was that just you at that point being a little bit melancholy?

[SH]
Oh, I absolutely think it’s a waypoint. It’s a point where I feel like I’ve put some things to rest. I’ve acknowledged certain things in my life and I’m excited for the journey ahead. So, yeah, I think it is. You don’t change overnight for sure, but it was a really important journey for me to take and put it down on paper and also to reflect on where I’ve come from. I guess that’s the thing of every journey: when you get to the end, you’re ready for the next one. And I can’t wait to do the next adventure.

[JB]
After the pandemic, I think it taught a lot of people to really appreciate what we have, especially the wide-open spaces, and that spirituality you can glean from it. So, anybody listening to this who’s perhaps never ventured out into the wilds, what would you say? What does it give you?

[SH]
I know not all of us are lucky to have the Highlands or the wild places on our doorstep, but I think it doesn’t need to be that. It can be just going for a walk or taking yourself out of your regular routine. What does it give you? I think it gives you time for you. I think in this world right now we’re so busy, especially with our connection with mobile phones and the internet. It’s hard to switch off. So, even if it’s take an hour out, or take a weekend, and switch your phone off for a day. It’s tough. It’s hard to do, but after a while you let the journey take over and you’ll really enjoy it.

[JB]
Final question. Perhaps the most important one of all, did you ever get a Lego figure made of yourself?

[SH]
No, but I have received a lot of Lego recently from fans, which is very sweet of them.

[JB]
But the answer is no, so you failed actually!

[SH]
Lego, what’s going on! But yeah I mean, I would certainly appreciate one.

[JB]
I presume you’re also getting lots of presents of mushrooms. I won’t spoil it but mushrooms figure a lot in the book!

[SH]

They do, yes. Right now, it’s mushroom season. I had some beautiful mushrooms grow in my garden recently.

[JB]
Gosh, you really do like mushrooms, ok! We’ll leave that as a teaser. Sam, thank you very much for taking the time to join us today and you are genuinely going to zoom off in your Harley.

[SH]
I am, yes. I need some mushrooms!

[JB]
Thank you for joining us on Love Scotland. And I do heartily recommend Sam’s book Waypoints, which is out now, published by Octopus in book and in audio form – and be prepared to want to travel in his bootsteps. And if you’d like to visit any of the National Trust for Scotland places mentioned here, including Glencoe, Culross, Bannockburn, and so many more, you’ll find details on the National Trust for Scotland website. There’s even a special Outlander page to guide you on your way. But thank you for listening. From me, for now, goodbye.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland.
For show notes, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

S4, E6: Scotland on screen: The story of Scottish cinema told in five films and a TV show

In this episode, Jackie is off to the pictures to discover the story of Scotland on screen. Joined by Scottish film and TV critic Siobhan Synnot and the National Trust for Scotland’s Film Manager Anna Rathband, Jackie embarks on a whistlestop tour of some of the most influential Scottish films.

Along the way, she finds out which movies have had the biggest impact on Scotland and the Trust, including Skyfall, The Wicker Man, and franchises like Harry Potter and the Avengers. Anna reveals why film-makers love coming to Scotland to shoot their scenes, while Siobhan gives behind-the-scenes stories from the sets of some of the biggest Scottish productions in history.

Find out more about Trust places that have been immortalised on film

A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland on screen | The story of Scottish cinema told in five films and a TV show.
A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Scotland on screen | The story of Scottish cinema told in five films and a TV show.

Season 4 Episode 6

S4, E5: The ghosts of Scotland’s past

With just over a week to go until Halloween, Jackie is on a mission to find out more about Scotland’s ghostly history. How have ghost stories changed over time? Who told these spooky tales, and why?

In this episode, she’s joined by Dr Martha McGill, who has been leading research into what Scotland’s ghosts of years gone by tell us about ideas of religion, philosophy and identity. Martha is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick and the secretary of the Scottish History Society.

We discover when haunted houses first emerged, which ghosts are said to haunt National Trust for Scotland properties, and why there have been so many variations of ghost stories over the years.

Discover more haunting tales: Ghosts of the Trust

A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. The ghost's of Scotland's past. How haunting tales have changed through history.
A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. The ghost's of Scotland's past. How haunting tales have changed through history.

Season 4 Episode 5

Transcript

Three voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Dr Martha McGill [MM]

[MV]
Love Scotland – from the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome to the latest episode of Love Scotland. As I speak, Halloween is but a few days away – the annual celebration of the spooky and the supernatural. But travel back a few centuries, and ghosts and ghost stories were with us all year round. In fact, Scotland’s evolving relationship with its supernatural friends and foes can give us an insight into what was happening in society at the time. Dr Martha McGill from the University of Warwick has been leading research into these shifting spirits, and she joins me to share her findings. And if we’re lucky, I hope we’ll get a few good ghost stories along the way. Hello, Martha!

[MM]
Hello, Jackie. Thank you so much for having me.

[JB]
You’re very welcome. I’m looking forward to finding out all about this! Big picture first of all. Can Scotland’s relationship with the supernatural be measured compared to other countries? Are we particularly keen on the idea of ghosts or has our appetite changed over the centuries?

[MM]
Honestly, my suspicion is that we’re not more obsessed with ghosts and other supernatural beings than people from any other country. Certainly, you get stories of strange, creepy phenomena from all over the place. That said, there was definitely an attempt to market Scotland as an especially haunted place. We see this particularly from the 19th century when typically educated men writing in periodicals start off this vision of Scotland as somewhere particularly beset by ghosts. And it was a way of crafting this distinctive cultural identity and helping to market Scotland as a tourist attraction as well.

[JB]
Well, we didn’t do too badly with that. So, let’s travel back in time. When does your research start and what did you find?

[MM]
If we go back to the medieval period, that’s when we first start getting ghost stories recorded in Scotland. These stories are quite different from the sorts of stories we’d think of now when we think about ghosts. There are a couple of common patterns for stories from the Middle Ages. Firstly, you often see stories of dead souls returning from purgatory; purgatory being this realm that you go to after death, where your sins are purged away from you by tormenting fires so that you become fit to graduate to heaven. But, supposedly souls would return from purgatory often to beseech the living to say more prayers for them, to help speed up their passage basically. And these returning souls might look just as they had when alive, or sometimes they had these symbolic appearances that would vary as they progressed. They might turn up in the first instance looking completely black all over, and then as they went through purgatory and their sins were cleansed away from them, they would turn white and their clothing would become all white and shining and glowing. It was a different mode of presenting spirits compared to what we might think of as common now – the ethereal, gliding phantom or whatever.

