Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Introducing "Getting to know Edinburgh"


Nipping off to the shops as early spring sun made Edinburgh magical. I thought “I must write about this”. So I did, and a guide book gradually took shape. The publication date kept being postponed. It involved a lot of research, and a lot of walking, and a traffic accident. But it is finished at last. It has been fascinating to do.

My method has been to do the walks and then write about them, always from memory, resorting to research only to plug the gaps. This may have led to some errors in the history, but at least it is original, not copied. I have, of course, left out as much as I have included, but there is more than enough here for a week’s holiday, or entertainment on a train journey. The last task was to take a photo for the cover.



In case any one is interested in buying the book here is the link to it.

 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Getting-Know-Edinburgh-George-Harris-ebook/dp/B00PH9NW0E/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=03YNRJWSV5JGEB53C78P
 
 I have added the introduction and the contents page to this post. I hope you think it looks more, not less attractive. One of the first people to read it said he liked it because it was “witty”. What a nice comment.


*   *  *   *   *
.  
To the Reader

In 2014 I began my forty-first year as a resident of Edinburgh (always the South Side). We arrived in an old black Riley, up the A7, so that I could take up a post teaching history. Edward Heath was Prime Minister, and was in big trouble with the Trades Unions. No schools owned computers – they were far too big and expensive (the computers, not the schools) – and some of the city’s milk was delivered by horse and cart. It was professionally necessary, as well as a pleasure, to learn more and more about the history of the city, the character of the city, the buildings of the city, the ways through and round the city.

I imagine you, with your e-reader, staying for a few days and wanting them to be as fulfilling and purposeful as possible. Hence this book. It is the book I would like if I were here on holiday for a week: not too long; not infused with cynical nostalgia about how good it used to be before vulgar trippers like you came along; and not packed with information I shall never want about shopping, restaurants, times of trains and so on. (I can find shops for myself, thanks, and train times change.) It only has stuff that interests me, but I am sure our interests overlap. There is a lot of history, a lot of museums, a lot of art galleries, and a lot of tramping the streets.

Edinburgh is fairly well provided with information boards, wall plaques and so on. I have referred to a few of them, but on the whole I assume that if you can read this, you can read them too, and have avoided duplication. Since this is an e-book I have also included links to the official web-sites of the main sites. These are informative and will be kept up to date.

I have been here forty years. I am going to indulge in some total immersion in all the best this great city has to offer, and I am going to share it with you in a series of tours. Friends and critics who know Edinburgh will no doubt point out important sites and sights that I have left out. To them I say “Write your own book!” To visitors I will say without apology that this is not, and is not meant to be, a work of reference. Do not be disappointed that this is not what it does not pretend to be. Do get yourself a work-of-reference guide as well and visit the Tourist Information Centre above Waverley Station.. This book of mine makes much of my particular interests – history, fine art, literature, and town and country walks.

You do not, of course, have to follow my routes in order, or even follow them at all (though if you do you will end the week with a mind enlarged and calf muscles in trim from much walking). I like to think of you reading this on the train as you journey here, and then picking out bits day by day. But perhaps you will follow it from beginning to end; if so, you deserve a medal. One word of warning. Publication of this book was delayed when I walked in front of a moving car and was lucky to escape permanent injury. Do take care on road crossings.

There is no end to the other books you could buy; there are plenty of book shops in Edinburgh, not to mention the various museum and gallery shops. You can enjoy browsing, and spending money. I am just going to mention five, which you may not find on the shelves, but are worth looking for.

One is “Edinburgh” by David Daiches. I see that at this moment I could buy a used copy on-line for £3.49. It is written in a pleasant style and is particularly strong on literary associations.

The second is “Memorials of His Time” by Henry Cockburn. It seems to be available at a range of prices, depending on edition. It is one of the best history books ever written, and describes the city from the 1780s to the 1820s. This covers one of the most intensely exciting times in Edinburgh’s history, though on the night when there was supposed to be a riot of Paisley weavers and Cockburn rather sheepishly enrolled as a special constable, “the whole city was a silent as the grave, or even as Peebles.”. Expect to find some quotations appearing here and there in this guide.

The third is “Edinburgh: An Illustrated Architectural Guide” by Charles McKean, which not only contains more factual information per ounce than any other pocket-sized book I can think of, it also has hundreds of photos. It is not, at the moment, cheaply available, but it is worth the money.

The fourth is “The Capital of the |Mind: How Edinburgh changed the World” by James Buchan. This comprehensive and fascinating look at the eighteenth century, the phenomenon known as the Scottish Enlightenment, is fairly recently published, and readily available.

Finally there is “Layers of Edinburgh” by Eleanor Harris. This is an illustrated historical map of the Old Town. The author is a serious artist and a serious historian and the result is everything you want to know on one sheet of A3 paper. The drawings and colour make it a perfect souvenir. You will find it here: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/67310796/layers-of-edinburgh-an-illustrated

I will also mention a Facebook page: Lost Edinburgh. The huge and growing collection of old photographs is fascinating.

For getting around I recommend the Lothian bus service. If you expect to make more than two journeys in a day, ask for a day ticket. Because I am very old I have a free bus pass – one of my best perks. By the time this book is finished the trams will be running, but I do not think their route will help you much.

In this guide I use the points of the compass very frequently. If you remember that the Royal Mile and Princes Street run East – West, that the Firth of Forth is to the North and that the Pentland Hills are to the South you are unlikely to go far wrong.




Getting to know Edinburgh: Contents

Introduction: To the Reader

Note that there are descriptions of many things to see as you walk between each of the main sites that do not have a separate sub-heading. These come after a sub-heading and before you arrive at the main site listed.

Note also that I have included links to web-sites for many of the main attractions.

