Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Prophets Grave

The Reverend William Smith was a God-fearing man. And he made it his business to install the fear of God in his congregation. He was a young man for a minister, but what he lacked in years he made up for in hellfire, his thundering sermons terrifying all and sundry.

He had not been long to his ministry in Largs when the plague struck, decimating the little parish. The kirk yard quickly filled up with corpses, and the disease was rife with no signs of slowing, so those still free from sickness fled to the glen behind the town. The Reverend, keen to make sure his parishoners didn't stray too far from the path - and none to keen to take the plague himself - went with them into the hills.

This little community quickly set themselves up not too far from Middleton Farm and attempted to go about their lives. But the disease found them even in the fresh air and greenery of the Brisbane Glen, and one by one the community succumbed to the plague. The Reverend Smith, tended to their needs and led them all in prayer as their numbers dwindled. Then, early in 1647, the minister himself took the sickness. The few folk that were left helped him on his way down to Middleton Farm, and there he died.

William Smith was buried in the Kelso Glen, and hollies planted around his tomb. It was said, that on his death bed, the Minister had foretold that so long as the hollies never touched, the plague would not return. And so, those who had been with him in his final hours, tended dutifully to the trees, as did their children, and their children's children. So it goes to this day. The hollies never embraced, and the plague was kept from ever returning to Largs.

"Buried in this tomb I lie, at the same time a youth and an old man - youn in years and old in piety. By the divine spirit I have seen divine truths, and have dispersed darkness from the mind, thundering with loud voice. There cleaved to my feelings a very horror of wickedness, and to my words reproach of wicked deeds."
Translated from the very bad latin latin inscribed on the tomb of William Smith.

"The Presbiterie laying to heart the lamentable and calamitous condition of the paroch of Larges partly by the reason of the hand of God that is lying heavy upon them, and partly by the reason of the removal of their minister by death think it expedient that Mr Wm. Lyndsay be sent to visit them and to take notice of their desires, and to enquire ane overture of themselves how they may be gotten helpit and supplied, and the said Mr William to make report of his dilligence."
Presbytery minutes 28th September 1647

Driving from Greenock, The Prophets Grave can be found on the right hand side of the Old Largs Road, just before you arrive in Largs. Well worth a wee stroll on a summer night...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Keep Greenock Sugar Sheds A Community Space

On Wednesday morning, following the Tall Ships weekend, we put a facebook page up suggesting that we should Keep Greenock Sugar Sheds A Community Space. Since then, thousands of people have liked the page, and hundreds have signed the online petition.

For many years Magic Torch have expressed our views on how the Sugar Sheds could be used more creatively, even before the arrival of the current regeneration initiative.

Since Wednesday, a group of around half a dozen new volunteers have been involved in keeping the page up to date, collecting petition signatures, running a twitter account and generally attempting to gather support.

We have been totally delighted with the positive response and alos the optimism of the people who have been commenting.

Sometimes in Inverclyde, we are too ready to be told what can't be done. What's been so great about this, is that people have not felt so confined or restrained, as a result we've seen some genuinely creative thinking.

We feel it would be wise to try and harness some of that thinking for the good of the community.

The Sugar Sheds currently have planning permission to be developed into offices, a cafe bar and restaurant. This is not the same as community space. "Public access" does not mean community space.

Yes, these suggestions offer the traditional opportunities for investment and employement, but there are other ways. Have a look here at Maryhill Burgh Trust, or here at Penicuik House. There are other ways to regenerate.

In the last two days we have had funders, promoters, businesses, artists and performers all come to us to offer support and suggestions. The key now is to build on that momentum, which I am sure our local Urban Regeneration Company would want to do.

We have asked to meet with them to see if we can take forward discussions on more formal community involvement in the further development of the building. With the community on board and actively involved as partners, a whole range of funding and development opportunities can be opened up which the URC would not generally be able to access.

In the short term, here's what we're suggesting

- Keep signing and sharing the petition

- Express your support for the campaign, in your own words to your locally elected representative

- Lets get back into the Sheds to run some more community events. August 6th is the 130th Anniversary of the James Watt Dock, Spetember 10th and 11th are Doors open Days.

In the meantime, if you have a particular expertise you feel may help the group, you can contact us on

You can also visit our campaign blog.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sugar Sheds

Most folk who ventured down to the tall Ships at the weekend had a good time, the sun shone, there was free music, the boats were lovely and the visiting crews were friendly and chatty, people were smiling.