The other thing you get in the medieval period is stories of revenance – essentially risen corpses. These are basically your modern-day zombie. They’d be mouldy or dead bodies that would drag themselves up from the grave and go and terrorise the local village. They were very physical, corporeal. They could attack people. They could sexually assault people as well. So again, a very different kind of spectre to what we would think about if we thought about a ‘ghost’ now.

[JB]
What did they tell us about society at that time? Was there a particular fear of death?

[MM]
Was there a fear of death? Yes, of course. When we go back several centuries, as we’re doing here, you’ll go back to a period where life expectancy is likely in the 30s or so. People are continually surrounded by death, and telling these stories is one way to contend with that. Telling these stories about souls coming back from purgatory is on the one hand a way to reassure people that their relatives are going on the right path; they might be being getting hideously tortured by flames in purgatory but ultimately they’re on their way to Heaven! But at the same time, these stories are a way for the Church to spread particular messages. Obviously, stories about souls coming back from purgatory were a way to moralise, to tell people to make sure you’re behaving yourself, make sure you’re making the right donations to the Church and saying the right prayers, and all of that sort of thing, because the dead really do need you to do this … The stories about revenance as well were typically stories about people who had lived wicked lives and then died bad deaths, so they were warnings against being evil essentially.

[JB]
They weren’t just arbitrary ghost stories; they generally served a purpose.

[MM]
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s one of the reasons we see ghost stories changing so much over the centuries. They answer different purposes at different times. They evolve according to the broader theological context or social contexts because, yes, they’re continually being used for different purposes.

[JB]
So, when did things change?

[MM]
Well, the Reformation shakes things up. We get to the 16th century – the Reformation in Scotland is 1560 – and Protestantism rejects this idea of purgatory, essentially. For most Protestant theologians, there’s two possible locations after death: Heaven or Hell. This made ghost stories a bit problematic. The idea was that no-one would ever be allowed to leave Hell; nobody would ever want to leave Heaven; so there wasn’t anywhere for ghosts to come back from. Certainly, in the first few generations after the Reformation, we see a rejection of the idea that dead souls might come back to earth. What we do still see is the idea that the Devil might conjure up apparitions to trick people. We also see various stories about fraudulent Catholic priests perpetrating ghost hoaxes to con people out of their money – this stuff is used as anti-Catholic propaganda.

[JB]
How were these stories being shared? If it was top-down, if a lot of them came from the Church, how did they disseminate them?

[MM]
I should clarify first of all – it’s easy to talk about the top-down stuff, because that’s the stuff that survives; that’s the stuff that was written down! I’m sure that, on a popular level, people were telling their own ghost stories, and these might well differ from the stuff the Church puts out. Certainly, when we start getting folklore and ballads recorded, those do include ghosts, often a slightly different kind of ghost from the one the Church authorities might talk about. I think first of all this stuff was circulating at all levels of society anyway.

And then the stuff we see written down by the educated authorities, is often stuff that brings together that popular folklore with some proper theology! It puts this veneer of respectability onto it by attaching a moralising message. In terms of how that would then get circulated, it depends a bit on the specific period we’re talking about. Some of the stuff was written down in chronicles, in histories, surveys of local folklore. Some of it made its way into cheap pamphlets, which would circulate around the country and were often illustrated, so they would be accessible in some way even to illiterate people. They might get read out or sung, in the case of ballads, at the tavern in evenings. There were ways for communication between different levels of society about what ghosts were like essentially.

[JB]
Was this also around the time when the fervour for witch hunts reached its peak?

[MM]
Yes. Scotland’s witch hunting kicks off from 1563, which is when witchcraft is made a capital offence. That coincides with the Reformation and is broadly a time when ghost stories are giving way to stories of the Devil and his machinations. There’s a kind of crossover there – you get more witches and at the same time more of the Devil. Those two things go hand in hand because witches were supposedly servants of the Devil. I suppose you’ve got a negative combination in the first instance! The point when the witch hunts are kicking off is also the point when stories of actual dead souls coming back are declining.

But then later in the 17th century, we see a resurgence of these stories about actual ghosts – dead souls rather than just diabolic tricks. There isn’t a kind of formula we could adopt to explain how witch hunting affects ghost stories, or vice versa.

[JB]
Do we know specifically what the Church had to gain from the witch hunts?

[MM]
Ok, this is a big question! The Church broadly wants to stamp out evil in society. You’re looking at a period of high mortality, a period of frequent subsistence crises, a period of outbreaks of the Plague and so forth. From the perspective of your ministers, these are signs that God is angry with the nation and that they need to be stamping out sin. What we see, especially from the later 16th century, is this attempt to craft a godly society, which means partly you’re stamping down on all kinds of sexual misdemeanours; partly you’re stamping down on things like drunkenness, blasphemy, swearing; but also, you’re pursuing witches. You’re pursuing these figures who are supposedly in league with the Devil, attacking your broader society. Obviously, it was a hideous miscarriage of justice, the witch hunts, but I think for the most part the people perpetrating them – which was partly people on the local level accusing their neighbours and then partly educated authorities – were doing what they thought was best and what they thought would genuinely cleanse their society of evil.

[JB]
During all of this, were there geographical differences in beliefs surrounding the supernatural? Did the Highlands fear what the Borders feared?

[MM]
This is hard to say just because of the paucity of surviving material. It’s your elite Lowland figures in the later 17th century who are recording these stories, and there’s no obvious differentiation between Highland and Lowland stories, or stories from the middle of the country and stories from the border. We do start to see a very clear differentiation in the kinds of stories that are getting recorded from the later 18th and into the 19th century, which is when we start getting this particular vision of Scotland crafted to appeal to tourists. Then we really see a shift towards a distinctive Highland ghost emerging. This would typically be the ghost of an ancient warrior who might come back in armour and might battle with travellers. It would be hale and hearty and would like to eat oatcakes! These stereotypes of Highlanders got regurgitated and adapted into ghost stories. We definitely see that at some point. I’m tempted to say that the Highlands compared to the Lowlands had more fairies, fewer ghosts. Although when you get these ancient warrior ghosts, it’s something that’s getting crafted onto the region rather than something that is actually coming from the Highlands.

[JB]
I understand there was lots of stories about grief and ghosts involved with grief, perhaps advising people to stop grieving.