1. Route One:
  • Calton Hill
  • The National Gallery
  • The Writers’ Museum
  • Lawnmarket

2. Route Two: 
  • Greyfriars
  • The National Museum
  • The High Street
  • The High Kirk of Saint Giles

 3. Route Three:
  • Holyrood Palace
  • Canongate Kirk
  • The Museum of Edinburgh
  • The People’s Story Museum
  • Canongate – Netherbow – High Street


4. Route Four:
  • Ramsay Garden
  • Princes Street Gardens
  • The Castle

5. Route Five:
  • The First New Town,
  • The Second New Town
  • The Portrait Gallery

6. Route Six:
  • Lothian Road,
  • The Canal
  • Toll Cross and Portsburgh
  • The Grassmarket
  • The Cowgate and the Flodden Wall

7. Route Seven:
  • Morningside
  • Bruntsfield
  • The Meadows

8. Route Eight:
  • Canonmills
  • The Water of Leith
  • The Botanical Gardens
  • The Gallery of Modern Art

9. Route Nine:
  • Salisbury Crags
  • Dynamic Earth 
  • The Scottish Parliament

10. A few suggestions for other things to do
  • A seaside resort
  • An open-top bus trip
  • A mountain walk
  • Edinburgh Zoo
  • The Royal Yacht
  • A boat trip
  • An urban farm
  • Saughton Rose Garden
  • The Sea-life Centre
  • A day in Glasgow
  • Blackford Hill




Sunday, 12 October 2014

Creationtide explained


During September I have been using the Twitter hashtag #Creationtide. This is an article explaining what it meant that I wrote for our church magazineat St John's, Edinburgh, reprinted by kind permission of the editor. This is the link to the magazine: http://www.stjohns-edinburgh.org.uk/get-involved/cornerstone-magazine.html

I have been asked to explain Creationtide. This in my capacity as Convenor of the Green Ginger Group, which exists to force the decision-makers of St John's to consider environmental issues every time they face a choice. Some churches, I have noticed, call it Creationtime.

One strand in Western thinking, frequently the dominant strand in Christianity, has been to regard Creation as a pyramid with the human race at the top. Everything exists to help the human race. The value of everything is measured by it usefulness to the human race. It is possible to derive this wrong interpretation from a misreading of the Book of Genesis. It received a considerable boost in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for the science of those days sometimes seemed to be about humanity establishing control over Creation.

This was never the only strand of thinking. In the wonderful last section of Book of Job, for example, the complete independence of God's Creation from human convenience is asserted. This is one of the messages to be found in the story of Jonah, which we studied in Lent. And the twenty-first century scientist, like the modern ecologist and the modern theologian, is more likely to see the value of every item of Creation for its own sake, the unknowable vastness and complexity of Creation, the inter-relationship of all the pieces and so on. It was not an accident that our theme in 2013 brought forth respectful praise of midges and ticks as well as of pretty, loveable animals.

Scientists now are in broad agreement that the human race (and much life on Earth) is experiencing a massive ecological crisis, facing mass extinctions caused by pollution, climate change and so on. We have to improve our relationship with Creation, and get rid of short-term selfishness.

Creationtide, devised in 1989 is adopted by more and more churches all over the world. It is September 1 to October 4th , climaxing in Harvest Festival and in the Feast of St Francis. All the resources of the church are used to get us to think responsibly about Creation. More knowledge, less selfish attitudes, mutual respect, wonder and changed behaviour are all part of it.

Every year at St John's we have a theme to focus our studies. This year it is the rocks of which the earth is made. By the time you read this Creationtide will be well advanced. Do take advantage of this inspiring season, to be part of making things better.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Edinburgh, as described by Sir Walter Scott in "Marmion"

            


            Still on the spot Lord Marmion stay’d,
            For fairer scene he ne’er survey’d.
               When sated with the martial show
               That peopled all the plain below,
               The wandering eye could o’er it go,
               And mark the distant city glow
                  With gloomy splendour red;
               For on the smoke-wreaths, huge and slow,
               That round her sable turrets flow,
                  The morning beams were shed,
               And ting’d them with a lustre proud,
               Like that which streaks a thunder-cloud.
            Such dusky grandeur cloth’d the height,
            Where the huge Castle holds its state,
               And all the steep slope down,
            Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
            Pil’d deep and massy, close and high,
               Mine own romantic town!
            But northward far, with purer blaze,
            On Ochil mountains fell the rays,
            And as each heathy top they kiss’d
            It gleam’d a purple amethyst.
            Yonder the shores of Fife you saw;
            Here Preston Bay and Berwick Law:
               And broad between them roll’d,
            The gallant Frith the eye might note,
            Whose islands on its bosom float,
               Like emeralds chased in gold.


Friday, 19 September 2014

September 19th. The Morning After




Yesterday we in Scotland had an important referendum. Those of you who read my previous post will know that I am not an enthusiast for referendums. Some of you will know that I got run over (my fault) soon after writing it, so maybe that was a judgement. Be that as it may. This recent referendum in Scotland has had some excellent consequences. There has been a widespread, thoughtful and committed involvement in serious politics by an overwhelming majority of the electorate, including some young people new to voting. The YES campaign developed a vision for the future which included many inspiring social and political reforms. The NO campaign was drawn into trying to match these, and so the whole country has been enthused by the need do more, soon, to make Scotland and the UK a better place.

This does not pretend to be an academic paper, and is woefully short of necessary detail. I like to hope that it will contribute to debate and to thinking and to progress of a modern sort.

To my way of thinking there are three mighty issues which we should tackle, perpetuating the energy generated by the referendum.

One is that the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians must be eliminated. There are two things that must be done to achieve this. The first is that politicians must stop behaving in ways that invite cynicism. All politicians in our democracy are concerned with winning the next election. All politicians are concerned with wealth creation. All leading politicians are a bit ambitious (thank goodness, or there would be no one to do the job). As a result some politicians (not all) behave in ways which invite cynicism. I'll mention expenses scandals and spin-doctoring – but, as I said, this is not a detailed paper. We must use our energy to support those who want to outlaw dishonest, selfish, arrogant behaviour.

The second way of combating cynicism is for the many politicians who are honest and able and unselfishly dedicated to the common good to do more to project their correct image to voters. The media have a heavy responsibility here. If you watch or listen to obscure channels outside prime time, or if you read long articles in journals written in small print, or read the best political memoirs, you soon learn of politicians of great ability and considerable knowledge who are able to have sensible discussions about ways of tackling our problems. But in headlines, and on prime time you see would-be celebrities showing off their skill with words, romping in the bear-garden of party-political competition and indulging in point-scoring. (This leaves out serious scandals which erupt from time to time.) The better sort of politician (the majority) need to work harder at showing they are the people we want to do the job. Journalists could help them – whilst still subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny.