However, a wee glance at online comments on Inverclyde Now, or various facebook pages associated with the event shows that clearly many people were unhappy with what they see as an ill equipped site for the thousands who attended with little postive impact for the local economy. I suppose that's all a matter of your personal opinion or experience over the weekend, as local stallholders, we were there from Friday night and pretty much stayed there for four days. But amidst the controversy and public opinion, there is one recurring theme.."the Sugar Sheds are an excellent venue". It's great to see the sheds being used and viewed in such a positive way, after all, their very future was in doubt after a mysterious fire swept through them 6 years ago.

The Sugar Sheds remain the centrepiece of the regeneration plans for Greenock, but perhaps, after the weekend, we should view those plans differently. Are the sheds really the right venue for more over-priced housing and nice new empty office space, unlikely to sell, or should we be daring to think differently...considering performances, indoor markets, exhibitions and art installations while we bide time waiting for the market to change. Assuming it ever does.

The brickwork, the high windows, the captured atmosphere of hundreds of years of history, once again brought this building to life in a way that nothing else has for years. We should capture that momentum and build on it, before the most recent ten year regeneration mission ends, and the building once more slides back into silence...

If you agree, you can visit Keep Greenock Sugar Sheds a Community Venue on facebook, go here to sign the online petition.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Sea Stories - The Lady of The Lake

This recording of Lady of the Lake for our Downriver project was performed by Kevin Murphy.

Lady of the Lake is a lovely traditional folksong which (unusually) involves a shipwreck with a happy ending. (spoiler) The symbol of the girl "weeping on the Greenock quay" was used a number of times in different folksongs and stories, including one of Neil Munro's Para Handy Tales.

The Lady of the Lake

As I walked out one evening down by the river side,
Along the banks of sweet Dundee, a lovely lass I spied.
First she sighed, and then did say, "I fear I'll rue the day,
. . . . . . . .

"Once I had a kind sweetheart, his name was Willie Brown,
And in the Lady of Ihe Lake he sailed from Greenwich town,
With full five hundred immigrants bound for America,
And on the banks of Newfoundland I am told they were cast away.

When she made mention of my name, I to myself did say,
"Can this be you stands by my side, my own dear Liza Gray? "
I turned myself right round about, my tears for to conceal,
And with a sigh I then begun my mournful tale to tell.

"I own this loss of Greenock Quay, for I in that vessel went;
Along with your true love Willie Brown some happy hours I spent.
Along with your true love Willie Brown some happy hours spent we;
He was my chief companion upon the raging sea.

"We tossed upon the raging main five hundred miles from shore,
The nor'west winds and fields of ice down on our vessel bore.
That night the Lady of the Lake to pieces she was sent,
And all the crew but thirty-two down to the bottom went."

She said, "Kind sir, if that be true, what you relate to me,
Unto all earthly pleasures I'll forever bid adieu.
And in some lonely valley 1'll wander for his sake,
And I'Il always think of the day he sailed in the Lady of the Lake."

"O Liza, lovely Liza, from weeping now refrain,
For don't you see the Lord spared me to see your face again?
For don't you see what you gave me when I left Greenock Quay?
In his hand he bore the likeness of his own dear Liza Gray.

From Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia, Mackenzie
Collected from Mrs. James Palmer

Monday, 11 July 2011

Sea Stories - Captain Kidd

If you are lucky enough to be in sunny (yes...sunny!) Greenock today, pop along to The Tall Ships, where you have two opportunities to see the Captain Kidd musical "Tall Ships Tales", as performed by Inverclyde Schools. It's on the main stage (Bogston end) at 12, then the arena stage (McDonalds end) at 7. Full programme for the days events can be found here.

Kidd's been causing controversy again this week, with grumpy Dundee getting all upset because the new Kidd exhibition in London describes him as being from Greenock. Unlucky Dundee! I'm going to be visiting the Kidd exhibition when I'm down in London next week and will post up a wee review soon. But its already on a winner in my book.

So, in celebration of all things Tall Ships and Captain Kidd related, here's our first ever Kidd story, written by Ray Mitchell, and published in 1999 at the last Tall Ships...

Captain Kidd's Tale
A good Greenock man, turned to bad deeds for the sake of men who will never swing for them, sits in a gaol and tells a man his tale. Who tells another man. Who tells another man...

The Barman
Haven’t seen a night like this in all my life, and Old John’s seen a few nights, I can tell you. Ask anyone; they’ll tell you. Been here longer than most of these old sots can remember, wash my mouth out with soap and water.

Never been emptier than tonight; I can usually rely on Tom and Puckle in the corner putting paid to the problems of the world over a pint of ale, but this storm has even made those two share their drinks and stories at home over a fire. Pity; I like a bit of company in the evenings, but never mind. The weather will clear tomorrow, I’m sure, and then all of the empty chairs tonight will be filled with people who’ll remember how much they like a drink.