[MM]
Yes, we’ve talked a bit about the kinds of stories that theologians or ministers told. This is something that was much more coming out of popular culture. You see this especially in surviving ballads about ghosts. The idea that ghosts would come back to say, ‘oh, you’re crying so much; your tears have soaked through my shroud and now I can’t make to Heaven because my shroud is too heavy’! This idea that you have to let people go, essentially. I think these kind of stories circulate on a popular level, just as a way of helping people contend with death, spreading this message that death is something you need to accept, and that you need to try and not grieve too heavily because that would upset the people who are gone.

[JB]
Well, let’s let those people go, if only for a moment. I think now is a good time to have a short break. And when we come back, Martha, we’ll discuss how ghosts evolved in later years and we’ll also chart the rise of the celebrity spectre. We’ll be back in a moment.

[MV]
From coastlines to castles, wildlife to wilderness, when you become a member of the National Trust for Scotland you can enjoy the very best of what Scotland has to offer, as often as you like.

And you can help to protect it.

The National Trust for Scotland is Scotland’s largest conservation charity. By becoming a member, you join thousands of others who are all playing their part to care for the places we love for generations to come.

Join us and become a member today. Just search National Trust for Scotland.

[JB]
Welcome back to the Love Scotland podcast where I’m talking all things supernatural with Dr Martha McGill. Martha, when we reach the 18th century, our view of the supernatural changes, and we get something that you’ve described as the ‘romanticisation of ghosts’. What was that?

[MM]
This is something that kicks off from the latter half of the 18th century especially. This is when the Church loses control of the narrative basically! We get a move away from ghosts as religious propagandists and ghosts increasingly move into this more slightly more fantastical sphere. Gothic literature is becoming popular around this time, promoting the idea of haunted castles and ruins – dark, creepy ghosts that haunt places as opposed to ghosts who come back to people to deliver a specific message and then get back to the grave. At the same time, we get the spread of an early Romantic movement, which takes up stories of ghosts and turns them into something sublime or picturesque, and makes them part of this image of Scotland as a dramatic, windswept Celtic realm.

So yes, we see a move away from ghosts used for religious ends and ghost stories written down for people who really believed them and thought they could convert society, towards ghosts becoming tourist attractions and becoming probably more modern in terms of how they appeared, the kinds of hauntings they perpetrated.

[JB]
Why this change at this time? Just before the break you mentioned the Highland warrior, and this was just post-Jacobite Rebellion – did that have anything to do with it?

[MM]
Yes. Post-Jacobite Rebellion, post-1745 and the failure of the Jacobite movement, the Highlands are quite brutally repressed. You get the power of the Clan Chiefs is severely curtailed; Highlanders are no longer allowed to carry weapons, things like this. You also get a move to supposedly ‘civilise’ the region by a lot of road building, establishment of schools, and so forth. And when the Highlands become ‘pacified’, and when Highlanders start serving and distinguishing themselves in the British army, with the Napoleonic Wars especially, then you get a movement towards romanticising the Highland warrior figure. The Highland warrior figure was no longer a threat to national security essentially, in the way that he had been during the Jacobite period. It’s safer to turn it into something beautiful and glorified, and all the rest.

[JB]
As you said, around this time, this is when the peripatetic ghost was joined by the ‘working-from-home’ phantom, if I can put it that way! There are many Trust properties who have their own in-house apparitions, so perhaps now might be a good time to run through a few, Martha? I think you’ve been researching some for us.

[MM]
Oh, there’s lots and lots and lots! I was going to just mention a few of my favourites.

Crathes Castle has supposedly a Green Lady. This was the spirit of a young woman, allegedly. Supposedly, she’s seen by the fireplace. She wears a green dress, and she has this baby cradled in her arms. Apparently, when the castle was renovated in the early 19th century, the bones of a child were under the hearthplace. There’s an idea there that this was possibly a case of infanticide perhaps, that meant this woman seen cradling the child could never rest since, or some murder for other reasons.

[JB]
I think there’s a Green Lady in Fyvie Castle too.

[MM]
Yes, I was just going to say the Green Lady ghosts straddle this really interesting line between being forlorn, sorrowful, pitiful figures – and that’s what we get at Fyvie. The ghost at Fyvie is supposedly the ghost of Lilias Drummond who died in 1601. Legend has it that her husband Alexander Seton starved her to death because she didn’t give him a son; she only had daughters. Supposedly, when he remarried, her screeches of protest were heard outside the bedchamber, and the next morning her name was found carved into the windowsill. She’s an example of a very sad Green Lady essentially. Again, a figure you might pity.

[JB]
I understand House of the Binns also had some pretty villainous ghosts.

[MM]
Oh yes. House of the Binns supposedly has the ghost of Tam Dalyell, or ‘Bluidy Tam’ as he was known. A 17th-century Royalist general, who was held responsible for persecuting Covenanters. This is a pattern that you see relatively commonly – these figures who were thought of as local villains often end up with ghost stories attached to them. It’s hard to say often when these ghost stories come from precisely because it’s typically not until the 19th century that they actually get recorded, but yes, supposedly Tam haunts his former residence. He gallops around on a horse. He played cards with the Devil when he was alive, so there are spectral remnants of that. We see actually a really similar case in Edinburgh, in Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is supposedly haunted by Bluidy Mackenzie – George Mackenzie – another perpetrator of evils against the Covenanters in the 17th century. So yes, these figures who are known as villains in the local imagination end up with this dark reputation after death, and this often attaches itself to this idea that they can’t rest; they’re not allowed to go and settle themselves in Heaven because they’ve been too evil during their lives.

[JB]
And also in the 19th century we get the concept of the celebrity figure, perhaps a royal?

[MM]
The 19th century is the time when all of this really gets turned into tourism. You start getting this vision of Scotland as a peculiarly haunted place perpetrated abroad and so forth. I think the idea of royals coming back as ghosts is especially associated with that. People have heard of someone like Mary, Queen of Scots and like the idea that they might be able to see a ghost of her! You get famous figures turning into ghosts in a way that might not have happened as much traditionally. I think people would have been a bit careful to tell a ghost story about Mary, Queen of Scots back in the 16th or 17th centuries because that might be implying that she had done evil herself, wasn’t allowed to rest properly; or that the Devil was allowed by God to raise her corpse and manipulate it, which probably also meant that she had died as an evil figure. You’d have to be a little bit careful about spreading these sorts of stories in earlier times when it was all still closely knitted to theology. You were making particular aspersions essentially about the dead person. When all of that loosens up and when ghosts were used more broadly just to market a certain vision of the nation, we get celebrity ghosts.

[JB]
When did we begin to become more sceptical of ghosts? Indeed, have we become more sceptical over the centuries?