Incidentally, there is a supplementary point that involves Scotland – and any other devolved part of the UK. A journalist at a party once told me after a few drinks (you see I am not claiming this as proof) that at the Holyrood Parliament, where he worked, the SNP members were much the most interesting, because the best young members of Lib, Lab and Con all had ambitions to be successful in UK politics. For devolution to work as it should be need some “big hitters” to stay working in devolved politics, or return to them after a spell in London.

The second mighty issue that needs to be tackled with redoubled energy is the issue of equality and poverty. Anyone who professes an easy solution is probably a charlatan. But again and again during the referendum campaign I saw this issue raised. Please do not stop raising it. At the moment the poorest in our community have a very raw deal This is unjustifiable. Do something about it, with energy.

The third mighty issue is the one I am personally involved in, in a little way, which is the whole question of sustainability, climate change and mass extinction. There are some UN summits on climate change about to happen. There are People's Climate Change Marches designed to show the democratic politicians that there is support (votes) to be won by pursuing sensible policies. Devote to them the energy and enterprise and unselfish desire for the common good that illuminated the referendum debates.

There are many other important issues in politics. I have selected three, acutely aware that I have omitted many – notably international issues of diplomacy, peace and war. Nevertheless, the main point of this post is the stress that all the energy and enthusiasm generated by the referendum will have been a waste of time if our democracy does not take the opportunity to build on it and to move on.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The truth about referendums



[Pedant watch: Referendums is the correct plural when the word is used as a gerund. The plural is referenda when the word is used as a gerundive – in other words, hardly ever.]


This post had better start with a health warning. If you are a school pupil working towards an exam – Higher Modern Studies or AS Politics – then this post would not be a good answer, because it is going to lack balance; and balance is a key component of the mark-schemes in those subjects. But I am too old to sit exams any more (I used to teach Modern Studies and Politics) so I do not have to write in a balanced way. I can tell the truth. And the truth about referendums is that they are bad things and democratic government works better without them.

Yes, they are democratic in some ways, and I am an enthusiast for democracy. But they are a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of translating the wishes of voters into action. I was thinking about writing this post before the recent shenanigans in eastern Ukraine, but they surely strengthen my argument. The Putins of this world like referendums. Enough said!

In the first place, they have a very dark history of dishonesty, intrigue and tyranny. All through the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were used by tyrants and dictators to prop up their rule. Napoleon I had one. Hitler had one. Cavour used them. Napoleon's was rigged by his brother. Cavour, in Sicily, used ballot papers with “Si” [Yes] already printed on them. There is a famous scene in the novel “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa that depicts the dishonest count in one Sicilian village – behind closed doors, by a supporter of the new regime, who announces a 100% “Si”. Well, that is a fictionalised version of events, but I have never read of it being challenged. Hitler's took place after the Nazis were well established, with a reputation for murdering opponents. It took courage to vote “Nein”, and over 90% did vote “Ja”.

One trick used by these crafty manipulators of democracy was to offer no alternative to the answer they wanted. Do you want Victor Emanuel to be King – Yes or No? Do you accept Hitler as Fuhrer? - Yes or No? That was not a democratic choice. Democratic choices are what we have at election-time, with a range of alternatives: Labour or Conservative or Lib Dem or Green or SNP. (I live in Scotland).

In the UK we have been using referendums with increasing frequency since the 1970s. No mainstream UK politician, as far as I know, has been anything other than a believer in liberal democracy, and there has been no intention, yet, of making them the excuse for the removal of liberties. However, it appears to me (and I am not naturally cynical, despite a life-time studying history) that our leaders have only used them for base political purposes; never for good democratic reasons.

For example, Harold Wilson faced the prospect of a split Labour Party over the issue of Europe – the Common Market as it was called in those days. So he held a referendum so that his opponents could campaign heartily against him but then, when they lost the referendum, be able to fall back into line with their honour intact. You will have noticed how many referendums on European issues are discussed and promised these days. This is because both the Labour and the Conservative parties are deeply spit over Europe and promising a referendum in certain circumstances (and then, if possible, finding an excuse not to have one) is one way of papering over the cracks.

This is despite the fact that the matters in dispute – the European constitution, human rights, currency arrangements, trade regulations – are mind-bogglingly complex. Hardly any of the voters will understand them (I do not claim to myself) and they are quite unsuited to simple Yes/No or In/Out decisions. The Conservatives are promising to promise an In/Out Referendum after the next election. If we get to that point imagine the simplistic newspaper headlines, the late-night discussion programmes that hardly anyone watches, the cosmopolitan smoke-screens and the Little England ranting. No voters will study, or understand, the terms of the treaties in detail.

The way parliamentary democracy works is that we elect people who have the time and the energy and the interest to become expert enough on matters of complexity to make our decisions for us. If we think they are doing it wrong we can chuck them out, but that is quite different from thinking that we could do their job for them. A reputable Mori poll just the other day found that people's perception, and the facts, on matters that affect public policy are wildly diffferent. For example: Perception - £24 of every £100 paid in benefits is fraudulently claimed; Fact - £0.70p For example: Perception - 15% of girls under 16 become pregnant; Fact – 0.6%. In referendums vital decisions are made by voters with that level of ignorance. (I am not being patronising here. I include myself in this, I could no more give an informed opinion on matters of high finance than I could on pig-breeding.) In the heat of a referendum campaign the media cannot be trusted to give full, balanced coverage (Many journalists will, but how can those ones be identified?) and politicians certainly can't.

To make matters worse, the simple yes/no format of referendums is all too likely to give rise to TV head-to-head debates between party leaders. These have about as much validity in the democratic process as trial by combat to the judicial system. If the issues are important they must not be decided on which leader has the best TV appearance, which leader has the best debating skills, or which leader has the best back-up team to provide training for the debate.

Another feature of referendums that runs counter to liberal democracy at its best is that they lead to a tyranny of the majority over the minority. Perhaps that is better than the other way round, but it does not have to happen at all. When decisions are taken by a parliamentary process they can be discussed and adjusted at massive length as they are being taken, they can be reviewed by second chamber, and they can be fairly easily repealed if they turn out to have been a mistake. But with referendums, the winner takes all, and for ever. 51% of those who vote can over-rule the wishes of the 49% who lose, with no subtleties or adjustments allowed.