Still, never bother; five more minutes and then even I might just get tired of waiting and head off to my warm bed.

Oh-ho; what’s this though? I might think it was a drowned cat out of the rain for a bowl of warm milk and a heat if it weren’t standing on its own two legs. The man staggers in, a quick timely flash of lightning outside illuminating his haggard face for a brief second, and I take a step backward, this old barkeep who’s seen a few sights (ask anyone; they’ll tell you) shocked in his shoes by a rain-soaked traveller.

The man turns toward me slowly, and he must see by my face that I think him a ghost or demon sent by the storm to take my life (or, worse, my pub) because he smiles, his face suddenly like a skull. He slams down on the bar a knapsack that looks as if it’s been on his back three times round the world, and he sits down heavily.
“What have you in those bottles for a man who’s just seen his cousin hanged twice?”
Well, I don’t shock easy, but this makes me pause just a moment, before I draw down a bottle of whisky that hasn’t been drained in a goodly while (the dust on the cork must be twelve year old), and I set it down with two glasses. It surely doesn’t look like this poor creature can afford such fine malt, but he surely looks like he needs it, and now that I’ve seen his hunted face, I surely do too. I pour the amber liquid into the glasses and I say the thing I must have said every night for most of my long life to some weary soul or another.
“Why don’t you tell Old John about it.”

The Traveller
My story is like most others; it ends in horror and heartache, and leaves the listener with more questions than answers. But I will tell you anyway. Perhaps if I tell someone this gnawing feeling at my very gut will move on and leave me in peace.

I have just this day returned from London, where I had travelled off my own back to visit my cousin on the night before his slaughter. Now you might not think this any particular thing, for in these days many men hang for their crimes, but if I tell you that this crime was piracy and treason, and this man William Kidd, then perhaps you begin to take shape of my story in your head, barkeep.
Another drink? Yes. I think so. I think so.

William was blind drunk already by the time they let me see him on a warm evening at the gaol. His only requests to his captors were for more drink, and he shouted cursewords at all and sundry, even for a short while mistaking me for an English guard.
When by and by William had calmed down he began to tell me his tale, a story filled with bitterness and recriminations, the story of a man betrayed and humiliated, of turncoats and bloodshed. It was a tale that in other circumstances I might have paid a penny to sit and listen to in an alehouse, if it did not concern my own flesh and blood.

The Pirate
Are you really there, cousin? I cannot see you. I drink and drink to close my eyes so they will not see the eyes of the man who nooses my neck on the morrow. I hope it works.
I am sorry that I have not been home for many a year now; New York has been my home out of necessity, and I ofttimes yearn for Greenock’s waters and her folks. But now it is too late. Never to look into my family’s eyes again. Never.

You there! Bring me some more of this! And some for my guest! Quick about it now. Has your master not told you to obey the whims of the dying man?

It saddens me to think that these sheeplike oafs will be the last people I clap eyes on afore I go on. Yes, cousin. You are here too. I thank you. You are most kind.

We have not much time now. I have to pass on the tale of my betrayal to a friendly soul. I will tell you some things, and then I will give you something, and then you must go, cousin. Do not stay to watch me dance the hempen jig. I beseech you. But stay now, if you are not of hard heart, and listen to the things I must impart.

I never set out in life to be the blackguard and thief they paint me to be. I was appointed by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellamont, to protect the British Isles from pirates, but curse me, I was taken in by the romance of the high seas, cousin. I decided once I had seen the wealth available from looting these ships off the East coast of the dark continent that this was to be the life for me. God would forgive me. He has surely forgiven worse.

But that is not the darkest part of my tale, cousin. Surely not. The King himself gave me leave to raid French ships as they were enemies of Britain, and even a licence to this regard. A licence, if you cen believe that! But nonetheless. I am never a man to look a gift cow in the mouth, and so with this happy arrangement set up, and with several benefactors, chief among them Lord Bellamont, supporting me in my endeavours in exchange for a small share of the loot, things were right sweet for a good while.

For a while, that is, until the Adventure Galley. God, but I never hope to sail in such a tub again! Such a rotten pile of timbers I’ve never captained, and the crew were worse. Picked up in New York  by a lazy first mate (for a pint of ale each, I reckon), they began to plot against me from the start. I even had to kill one o’ them to teach them a lesson. Never meant to kill him, but the man, Gunner Moore they called him, came at me with a chisel. Picked up a bucket and brained him right there. Never meant to kill him. And they call me a murderer for that.