[MM]
I think it’s really hard to say what happens in terms of belief. You can’t measure belief if you go back to the 16th or 17th centuries. No one was handing out surveys asking exactly what do you believe when it comes to the disembodied dead or whatever?! How many people believed in ghosts? Who knows. Certainly, from the later 18th and 19th centuries, the figures who wrote these stories down were getting more sceptical about them. They’re increasingly shared as sort of folklore curiosities rather than as statements of fact, but whether that reflects shifting levels of belief is hard to say. It might just reflect shifting views in intellectual culture about what is acceptable to profess in the public sphere. There’s various credible theories that people in private go on believing in ghosts despite what they’re writing down. They still feel a bit of a shudder when they walk through dark graveyards at night, or whatever it might be.
To come up to the modern day, ghost belief has been increasing in the country since the Second World War. There’s no immediately neat correlation we can make with changing education levels. I think it’s more that ghosts come in and out of fashion at different times. For example, during periods of warfare, you will typically get a big boom in ghost stories and a big boom in recorded levels of belief as well. I think ghosts answer cultural purposes more at some times than at others, but it’s complicated to try and say that levels of belief have declined in any consistent or steady way.

[JB]
I suppose that fashion, that increase in the belief of ghosts and the after-life from the Second World War and indeed the First World War when there was a surge in spiritualism, that’s just got a lot to do with people surrounded by death and that they needed some way of dealing with it.

[MM]
Yes, absolutely. You see, of course, the stories adapt themselves to that as well. There’s a big rise in stories of returning soldiers or spectral armies fighting in the air. You get these stories going back. A big boom of them come from the mid-17th-century civil wars as well. People again use ghosts to answer the concerns of their time. The stories change, they evolve, and they meet different emotional needs. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of death to be contended with during warfare so you do see ghosts roped in for that purpose.

[JB]
I know your specific period of interest ends around 1800 but if Dr Martha McGill was researching attitudes to the supernatural in the early 21st century in Scotland, what might you conclude?

[MM]
I think there’s still an awful lot of belief about, more than people might in the first instance assume. Certainly, my experience of researching this stuff is that everybody has a story! Everybody I speak to, when I mention that I work on ghosts, will say: ‘oh well, when I was 8 …’! I think these stories are still very very much with us. And again, we can speculate about why that is and what sort of cultural purposes they serve nowadays. One interesting theory actually is that there was a period when ghosts fell out of fashion because they got replaced by alien stories; suddenly everyone was talking about seeing UFOs. Now that’s faded away again and the supernatural has had a sort of resurgence. Strange apparitions have turned into emanations of the supernatural rather than aliens. As we’ve said, things change over time. My impression is that stories are still very much with us in the present day and still offer people an outlet for grief and again contribute to a particular vision of Scotland that, for various reasons, people want to market.

[JB]
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you, Martha, for joining me and giving me a different perspective on those things that go bump in the night.

Martha’s book, Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland, is out now. Martha, thank you once again.

[MM]
Thank you very much. It’s been lovely to chat to you.

[JB]
If you’d like to find out more about the ghosts that haunt the National Trust for Scotland properties, make sure you check the website and the show notes for this episode. As well as the sites we’ve mentioned, you’d be in with a chance of spotting some spectres at the House of Dun, Drum Castle, Craigievar Castle, Haddo House and even Killiecrankie, as well as many others. If you’d like to spend a bit more time with Scottish ghosts today, scroll back through your Love Scotland feed to find our October 2021 episode ‘Meet the ghosts of Culross’.

That’s all from me. Until next time, goodbye!

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions, on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird. For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

S4, E4: Mary, Queen of Scots: The life and legacy of one of history’s most famous queens

She’s one of Scotland’s most famous monarchs and continues to be the focus of huge interest today. Mary, Queen of Scots is a figure synonymous with Scottish history, but why has her story resonated for so long?

In this episode, Jackie sits down with writer Rosemary Goring to discuss Mary’s life and legacy. Why did the queen love her time in Falkland Palace so much? Why did she have to spend her childhood in France? And what role did she have to play in the brutal murder of her first husband?

Rosemary Goring is the author of the 2022 book Homecoming: The Scottish Years of Mary, Queen of Scots.

If you’d like more royal Scottish history, listen back to our Love Scotland episode (S1, E19) in July 2021 on Robert the Bruce.

A green title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Mary, Queen of Scots | The life and legacy of one of history's most famous queens.
A green title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Mary, Queen of Scots | The life and legacy of one of history's most famous queens.

Season 4 Episode 4

Transcript

Three voices: male voiceover [MV]; Jackie Bird [JB]; Rosemary Goring [RG]

[MV]
Love Scotland – from the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird.

[JB]
Hello and welcome to Love Scotland. Today, we’re focusing on a tragic heroine whose life has been a fascination for more than 400 years. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t confined to the history pages either. Like a 16th-century Marilyn Monroe, her life and loves have been picked over down the years as we’ve analysed her bad judgements politically and the bad men romantically. Despite the passing years, she remains box office as confirmed by the plethora of books, TV dramas and movies about her life. And now a new book – Homecoming: The Scottish years of Mary, Queen of Scots. And I’m happy to say its author, Rosemary Goring, is our podcast guest today. Thank you for coming along, Rosemary.

[RG]
Hi. Great to be speaking to you.

[JB]
Well, we’re going to start with the difficult questions! Why does Mary continue to garner so much interest?

[RG]
Well, it is a really interesting question because in some ways I can’t answer that except to say that you’re right – people keep coming back to her. They keep wanting to pick away at her story and see if they can find a new dimension to her. I think it’s because she was so complicated a figure; we’ve never quite fathomed her. She’s both tragic but on the other hand she was incredibly successful. She was extraordinarily talented and yet she failed so dismally. And there’s never been a way of reconciling the different parts of her character that completely explain what happened to her and why. So, I think that’s why we keep returning to her.

[JB]
And before we talk about the real Mary, have you got a view after all your research on all those movie and TV depictions of her?

[RG]
Ah well, this is where I have to confess I can’t watch those, because I just scream at the screen. Every time Mary meets Elizabeth, I’m out of the room! To be honest, I can talk about the books but the movies, they have just gone over my head … deliberately.

[JB]
Absolutely! Because that meeting did not happen.

[RG]
It did not, and it was the one thing that Mary was desperately keen that would happen. And I think Elizabeth, as she grew a little wiser, realised that it must not happen. You can totally understand why somebody doing a film or a novel would make that happen – it’s great dramatic material. Even when I was writing this book, I was partly wishing I was writing fiction because there you’d have a chance to change what happened and even maybe change the ending. You can do that with dramas but unfortunately not with straight history.