This is made worse by the fact that referendums often involve low turn-outs. When Wales was told in 1997 that it had to vote on whether to have an Assembly or not, roughly 50% did not vote and roughly 49% of those who did vote voted no. As a result Wales got an Assembly even though nearly three-quarters of their electorate had not voted for one.

Enthusiasts will say that non-voters don't count, that their apathy excludes them from the democratic process and so on. This may be true in practice, but it is a bad thing, and bad democracy. The non-voters may not be apathetic. They may not like either of the stark choices on the ballot paper. They may feel reluctant to play the party-political games of politicians. They may feel unqualified to judge on the matter. But if the subject is one of great importance there ought to be a mechanism for taking their views into account; referendums offer none.

Sometimes politicians to hold referendums to avoid a party split. Sometimes they hold them when the couldn't care less about the result. (In the 1990s several cities in England were asked whether they wanted elected mayors or not.) Sometimes they use them to pretend that they are making concessions when actually they aren't. (Do you remember that referendum on whether we should have a rather feeble and ineffective type of Proportional Representation?). Sometimes they use them because their opponents have backed them into a corner where to say “We won't have a referendum” sounds undemocratic and feeble. Sometimes they have them because they are pretty certain to get the result they want. Sometimes they have them to abdicate their responsibility for making tough decisions.

Our governing classes are, thank goodness, usually able to dig their heels in and say “No. We won't have a referendum. We will do what we were elected to do and take responsibility for policy”. (One can mention the issue of capital punishment as an example). When they do offer a referendum, beware.



Friday, 2 May 2014

A Brief Explanation of the Treaty of Union



The Treaty of Union between Scotland and England came into effect on May 1st 1707. Here is a rapid blog-post making one or two points about it.

The people who ruled England at the time wanted the Union urgently. They did not want to conquer Scotland. They were totally unimpressed by the old arguments about sovereignty Henry VIII and Edward I had used to justify invasion. They loathed the memory of Oliver Cromwell, who had carried out a forcible unification half a century earlier. But they did want Union urgently.

They were embroiled in a long and intense war with France that was all tied up with the effects of the so-called “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, and with the dynastic ambitions of Louis XIV. They had succeeded in getting rid of the Catholic, and increasingly anti-parliamentary James II (VII in Scotland) and securing a law that all future monarchs of England had to be Protestant. James had been replaced with Louis XIV’s most implacable enemy, William of Orange. Since 1688 England was beginning to consolidate her position as one of Europe’s significant powers, with a “modern” government, a fairly stable financial sector and the beginnings of an overseas empire.

This was now all threatened. The Protestant royal line was dying out without heirs. Parliament had picked the Electors of Hanover (pretty remote dynastically) as successors. But the Scottish parliament might choose a different successor. Since 1603 Scotland and England had had the same monarch. Thanks to the great civil wars of the 1640s, and the Cromwell episode, this had not resulted in universal peace, but otherwise it removed the chances of English invasions of Scotland (massively destructive for Scotland) or of Scots alliances with France (massively worrying for England). Now this might change. The Scottish parliament might choose a different heir - presumably James Edward Stuart, son of James VII and II and a client (pawn?) of Louis XIV.

A few years earlier an Irish soldier of fortune, Colonel Hooke, had come up with a simple scheme for buying the Scottish elections so as to secure a Jacobite majority in the Scottish Parliament. He argued that, with so few voters, mostly poor and corruptible, it would be a lot cheaper than fitting out an invasion fleet. Louis did not adopt the plan, but it showed the danger.

So, the people running England badly wanted the Union, so as to prevent once and for all any idea of a separate Scottish foreign policy. Nothing else mattered. They were prepared to give the Scottish decision-makers (no referendums or popular elections in those days) any number of sweeteners. The Law, the Kirk, the education system, all remained in Scottish hands. A chunk of money (“The Equivalent”) was set aside to compensate Scotland for the losses incurred by the Darien Scheme. Arguing about what tax and finance arrangements would be best went on in 1707 in a fog of uncertainty – just as arguments in 2014 do. Historians are still arguing about how much Scotland benefitted economically from the Union in the short and medium terms. (Let’s leave the very long term out of it. Too much changed to make a calculation possible). The English Empire, with all its money-making benefits (mostly slave-related) would be opened to enterprising Scots.

For understandable reasons of national feeling a large proportion of influential Scots were strongly against. In 1705 the English government reminded them that there could be sticks as well as carrots and passed The Aliens Act, which, roughly speaking said: “OK. If you want to be a separate country, see what it feels like” and all cross-border traders faced utter ruin.

The debates in the Scottish Parliament and in the country were impassioned and heart-felt. It seems probable that, had there been a referendum, Union would have been rejected. The English government thought that they faced a national emergency in the middle of a total war. (The Battle of Ramillies had been the year before the Treaty. The Battle of Oudenarde was to take place the year after.) As a result they had no qualms about using the various dirty tricks available in 1707 – of which the discreet bribery, with money, jobs or promises, of key figures was the standard one.

And so the Treaty was passed, with rioting in the streets. “Here’s an end to an auld sang”

*   *   *  *   *

Two of my published Kindle pieces on Amazon relate to this period, (though they do not deal with the Treaty of Union directly). They cost 0.88p in the UK and equivalents elsewhere. They are longer than this blog-post, but still brief enough for, let us say, a long commute.




Monday, 24 March 2014

History Exam Revision


This advice is based on four decades of experience as a teacher and as an examiner. I hope it is useful to you.

1. Practise.

My good friend the Director of Sixth Form (now a headmaster) once brought in a university expert on revision to talk to our senior pupils. He gave everyone a post-it note and asked us to write down (a) something they were good at and (b) how they got good at it. Answers to (a) ranged from hockey to playing the bagpipes, via cooking. Answers to (b) almost all included the word “Practice”. I have rarely seen a point so effectively made.

All exam boards publish past papers on-line. Even if your teacher does not provide you with past papers, get hold of old questions and use them for practice. This is by far the best thing you can do for revision.

Earlier in the course it can be useful to write massive essays of thousands of words in length, as a way of getting to grips with a topic. During revision-time, however, practice essays should be strictly limited to the length possible in the exam. The obvious method is to set a timer for the appropriate length and stick to it. However, it can also be useful to spend as long as you like researching and crafting an essay that is of the same number of words you would manage in the limited time.