Cousin, here I am getting off the point again. Suffice to say things rocked along roughly for a little while; lootings were thin on the ground and poor food stores had the men sick as dogs and angry as bears. When eventually we raided two goodly rich French ships, the crew were so near the end of their tether they took more than their share of the treasure and deboarded in New York never to be seen again.

Well! Here was I in a good pickle. I had to tell Lord Bellamont that I had no doubloons for him; I span him my hard luck story, and he was not right happy, but that was that. And the next thing I know, there’s a bloody warrant out for my arrest! ‘Piracy and Murder’, they say! Why if the King himself doesn’t know I’m a pirate! If he doesn’t himself condone a little murdering in the name of patriotism! It fair makes you sick.

All sorts of lies they spread about me. Lord Bellamont himself said that I took all the loot for myself (which was NOT from French ships, but stolen from the slit pockets of innocent murdered men, so he says), and murdered my crew! Cousin! I see from your wide eyes you feel the same as me on this matter, do you not? Do you not?

I was fair doomed from there. The judge would not let me appoint a lawyer to defend me, and so I took it to task myself. I found two good crewmen who would speak of my fair name, but they changed their stories and stabbed me in the back (spurred on by the dirty money of Bellamont, I dare say, cousin). Each lie blackening my reputation as a gentleman pirate brought me a step closer to the gallows, with nothing I could do to slow my pace.

And here we are, cousin. Tomorrow I die. Three words which strike fear in my very soul, unable to bear were it not for the good gallon of ale in my belly. It is late now, cousin, and they say you must go soon. But I told you I was going to give you a gift, and I shall.
Lord Bellamont is fair clever, but never more so than a good Greenock man can be, eh, cousin? For before I returned to Boston to my expected arrest, I buried the remaining Adventure Galley treasure. I offered it to Bellamont in exchange for my freedom, but the scoundrel would not accept. So now I give this to you to return to my wife, cousin. Let her die a rich fat lady instead of a hungry waif. Let me do this one thing before I meet my unrighteous end. Say you will.
Say you will.

The Traveller
And so I watched my cousin, William Kidd, a good man of Greenock born, hanged by the neck, against his very wishes. I simply could not leave without seeing it. I cannot explain why.
They had to hang him twice, did you know that? The rope snapped - an act of God, for Christ’s sake - but they simply strung him up again, a man unable even to stand, and killed him for their rich masters. It sickens me.

What’s that you say? The gift? Aah, there’s the thing, Old John. I cannot tell you, good sir, as much as I appreciate your kindly ear and sweet whisky. That must go to William’s wife this very night, or my life be as worthless as his. Speaking of which, I must away, for I hear the wind die down, and miles are before me on this night. Good night to you.

The Barman
There he goes, my weary traveller, and not one word of his tale did I believe, I’ll tell you that for a tanner. I’ve heard true and I’ve heard false, has Old John. Ask anyone; they’ll tell you.

Oh-ho though; what’s this? Must have fallen out of the fellow’s bag as he left. Crumpled and torn and been in the water; but a map’s a map for a’that, so they might say. And is that the word .... Hispaniola? No; impossible. A joke is what this is. And still...the traveller might still be outside; the wind is not low enough for him to have gotten far. I might give it back to him.

I might.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Sea Stories - The Serpent and The Saint

When the Tall Ships first arrived in 1999, we were just beginning our local research into folklore and heritage, and we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to get involved in a number of the local art projects organised for the Tall Ships Celebrations. The first involved us creating an illuminated medieval manuscript, with celtic knotwork borders designed by local schoolchildren, stories we collected from the community, and a hand carved wooden cover. It's still one of the most enjoyable things we've ever done.

The other was to write and illustrate a short story in a single afternoon, which was then published in a book produced to commemorate Tall Ships 1999, Tall Ships, Short Stories.

We chose to create a traditional fable or parable involving one of the Saints associated with Greenock, and a mythical encounter he had with our local sea serpent. The story was eventually reworked and expanded for our book of folktales and fables "Tales of the Oak" (available this weekend at Tall Ships!)

This is a recording of that story.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sea Stories - The Kaptayanos

In celebration of the Tall Ships arriving in Greenock next weekend, we're going to have a wee selection of shanties, superstitions and fish stories for this month.

First up is a brand new recording from local band Ard Amas. The spoken word piece was researched and written by Ross Ahlfeld and concerns the sinking of The Kaptayanos (not to be confused with The Captayannis, the much more famous "sunken sugar ship")

Ard Amas is a band made up of staff and volunteers from Inverclyde Community Development Trust, and they will be selling their cd at Tall Ships Inverclyde as well as performing on Monday 11 July. "The Kaptayanos" features Dave Robinson on vocals and was engineered by John Joyce.