[JB]
Absolutely. So, what was the interest for you personally? Was it the complexity of the character?

[RG]
In part it was the complexity. It was also I wanted to find out for myself, or come to my own conclusions about, whether Mary was responsible for her own downfall, or if Scotland and Scottish society and politics played a large part, or even the entire part, and can be blamed for what happened to her. I’ve been trying to take that thread through the book and at the same time I wanted to place her very specifically in her Scottish context because a lot of her story took place outside of Scotland, but I believe that it was Scotland that made her the woman that she was. And I thought that all the locations where she actually made history tell you a little bit about the world that she lived in and how she responded to it.

[JB]
We’ll find out your conclusion, I hope, about whether or not she was entirely the architect of her own downfall, but let’s begin for people who are not quite so au fait with the history. As you’ve said, you decided to tell the story through the Scottish places that she lived, she visited or in many cases fled to. And reading your book, finding out that there were so many occasions she had to seek some sort of sanctuary, was that really a metaphor for her life?

[RG]
Ah well, latterly it certainly was. The first few years of her life were very happy, even if she was under danger from Henry VIII who was desperate to marry her off to his young son. Even from the start, you’re right, she was seeking sanctuary in a sense that her mother whisked her away from Linlithgow where she was born, up to Stirling Castle which was a great fortress, and then even further locations beyond that. She had to be packed off to France when she was still 5 because everywhere in Scotland was still too dangerous; the threat was too great. And then later in her life obviously, when she was escaping her enemies, she took refuge OR they took her captive.

So yes, it is a sort of metaphor for her life, but actually I feel it doesn’t tell the whole story because at various points in her life she was majestic and she was in control and she was a terrific figurehead for Scotland in her early years as a queen. So, I like to think of the places where she took sanctuary … I more think of the ones when she was an adult as places where she would go for spiritual resuscitation or to gather her thoughts, rather than she was timorous and scared.

[JB]
Let’s get some anchor dates. She was born, as you say, into Linlithgow Palace 1542. The bulk of Linlithgow is very much a ruin these days, but you describe throughout the book in great detail what these places were like in their heyday – the grandeur of the 16th century and the lives of those living there. How important was this in terms of trying to convey the context of the life into which Mary was born?

[RG]
Very important. I think it’s really difficult today to imagine what a castle like Linlithgow would have felt like and appeared to be like to ordinary people. People in those days, when I say ordinary, they had so little compared with us today. So, the splendour of a castle or a palace was partly, in a way, to reinforce royal authority, whether for the people in the country itself or for people who were visiting – visiting dignitaries who needed to be shown that Scotland wasn’t a dreadful, poor, hole-in-the-corner kind of country, but somewhere that you had the finest crafts and arts, which was a really Renaissance country.

Which of course Mary’s father James V, and her grandfather James IV, had worked so hard to do. They were fascinated by the arts and by culture, and they made sure that the buildings that they had much to do with were renovated to look as splendid and as completely modern as was possible to be. I felt it was really important to set the context of where her story unfolds. I love socio-economic history. I think it tells you so much about a period. It tells you almost as much in some ways as political history because it is in these tiny details of whether it’s tapestry hangings or the way people ate or the way that they lived and the hours that they worked – that tells you so much about what was going on in society.

[JB]
Yes. And so, from Linlithgow, as a baby, before she was a year, she moved to Stirling, to be crowned.

[RG]
That’s correct, yes. That was a really amazing castle. Again, it had been partially built by her grandfather and her father. It was still actually being built when she and her mother, Mary of Guise, hurried up there. They managed to make an escape – or her mother managed to make an escape – which was very wily. It has been described often, Stirling, as the brooch between the Highlands and the Lowlands – the brooch in the centre of Scotland. The view that you can actually see from the castle, I always feel it’s a way of looking at Mary’s kingdom, what she had inherited. I always think that it’s such a shame that she didn’t live to a great old age to look back on the country that she had reigned from the ramparts of Stirling.

[JB]
Because she had to leave there at 5 years old, or leave Scotland.

[RG]
She did, yes. And before she could leave, they decided that she would sail to France, to the safety of Mary of Guise’s family and the French Court. They decided that to do that, she would sail from the west coast. She was taken to Dumbarton Castle, which is this incredibly daunting castle on this basalt lump of stone – very, very grim. But the young Mary, who had all her friends around her, seemed very happy here, and very happy to sail off to France. When she had sailed off, her mother took refuge in Falkland Palace because she was so upset at losing her daughter.

[JB]
When she went to France, who were her key predators, if you like, at that time?

[RG]
You mean back in what you could call Britain?

[JB]
Yes.

[RG]
Henry VIII was very much her key predator because he wanted to marry her off to his youngest son. And wanted her at that point, before she was married, from the age of 10 for her to be placed at the English Court where she could be coaxed and taught to be the kind of queen that they wanted her to be, as the wife of his son. And of course the Scottish parliament would have nothing to do with this. They realised what this foretold so this is why she had to be got out of the country, because Henry VIII wasn’t subtle. My goodness, he had a lot of brute force behind him, and if he wanted something, in the end he could probably get it.

[JB]
What struck me is that children like Mary, although born into great privilege, were just pawns on a European chessboard, to be moved and married at will.

[RG]
Totally that. Anybody who feels envious about royalty, probably pertains today to some diluted extent as well, these were not enviable lives. They might have been luxurious, sumptuous but my goodness the danger that lurked around the corners. That’s what you can see in some of the buildings that Mary lived in and passed through in Scotland, is just the implicit threat in how military they all are – the battlements and the dungeons they all have. This was a life of grave danger at almost every turn. You never knew where your next assassin was lurking.

[JB]
Hmmm. We won’t spend too much time discussing her time in France. She arrived there when she was 5. Were they happy years?

[RG]
I think they were happy, actually. She only saw her mother once during the whole time she was in France, and that was for a very long visit, for almost a year, when Mary of Guise went there. And other than that, she and her mother corresponded regularly and they were very close, despite the actual geographical distance. So that when Mary of Guise did die, before Mary came back to Scotland, that was for her a terrible bereavement. But, that’s jumping forward a bit.

She was very happy at the French Court because she was something of its darling. The king thought she was beautiful. He did think that the Scots were a slightly rough lot [chuckles] and one of the Court thought they didn’t wash as thoroughly as they ought to! I’m not sure that would have been true of Mary because I get the feeling that she was enormously fastidious, and also she had lots of maid servants and courtiers around her to make sure that she was immaculately turned out. And she was given her own court when she was old enough to actually be acknowledged properly, formally.