My two other recent posts on essay-writing may be helpful here. I very much hope your teachers will read your practice answers and take a few minutes to go through them with you. If you are doing self-assessment, make sure you refer at all times to the published exam-board mark-schemes.

Not all exam questions are essays. Also practise source questions, short answers and so on. Always practise with an appropriate time limit.


2. Learn stuff

This obvious advice comes second in importance to practise, but it is still important. There is no quick and easy way of doing this; you just need to put the time in. Some pupils would say “Oh I find it so hard to remember things” – and then one would find they knew the names of all the Premier League managers, or had recently played a large part in a school play. You can do it, but you have to give time to it.

In History there is no precise list of what you must know. The best candidates know lots, but they do not all know the same things. However, your factual revision should be closely related to the syllabus content as listed on line by the exam boards. When I sat A-level (before the first Moon landings) we had a loosely defined syllabus and a wide choice of questions. The modern approach is to have a tightly defined syllabus and a very limited choice of questions. Make sure your memory work fits with the syllabus topics.

Your memory work should include broad outline and general points. But do also make your own list (not too long) of statistics and quotations and other specific details for each topic and memorise them. This sort of detail, well used, can give answers a terrific lift.

Different people’s memories seem to work in different ways, so I’m not going to tell you how you must go about the learning. Do what works for you, whether it is saying aloud, mind-maps, coloured highlights or whatever.


3. Plan out your time

You should by now have a copy of your exam timetable, and it is essential that you use this to work out when you are going to revise what. If you have French, Biology and History on three consecutive days it will be no use trying to do all your History revision once French and Biology are over. Many people seem to have greater powers of focus and time-management than I have, but I have learned the hard way that it is well worth doing.


4. Keep interested

If you are a conscientious pupil you probably studied the topic well in the first place and revised it carefully for the “Mocks”. Revising all those notes and text-books again can make the whole business insufferably boring.

To combat this I would always include some new, stimulating material in your revision. Do not start reading some weighty tome at page one. However, the following are recommended.

-         Go to a library for an hour, gather round you a stack of relevant books and look up a few relevant pages in each.
-         Look out for books that are collections of essays. Forty years ago Penguin published a collection of AJP Taylor’s book reviews, lectures and so on called “Europe, Grandeur and Decline”. That was ideal for this purpose, on the nineteenth century. There will be equivalents.
-         Those magazines specially produced for history candidates are very good at this point. “History Review”, “New Perspective” and “Modern History Review” are all written for this purpose.
-         Use the internet. You are NOT looking for the labour-saving quick fix. You are planning to use search engines to roam around your topics looking for a few new details and ideas. (BEWARE: Much dedicated revision material is designed to help very weak candidates pass. If you are a strong candidate hoping for an A, this may do you more harm than good.)


5. Work with a friend

If you can find a like-minded friend for some joint revision sessions, this can be invaluable. Where you know more than they do, it helps your get your ideas in order to explain it to them. Where they know more than you, their points may be really useful. To give purpose to such sessions I suggest using past paper questions as the basis for discussion.

If these sessions turn out to be waste of time, or merely work you both into a panic, abandon them!


That’s quite enough. There is no short-cut. Above all, practice.


6. Build in some relaxing, leisure time.



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If you find this post useful you might like the pieces I have written for Kindle that cover various popular exam topics. I guess they fit under sub-heading 4, above. I’m afraid you have to pay for them but they are only about a pound each in the UK.

There is a list of them all here:



Tuesday, 11 March 2014

More history essay-writing advice: thinking about the title

This post is supposed to follow on from my one last month called “Basic history essay-writing advice”. It is slightly less basic.

How often have you heard (or said, if you are a teacher ) “You must think about the question.” I had been teaching for many years before I realised that, by itself, this was not a very helpful instruction. So I examined the problem and came up with the following very specific thoughts that one ought to have about essay questions.

In an exam time is short, so it is worth practising these thought processes as a drill during revision, so that no time is wasted when it comes to the real thing.

Here are four example titles, taken from recent exam papers. I shall refer to these in what follows.

Title A: OCR AS History
“The military strength of the Normans was the most important reason for their victory at Hastings” How far do you agree?

Title B: OCR A2 History
How effectively did states react to the demands of war in the period from 1792 to 1945?

Title C: SQA Advanced Higher History
What factors best explain Robert the Bruce’s decision to seize the throne in 1306?

Title D: SQA Higher History
To what extent did the Liberal Government of 1906–1914 introduce social reform due
to the social surveys of Booth and Rowntree?


1.                  What's the topic? This almost too easy to bother with – but get it wrong and your essay could get no marks at all.  Write about the Second World War instead of the First World War, Thomas Cromwell instead of Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon I instead of Napoleon III and you are in big trouble. Essay titles often contain dates, and material outside those dates is irrelevant. For example, in an essay about the development of democracy between 1880 and 1914, material about the 1867 Act or the 1918 Act will do the essay little good.

For example: Title A is only about the victory at Hastings. Stuff about the subsequent conquest of the whole country is off the topic an will get nul points.

Title B; No problems in this case. Those dates are in the syllabus, so you wont be tempted to go outside them.

Title C: Again no problem. You are unlikely to write about a different King Robert.

Title D: is only about the social reforms. Explaining why the political reforms were introduced will damage your essay.



2.                  What's the focus? Every examiner knows that writing down memorised facts about the topic instead of sticking to the focus of the question is one of the two commonest ways of under-performing in history exams. (The other is running out of time through lack of self-discipline and a failure to look at the clock.)

For example:
Title A: Candidates will know lots and lots about William of Normandy, about the reasons for the invasion, about the consequences of Hastings, and so on. But stick to the focus – the reasons for the Norman victory in that one battle.

Title C has a fairly narrow focus – the reasons why Bruce decided to seize the throne in 1306.

Title D is only about the reasons for the reforms. You will have been taught about the content and the consequences of the reforms, but those are not the focus of this essay.


3.                  What type of question is it? In practice there are a very limited number of question-types in use. You should have thought about, and practised, all of them before the exam.

Title A: A view is provided and you are asked whether you agree. The obvious structure is an essay in two parts. Part one examines the reasons for thinking the view is correct. Part 2 examines the reason for thinking the view is incorrect. The conclusion weighs up the arguments. (Note I have said “examines” not “describes”. The best essays are always evaluating and analysing as they go, not merely listing points.

Title B: Superficially a more complex instruction, as befits a more advanced exam. In fact this is another 2-part structure. Weigh up reasons for thinking reactions were effective against reasons for thinking reactions were not effective.

Title C: Many essay questions, like this one, look at first as though all you have to do is regurgitate your notes on the reasons why Bruce decided to seize the throne. Beware! All through the essay you must be evaluating the possible reasons so as to prioritise them. A last main paragraph beginning “However, the most important reason Bruce decided to seize the throne was….” seems indicated.

Title D: This is called an “isolated factor” question in the trade. What you have to do is weigh up the reason you are given against all the other possible reasons. Your conclusion, after all this analysis, must be either “Completely”, “Largely”, “Quite a lot”, Not very much”, or “Not at all”.


4.                  Hmm. It depends what you mean by....” This is often where the A-grade historians leap ahead of their rivals. Some titles are so straightforward that no thought about definition is required, but more often or not an essay can be made or marred by such thought. If the title contains the word “Socialism” and you write as though this merely means “trying to be sympathetic to the poor”, your essay will be feeble. A question about whether or not the British people benefited from the domestic reforms of the Liberal Government 1906-1914 will be much better is you pause to think what “British people” and “benefit” might mean.

Title A: Military strength: This includes strategy, tactics, leadership, logistics, weaponry, command structures, organisation, reconnaissance, intelligence… If all you writer about is men on horses against men with axes your essay will be feeble.

Title B: These A2 synoptic essays almost always require this kind of subtle thought. In this case, what do you mean by a states effective reaction to the demands of war? It can be helpful in these cases to run through a quick check list: Economic? Political? Cultural? Ideological? Bureaucratic? Financial? Other? In this case there is far, far more to be said than can be dealt with in 50 minutes. Fortunately the examiners won’t expect you to cover everything, but rather to show that you could if you had time.

Title C; In this case you probably do not need to spend long on this particular thought. But even so a, little thought about how eminent medieval warrior-earls made decisions might help. The main point is that you should always be thinking, not merely remembering.

Title D: This also is straightforward, assuming you have already identified social, as opposed to other sorts of reform. But do apply the “depends what you mean by” test briefly, if only to assure yourself that in this case it is not needed.


5.                  Do I know any authorities worth using in the essay? In A2 and Advanced Higher essays the reference to and evaluation of historians' judgements is often obligatory: study the published mark schemes. At AS and Higher it is an option, only worth taking if there is something worth saying. Evaluating and balancing these arguments – with the names of historians if you know them – will add a good deal of value to your essay. Merely sticking in quotations from historians as though they proved something, tends to weaken an essay. You will not be an A-grade historian if you use secondary quotations from modern historians as though they are evidence.

I repeat, you should in this matter follow closely the instructions of the exam board. However, in general history is a debate, not a list of memorised truths, and if you can join intelligently an existing debate, so much the better.


6.                  Why is this an interesting question? You probably chose the essay because you thought it was easy, because you knew about it. But your essay will stand out from the crowd if you can write it as though it were genuinely interesting and worthwhile. This can be especially useful for giving your conclusion an extra lift.

Title A: This whole idea of why some battles are won and some lost is interesting. Napoleon liked to appoint generals who were “lucky”, and he knew a lot about warfare. Were men on horses with pointy sticks really stronger than those housecarls in the shield wall?

Title B: Well, France went from world-beater to invaded. Germany seemed to have the answers – but then was overwhelmed. Britain buried her head in the sand and hoped for the best. These are deliberately thought-provoking sentences, but that is what the best essays have, thought as well as memory.

Title C:  the decision-making process is fascinating. How are these key decisions arrived at? What does the evidence tell us about this man Bruce, and why he behaved as he did?

Title D: There’s a massive debate going on in the country right now about the right way to tackle problems of poverty. Relate Lloyd George and co to that to fond interest.


Good essays can be fine pieces of literature, genuinely works of art. but these are built on a solid foundation of method and practice. The moments of genius that great athletes show are added on to their mastery of the basics, not a substitute for them.

* * * *


If you think my blog-posts are helpful you might find my short revision pieces on Kindle helpful too. I’m afraid you have to pay for those, but only 0.88p (in the UK).


Thursday, 6 March 2014

For World Book Day: My Childhood Reading


Most adults talk of the books children ought to read. Teachers (and I was one) have an obligation to do this. However, in this post I am going to talk of the books that, according to my memory, I loved as a child.

The first “proper” book I read for myself was “Five on a Hike Together”. I was six. My sister had just been ill and someone had given it to her. I soon followed that with most of the other Famous Five books. You can say what you like about Enid Blyton, and some of what you say is probably true, but she certainly encouraged my generation to read a lot. I was particularly attracted to those of her adventure stories that were set in the country – the Famous Five, as I have said. Also those “…of Adventure” books. Was it the “Island of Adventure” that involved bird-watching on one of the Western or Northern Isles. I remember when I was maybe seven or eight getting “The Mountain of Adventure” out of Coniston Public Library, finishing it soon after lunch and then immediately turning to Page 1 and beginning it again.

I have always re-read novels that I like. I read fiction then and now partly for escape. (After all, I am a historian. I get quite enough gritty realism from history, for goodness sake.) So stories with characters I enjoy spending time with, in places that I like to visit, have always attracted me. The fact that I know the plot and become increasingly familiar with the dialogue does not reduce my pleasure in the book. Most of the children’s books on this list are ones I have read again and again, and many of them I rediscovered when reading them to my own children.

At my little infant school any one whose birthday it was could choose the story for the day, which would be read aloud. On my seventh birthday I chose the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from “The Wind in the Willows”. It is left out of most adaptations because it has nothing to do with the Mr Toad plot. It describes how Mole and Rat spend a night on the River searching for the baby otter, Little Portly, and are bewitched by the god Pan. “The Wind in the Willows”, of course, is one of those books like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” where it is hard to remember when one read the full and unabridged version, rather than a Ladybird book, or some other highly illustrated and much cut setting.