[JB]
And she became queen, but for a very short time.

[RG]
Exactly that. She married the dauphin, became queen and it’s hard to imagine the sycophancy that they would have been treated with as a couple, but also the loneliness of that position. Because actually the dauphin as king never had any real power; he was a very sickly young man. It was Mary’s uncles – the Guise brothers – who really held the strings of power. And so, a very tricky time for her. I think after her marriage, and once the dauphin was so unwell and died, these were not happy years. These were quite menacing years for Mary. She realised her position was precarious.

[JB]
Did she have to return to Scotland? Did she have any say?

[RG]
She did have a say. I think she could have decided, and she at one point considered, not returning to Scotland. She certainly didn’t leap to return as soon as she was, if you like, freed of being the queen of France. As soon as she was the dowager queen, she could have got on a boat and come back. She didn’t do that; she searched for other marital options because she wanted to be married and there was power in marriage, particularly given what alliances she could have made throughout Europe. For me, that’s a black mark in the book against Mary – in that she did not seem to be committed to coming back to Scotland and picking up the reins. She was happy with Scotland to be ruled by people just sitting in the country and making sure things carried on.

There was a delegation – somebody came to visit her, her step-brother the future Earl of Moray came to France to tell her that she would be very welcome in Scotland. And one of the reasons – it sounds as though an obvious thing, of course you’re queen, you would be welcome – but in the time that she had been in France, there had been the Reformation. A Catholic queen was suddenly not sure if she would be wanted in a Protestant country. He came over to reassure her and say yes, do come back to Scotland. Maybe that helped sway her mind, but my feeling is that she had become so accustomed to the comfort of the French Court, that she was very Frenchified even though she had had her Scottish Court around her the whole time she was there. She spoke in Scots. Apparently, her English wasn’t so good but her French was excellent. I think that Scotland did not, without her mother being there, feel like home for her.

[JB]
But at the end of the day, she made the decision to return. She returned an 18-year-old widow. That phrase itself elicits sympathy.

[RG]
It does, doesn’t it? It’s hard to imagine: you’d been married, you’d been widowed and you’re suddenly in charge of a country which is pretty fearsome. It’s in the hands of (I would say) rabid Protestant sect who obviously had to be a bit rabid to effect a Reformation. They had to take the law into their own hands. Whatever you think about that – whether it was a right thing to do or the wrong thing – they were a very fearsome bunch.

[JB]
What was she like as a young adult arriving in Scotland? That’s a tricky question, I know, because in your book you say even historians can’t agree on her character.

[RG]
One thing we do know is that she was extremely good looking. People all said, even the people who loathed her or everything she stood for, how beautiful she was. She was extremely tall – she was almost 6ft. She was beautifully dressed because she loved clothes. She would wear high heels to accentuate how high she was. She had auburn hair, fair skin – she was lovely. I think actually that made such an impression on people, that carried her a good way into the good will of the people as this Catholic queen returned. She was very fun-loving; she absolutely adored partying. She loved music – she had as much music around her at Holyrood Palace as she could possibly manage. She loved playing cards and dice – she’d sit up all through the night gambling. She loved outdoor pursuits – hunting and hawking. She was a really athletic, fun-loving girl basically.

[JB]
Well, she sounds great, and this is very upbeat. And I think this is a good time to take a break because, spoiler alert, the next tranche of Mary’s Scotland years didn’t go too well.

Rosemary, we’ll take a short break and we’ll be back in a moment.

[MV]
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[JB]
Welcome back to the Love Scotland podcast where I’m discussing the life and locations of Mary, Queen of Scots with Rosemary Goring, whose new book plots Mary’s tragic timeline alongside the castles and palaces in which she sought refuge.

Rosemary, Mary seems to have been constantly enveloped in a web of religious and warring powers, and caught between ambitious and ruthless men. So, this question: did she ever stand a chance?

[RG]
Well, I think probably not, actually. I think the dice was loaded against her from the start. I think if you look at European politics of the time, these were huge tectonic forces crushing in on Scotland and on what she was hoping to achieve. In a way, the world she was working in was far too difficult for her ever to succeed. I think she could have managed to have avoided her end – the terrible end that she came to – but I don’t know that she could ever have been a fully effective monarch.

[JB]
Was that because of something lacking in her character? Her intelligence? Her experience?

[RG]
I definitely think she lacked experience, but then so have many other kings and queens. She had flaws in her character, but again so have many other kings and queens. I think the actual period that she was born into, in the midst of religious conflicts, with a country that had had a recent revolution, really made it very difficult. Even the most astute king or queen would have found it hard. I think it was exceptionally hard for somebody who was on her own but was looking for a partner, looking for the stability of that in an extremely male world.

[JB]
Yes, because I have to say – it’s not exactly a feminist stance – but I was thinking, as I read your book, what that woman needs is a good man by her side! And that is precisely what she didn’t get. After being married to practically a child, she made two dreadful marriages in Scotland. What do those matches tell us about her?

[RG]
That is really interesting because I think when she married Lord Darnley against all the advice she was getting, against the advice of the 4 Marys who were her great friends all through her life. Despite what they were saying, she went ahead and married him. Some have said it was pure lust – and it’s entirely possible that there was an element of that. I think she was desperate though for somebody who she could lean on and trust. Why she thought Darnley was that figure, I do not know. But she did that, and probably within weeks she realised what a mistake she had made. He was just turning out to be incredibly vile. He wasn’t just ambitious, he was vicious.

[JB]
In the book you’ve described him – and I’m sure there are many more adjectives – as ‘venal, vain, immoral, unfaithful, a lout’ … and she couldn’t see it. She just couldn’t see it.

[RG]
She couldn’t. And then suddenly she saw it all, and I think that must have been a terrible moment for her because by then she was pregnant, and what could she do? She had this desperately unpleasant man who actually posed a threat to her own life, as she soon began to realise, with the murder of Rizzio, during which she was almost murdered … or always believed that she was an intended victim as well. So that was an absolutely calamitous marriage, and you can feel for her. She said that at one point, if he wasn’t dealt with – whatever she meant by that – she would take her own life. She couldn’t live if they were still together.

[JB]
And of course, Darnley met his end in a plot that involved her second husband, the Earl of Bothwell, who you describe as ‘just a thug’.

[RG]
[laughs] An educated thug, yes! He really was. It was very noticeable apparently, after Mary married him, that her own language grew much coarser. That she had been infected by the way he spoke and behaved and thought. Marrying him was an act of absolute desperation, and I think it shows just how far she had fallen from her own ambitions, actually, and from her own sense of integrity. When Bothwell became the prime suspect for Darnley’s murder, which was almost from the very start, there was a kind of white-washed trial in which he was completely exonerated, and people began to get very uneasy at the sight of their queen consorting with this man.

When he first proposed to her, she actually refused him, but then it became clear that really she needed somebody as thuggish as him to help her see off her enemies. It was an absolutely calamitous decision. On the day of her wedding, she was found … wedding’s too nice a word for them getting married really, it wasn’t a joyful occasion … she was found bitterly crying. She was already regretting it. I suspect she never wanted to marry him, but because he had possibly raped her, certainly because she may have thought she was pregnant, she had to go along with it.

[JB]
Do we know for sure that Mary played a part in the murder of Darnley, her first husband, that she was somehow an accomplice with Bothwell?

[RG]
No, we absolutely don’t know that she was an accomplice. That’s one of the things that is impossible to say for sure. It seems really hard to think she knew nothing of what was planned, given the kind of men that were around her and given the signals that she’d been giving off, but essentially she was a gentle person. She wasn’t vindictive; she wasn’t bloodthirsty like many people in positions of power. And I think it is possible that she deluded herself into thinking that this could be dealt with diplomatically, or in some way having him banished, without actually having him murdered. I personally don’t think that she ever explicitly said that she wanted him killed or ever played a part in that.

[JB]
But if you marry a thug, I suppose that’s what you get. [laughs]
Let’s talk about some of Mary’s favourite places, because obviously this is the premise of the book, and you describe them so wonderfully. Let’s talk about Falkland Palace, which is a National Trust for Scotland property. What was its role in her life?

[RG]
Falkland Palace really was one of her favourite places. It had been one of her mother and father’s favourite places as well. This was a little hunting lodge in the heart of Fife in Falkland Forest. This is where they would retreat to enjoy themselves, not necessarily in sorrow as when Mary of Guise went there after Mary had gone to France, and not as when her father had gone there after the Battle of Solway Firth when he thought that he was about to die, which indeed he did. This was a place where they could have fun and they could sort of let their hair down and go hunting, which they just loved to do. For them, it was a holiday place; it was a place of happy memories. And it was sumptuous and beautiful – it’s a jewel box of a location.

[JB]
It also had one of the earliest tennis courts, and lots of stories abound about Mary playing real tennis, but I was interested to learn in your book there’s no firm evidence that Mary actually played there.

[RG]
Not that I can find. I was reading a book by a couple of tennis experts, and they said it would have been very unseemly for a queen to have played tennis. Well, Mary did lots of unseemly things in a very charming fashion. It’s entirely possible to picture her playing tennis, but if she ever did play tennis there, she can’t have been completely smitten by it because she allowed the court to go into complete disrepair during her time. So, that doesn’t seem to me something that somebody who loved playing tennis would have allowed to happen.

[JB]
And there are also many claims that Mary adored a good game of golf, but it’s like the stories about Sean Connery – if everyone supposedly had their milk delivered by Sean Connery, he would have had a pretty major milk round! No real proof that she played golf around Scotland either?

[RG]
Well, there’s one reference to her playing golf, and this is in a list of indictments of her, of what a flibbertigibbet she was and what terrible things she did in the wake of her husband’s murder. Goiffe, as they called it, was one of them, but it’s a single reference and it’s done to discredit her. Maybe she once picked up a golf club? I don’t know, but she certainly wasn’t out on the Royal & Ancient every other weekend!

[JB]
And every club that now says Mary, Queen of Scots played here … perhaps, perhaps not so much! You described overall writing about Mary as like ‘wading through quicksand’. What makes it so difficult?

[RG]
Firstly, there’s the volume of material, both from her own time and in all the centuries since. And secondly, it’s trying to find a voice that is completely trustworthy. It’s only in our own times that historians are more judicious, and they balance up this fact against that fact and all the probabilities. In the early centuries, people just wrote tracts which were either entirely against here – she was a complete sinner – or she was an absolute saint. And it’s only now that the scales of justice are being allowed to be weighed slightly more judiciously. That for me made it very difficult. And also finding out what I felt as I went through writing it was also hard, because you could not fail to have sympathy for somebody like Mary. She’s a magnificent character and there’s so many good things about her, and yet always knowing the end of her story, retrospectively, makes it all the more tragic as you see the desperate decisions that she made and the holes that she dug for herself.

[JB]
You can see down the years just why dramatists have been drawn to her. What did you glean from visiting so many of her haunts?

[RG]
What a very varied place Scotland is. The different parts of Scotland that she was meant to keep under control, just how different they are geographically, the people in these different areas all had different temperaments and customs. Also, just how very hard a life somebody in her position or in aristocracy in general, had, given the look of buildings where they lived. They weren’t comfortable. They would have put hangings up on the walls, but these were not wonderful places to live. They didn’t live in luxury as we would understand it.

[JB]
And there was menace everywhere, and I suppose the entire country, with (as you say) she was a Catholic queen in a newly Protestant country. It must have been deeply intimidating.

[RG]
I think so. And I think people made sure that she felt that, because really the clique around her – her closest friends obviously were not judgemental – but the men who wanted her gone wanted to make sure that she was kept in a state of alarm. They did not want her to be practising her own faith, even though she had been promised that she could do this so long as she was relatively discreet. Although I don’t think in her early years she was anything more than conventionally devout, it still mattered a great deal to her to be able to take Mass and to read the Bible as she wanted to do. I think she was very much a fish out of water by the time she arrived in Scotland and I think she was always made to feel that her position was extremely precarious.

[JB]
You said that looking at the palaces and castles where she lived, or where she took refuge, was a chance to ‘catch a glimpse of her’. Was there any moment in your search or in your research where you thought ‘I saw her; I get her’?

[RG]
I think there was one. I must admit I do write historical fiction and so I am quite fanciful. But the place where I really felt that I could almost have seen Mary was at Port Mary Cove, which is just beyond Dundrennan Abbey, where she spent the last night of her time in Scotland and where the boat came to take her off to England. From Port Mary Cove you can look out across towards Cumbria and Workington, where she was going to land, and you just have this terrible sense of what might have been if she had listened to all her advisors who were begging her not to get into the boat, not to sail off but to stay in Scotland, or even sail to France. And at that location, I just feel there’s an atmosphere. You can really feel it as you walk on that beach.