My parents’ cottage in the Lake District (advertised by the seller as “derelict outbuildings”) had no floor in places, only one cold tap and no electricity. Naturally reading was one of the main activities. The books of my infancy are still on the shelves there: “Rupert” (two big volumes) “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Stories” some of which are very good indeed. Who could be without “Odds Bobs and Mackerel and the Pirates”?

When I was eight I was given a school prize (boast boast) and it was a version of the King Arthur stories: “King Arthur and the Round Table” by A M Hadfield. It followed (I discovered later) Mallory’s extended tragedy fairly closely, and was a pretty meaty book for a young child. By the time o was nine I pretty well knew it by heart, and it illuminated many of my dreams and fantasies. There were two of R J Unstead’s books around as well “Looking at History” and “People in History”. The first was social history, wonderfully illustrated. The second a series of biographies, from Caractacus to Alexander Fleming. I was given it when I was nine and knew it all by heart by the time I was ten. My future career was pretty well decided.

My parents were devoted to the Lake District – a devotion they have passed on to me and which I have never regretted. Naturally the works of Beatrix Potter were all around when we were little. Now that I am old enough to tell, I can see that her greatness is only partly based on the famous pictures. She was also a master of elegant, precise and beautifully crafted prose. Incidentally, I have heard knaves and fools describe “The Fairy Caravan” as less good than her famous little books. They are wrong. It is superb.

Many of the various Swallows and Amazons books are set in the Lake District as well. Between the ages of eight and eleven I read them again and again. “Pigeon Post” was a special favourite, and I do not think any children’s book has a more exciting climax and a more astonishing twist in the final chapter. Talking of knaves and fools, I have heard it said that they are bad books because they are “dated” and “middle class”. Well, of course they are dated. So is “Pride and Prejudice”. As for being “middle class” – well, what sort of half-baked neo-Marxist literary criticism is that supposed to be? One could hardly expect a children’s book to have members of all social classes included, from decayed gentry to lumpen. As a matter of fact one of the remarkable things about the books is the way that the different middle class families – children of naval officers, rentiers and academics – are subtly differentiated. Arthur Ransome himself was a left-leaning journalist, and he was sensitive to this “middle class” criticism, which is why the chief characters in “The Big Six” are the children of skilled workers. It was when re-reading the whole series to my own children that I discovered what good books they are. Incidentally, they are pretty advanced in attitudes. I think it was Jonathan Porrit who said he first learned his environmental awareness from “Coot Club”, and as for gender equality – well don’t tell Nancy Blackett that girls are not “equal” In fact there are some even better gender equality moments, such as when John falls asleep, after they have drifted into the North Sea in a storm, and Susan steers the ship without waking him. Or in “Secret Water”, when Roger and Titty are racing the Amazons and Roger asks Titty to taken the helm for “ she was the better steersman and he knew it.” This is all in the 1930s.

At my prep school there were lots of good old adventure stories, many of which left little impression. “Tintin” was a joy, of course. Biggles was never a special favourite of mine except for two which I was given “Biggles fails to return” and “Biggles delivers the goods”. They are Second World War stories, not the unreadably “incorrect” imperial ones of the ‘20s and ‘30s. They certainly boosted my fund of general knowledge. With an older sister fairly close in age we acquired a good few of books as presents. “Dr Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures”, William Mayne’s choir school books and some Rosemary Sutcliff. Her “Shield Ring” was a special favourite, with its Lake District setting, and I can now see that it is quite a tough story of love and rivalry in a desperate war-zone. Of Cynthia Harnett’s books I specially liked “The Load of Unicorn”. As for her forgotten classic “Sandhoppers”, it can bring tears to the eyes. I was given “The Silver Sword” by Ian Serallier at about the same time. Oh, and “A Hundred Million Franks”, and “The Otterbury Incident”.

When I was about nine John Masefield’s “The Midnight Folk” was serialised on the BBC Home Service “Children’s Hour”. I was gripped by it, later acquired the book, and still think it is very fine. I suppose it is a book for children who like history, with which it is packed. I wonder if this was before, or after, someone gave my sister “Three Men in A Boat” and we hooted with laughter as our mother read it to us at bed time. It is with this period that I associate the “Just So Stories”, too.

Meanwhile at school we had an English teacher, Mr Packwood, who used to read aloud to us a lot. He had old fashioned tastes, as befitted a man who still had a 1918 bullet in his wrist (a ricochet from a training exercise). From him I learned to enjoy Jack London, W W Jacobs, and above all those Conan Doyle stories that are NOT about Sherlock Holmes. Who now knows “The Missing Special” or “The Croxley Master”?


We did not own a television when I was small, but my father used occasionally to hire one if he thought the summer Test Cricket series was going to be worth watching (1956 and 1959, for sure). In those days there used to be a classic story serialised for children on Sunday afternoons, before Richard Green in “Robin Hood”. One that caught my imagination then was “Huntingtower” by John Buchan. It isn’t a children’s book at all, but a very fine comedy thriller, but that children’s version opened up fresh avenues of escapist reading. (Did I make it clear at the start that I refuse to regard escapism in fiction as a bad thing?). Another serialisation was “Kidnapped” again not particularly a children’s book. Robert Louis Stevenson says something somewhere about writing for the boy who is half a man and the man who is half a boy. And so around the ages of eleven and twelve there was more and more Hornblower, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Richard Hannay, and childhood reading was technically over. But escaping to the country was still important. I’ve still got my copy of “My Family and other Animals” given me for my twelfth birthday. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

Basic history essay-writing advice



Every exam board publishes its mark schemes on-line. The candidate who wants to do well should study those mark schemes, because different exam boards do give slightly different weight to the different things that make up an essay. Some boards have special extra ingredients, such as the SQA requirement at Advanced Higher that there should be explicit references to historiography. Your teachers should have made you aware of these things.

Nevertheless, a good essay is a good essay is a good essay, and some general points can be made with confidence. Incidentally, as well as marking hundreds of essays and attending training days for teachers I have even worked for two exam boards and even at one time set papers and helped write marking criteria, so my advice is based on knowledge and experience.

After years of discussion with my good friend the Head of English we discovered that writing a good English Lit. essay does not necessarily involve quite the same approaches. This advice is about history essays.

Every good history essay should have the following ingredients.