[JB]
So, she was aged just 24, with fewer than 6 years of rule. Why didn’t she flee to France for a happier ending?

[RG]
I know! Why didn’t she? That’s the huge question. Because she could have gathered support there, or at the very worse she could have stayed there. She had her own income, and she could have had a perfectly acceptable life and would have saved her own life rather than dying desperately. That’s one of the many questions that hang over her – why, why, why?

[JB]
She made her way to England. It didn’t work out well. She was held for 19 years before her execution. She’d lived, I think, roughly less than a quarter of her life here, yet her reign is indelibly stamped.

[RG]
Yes, it really is. I think she’s made a big impression on Scotland in various ways, increasingly in good ways I think. Initially, when she escaped and then when she was executed, I think she was seen as a justification for saying women cannot be rulers. This was the big argument in the 16th century anyway – could women rule effectively? All through Mary’s young upbringing, she was asked to write school essays on this subject. I think for her detractors, the way she behaved and what happened to her was just a vindication of their own view that women weren’t fit to rule.

But I think in the centuries since then, people have had a much more nuanced view of her. I do notice now that a lot of young women are very drawn to her story because I think they feel they can identify with somebody who was in the very top position in an extraordinarily male environment, an aggressively male environment – very few people she could actually trust and rely on. I think modern women are starting to see in her something if not as a role model, then as somebody whose example is very interesting, and they have a great sympathy for the challenges that she faced.

[JB]
What do you think Elizabeth I had that Mary didn’t, that enabled Elizabeth I to reign for so long and so successfully?

[RG]
She had very good advisors, who actually sometimes told her what she was doing effectively. She listened to them. She also had I think I would call a cooler temperament – she wasn’t as impetuous. She would take time to think about things and sometimes do nothing at all rather than make a decision, in the hope that something would resolve itself, which was actually a very canny way of behaving in lots of situations. She didn’t have the charisma that Mary had, but I think at the same time that’s a plus in the way that she was a much calmer ruler.

[JB]
So, Mary died aged 44. The final irony though was that the person who did get the English crown, and the Scottish one, was Mary’s son James. So, in a way, she lived on.

[RG]
Absolutely. In a way, the story went in the direction she had always hoped for, and in a very simple way, a very un-bloody way. Whereas if Mary had pressed her case for the English throne, there would have been terrible bloodshed. But it just fell naturally to James VI. As you say, she got what she’d always hoped for.

[JB]
Rosemary Goring, thank you very much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Mary with us.

[RG]
Thank you.

[JB]
And Rosemary’s book Homecoming: The Scottish years of Mary, Queen of Scots is out now. And if you want to walk in Mary’s footsteps in Falkland Palace, or in Alloa Tower where she also stayed, just head to the National Trust for Scotland website for all the details of opening times and for even more information on Mary’s life and times.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe for free and join me next time. Until then, goodbye.

[MV]
Love Scotland is brought to you by Think and Demus Productions, on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Presented by Jackie Bird. For show notes and more information, go to nts.org.uk and don’t forget to like, subscribe, review and share.

S4, E3: Seabird survival: battling avian flu

In this episode, Jackie is at St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve in Berwickshire to meet ranger Ciaran Hatsell. They discuss bird flu in Scotland, as the UK’s worst ever avian flu outbreak leaves thousands of seabirds dead.

Ciaran reveals its impact on St Abb’s Head and explains how the virus first took hold on the cliffs. Plus, Jackie asks how Ciaran and his colleagues are working behind the scenes to better understand the virus and protect other birds from the outbreak.

For other episodes on Scotland’s bird life, scroll back through your Love Scotland feed to our ‘Mountain birds’, ‘Seabird city’ and ‘Caring for Scotland’s environment with Jeff Waddell’ episodes.


If you come across a dead or dying bird, do not touch it. Instead, report it to DEFRA on 03459 335577, and report it to a member of National Trust for Scotland staff if you’re at one of the sites.

Whenever making a visit to an area affected by the virus, keep your distance from birds, use disinfectant when you arrive and when you leave, and sanitise your hands before eating, drinking, or smoking. The risk to human health is very low.

More information on how the virus is impacting National Trust for Scotland sites

A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Battling avian flu. Ranger Ciaran Hatsell on the struggle for seabird survival as bird flu hits St Abbs.
A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Battling avian flu. Ranger Ciaran Hatsell on the struggle for seabird survival as bird flu hits St Abbs.

Season 4 Episode 3

S4, E2: St Kilda: Life before the evacuation

The tale of the evacuation from St Kilda in Scotland is legendary – but what of the ordinary people who had called the island home for generations?

In this week’s episode, Jackie sits down with author and journalist Roger Hutchinson to unpack the final years of the archipelago’s population. She discovers the alarming death rate among St Kilda’s children, why the archipelago can be considered like Machu Picchu, and traces the rise and fall of island life that led to the 1930 evacuation.

You’ll also hear about how seabirds were eaten by the islanders, the impact of war on St Kilda, and what life was really like on the UK’s most remote inhabited island.

A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. St Kilda: Life before the evacuation | Jackie Bird discovers what life was really like on the UK's most remote island.
A purple title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. St Kilda: Life before the evacuation | Jackie Bird discovers what life was really like on the UK's most remote island.

Season 4 Episode 2

S4, E1: Flora MacDonald: Young Rebel

In the first episode of the fourth series of Love Scotland, Jackie Bird sits down with historical writer Flora Fraser to discuss the life and legacy of Flora MacDonald.

MacDonald is best known for her part in assisting Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s escape from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Aged just 24, and from a pro-Government family, MacDonald was as unlikely a Jacobite heroine as you could imagine. And yet, her actions helped Charles evade detection and, eventually, flee to safety.

These events have been immortalised by the ‘Skye Boat Song’, but despite her crucial role in Charlie’s escape, Flora is all-too-often relegated to the background. So, who was she really? What led her to take on the risky mission of smuggling Charles to Skye? And what happened in the years that followed?

Flora Fraser is the author of Pretty Young Rebel: The Life of Flora MacDonald, which was published in September 2022.

Find out more about the National Trust for Scotland’s Jacobite sites

A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Flora MacDonald: Young Rebel | The remarkable tale of a woman caught up in two conflicts.
A blue title card. The National Trust for Scotland logo is at the bottom of the card. The text reads: The Love Scotland podcast. Flora MacDonald: Young Rebel | The remarkable tale of a woman caught up in two conflicts.

Season 4 Episode 1

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