I used to draw this on the board. Pupils seemed to find it helpful

  1. Relevance. It must answer the specific question and nothing else. You will never be asked “Write an essay about the Crusades”. You will be asked something specific like “To what extent were the Crusades the result of religious enthusiasm?” Everything in the essay should be directed to answering that question. Bad essays only tackle the question in the last paragraph. In a good essay every paragraph makes a directly relevant contribution to the argument.

It is not a bad idea to have a sentence in each paragraph that echoes closely the wording of the title. eg “Another reason for thinking that there was a lot more to the Crusades that religious enthusiasm is….”  This should ensure that your essay is kept on message.

  1. Structure. Good essays have a planned structure. A chronological structure can occasionally work with some questions, but usually it is best avoided. One thing that is definitely wrong is telling the story. Summarising the story from memory in your own words is junior school stuff. Examiners know you know the story. They want you to answer a question about it. Most pupils can write about 900 words in 45 minutes, so 3 or 4 paragraphs apart from the introduction and conclusion [see below] usually works. Each paragraph should make one big argumentative point, and the points should be arranged in order so that they lead convincingly to your conclusion.  

  1. Introduction and Conclusion Some examination boards have found essays so damaged by poor quality introductions, and then running out of time at the end, that they advise leaving out the introduction. Nevertheless, good introductions make better essays. A good introduction should NOT introduce the topic (eg The Crusades) but should introduce your argument (the extent to which the Crusades were caused by religious enthusiasm) and should show where your argument is going. A good conclusion should sum up your answer clearly, and the main reasons why you have arrived at that conclusion rather than a different one. Good introductions and conclusions should add value to an essay, not be there merely because you have been told they should be there. Make sure you leave time to write a substantial conclusion that adds value. “Thus we see that the Crusades were partly caused by religious enthusiasm, but there were other causes as well” adds no value at all.

  1. Substance Some examiners would put this at the top of the list. Of course it is important. In a good essay every argumentative point will be supported by some evidence. Distinguish between extra detail that does not actually help answer the question and telling detail that really gives weight to relevant points. The first is better than nothing; at least it shows you know something of the topic. But it is the second sort that really lifts an essay. Quotations, statistics, incidents that help prove your points are the things to aim for. There should be lots of real history in your essays.

  1. Clear English This is not much to do with spelling and punctuation as such, though these should be as good as possible. It is all to do with word-choice, sentence structure and generally making sure that the words you use say clearly what you mean. Just for starters – never say “government” when you mean “parliament”.


Here are a few examples of common faults:
·        Using exclusive superlatives when they are not what you mean, and not true. Words like “only”, “first” and “greatest” allow no compromise and should be used with care.
·        Using words like “thus” and “therefore” when you cannot in fact make a logical inference. If the case is not watertight say: “this suggests that” or something like that.
·        Writing sentences that are far too long, with too many subordinate clauses, and that eventually run out of control.    
·        Leaving out a step in the argument because it is clear in your mind when it will not be clear to the reader unless it is put down on paper.
·        Writing two sentences that contradict each other.


All of these things can be done poorly, quite well, or very well; but if you do them all competently you should get a decent grade. Good luck.



Thursday, 20 February 2014

Anti-Capitalism and the Environmental Crisis

Last night, while washing up, I switched on the radio and found I was listening to "The Moral Maze". I’m not sure of the exact moral issue under discussion, but it was something to do with the contribution of science to policy-making. The witnesses sounded a pretty sensible bunch.

Then at the end of the programme came a summing up from the panel, and I was taken aback to hear Michael Portillo saying that he was inclined to doubt climate change science because so many of the people who warn about the current environmental crisis are anti-capitalist. Michael Portillo has reinvented himself, since the abrupt termination of his career in government, as a friendly TV presenter whose programmes range from nice tourist ones about trains to intelligent and moving ones about Picasso. He also gives good value on Andrew Neil’s political sofa in the middle of the night. But here he was implying – I don’t recall the exact words, so I apologise if I misrepresent him – that climate change scientists are untrustworthy because they are anti-capitalist.

Well, where to begin….

1. Even those who prefer capitalism to socialism (a very reasonable position considering the dreadful history of extreme socialism in action) must surely admit (assuming they are humane people of goodwill) that unrestrained capitalism is brutal and life-destroying. In the mid-nineteenth century roughly a thousand coal miners a year were killed in Britain and roughly a thousand merchant seamen were drowned. Only health and safety laws prevented market forces from carrying on in this murderous way. Those corporations who export their factories to countries where labour is cheap and safety regulations unenforced do not do so out of a desire to further international development, and even if factories collapse or neighbourhoods are poisoned, they only change their ways when obliged to do so.

Exactly the same point applies to global environmental considerations. Under capitalism money-making schemes that wreck the environment will only be prevented by legislation and global treaty, rigorously enforced.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to know my own position, I’m an old-fashioned Butskillite, born when Attlee was Prime Minister. We need market forces and an enterprise economy, but we also need the best possible regulatory system to make sure that the rich, powerful, energetic and lucky don’t exploit to the utmost the weak, tired, poor and unlucky.


2.  It is probably true that some of the people who are concerned about the current environmental crisis are what might be caricatured as rent-a-mob radicals. There may be others who have jumped on the environmental train for sinister private ambitions. There are others, of course, who see a handy chance to make money out of our fears, as we buy solar panels and install carbon-capturing power-stations.

It may also be true that some scientists, who should know better, and some campaigners and journalists – anyone whose job includes sexing up the truth – have damaged the cause by one-sided or distorted arguments of various sorts. 

But none of this means that there is no environmental crisis. None of this means that human activity is not making the environmental crisis worse.


3. Some things are matters of opinion, some things are matters of judgement, some things are matters of fact. The number of absolutely irrefutable facts in this world is comparatively few, but that does not excuse us from basing our judgments on evidence. Scientists in the western liberal tradition are very cautious about claiming that their current state of knowledge is irrefutable fact, but that does not mean that their findings are worthless. The consensus in the scientific community at the moment is that the world is heating up, that the climate is changing, that the oceans are dying and that the rate at which species are becoming extinct is speeding up alarmingly. I am, as I say, astonished, to hear intelligent and well-informed politicians and journalists arguing so vehemently against this consensus. As for throwing out vague allegations that climate change science is merely anti-capitalism, well, that is just fantastical.

This is only a blog-post not an academic paper, so I may have mis-remembered the quotation. But did not J M Keynes once say: “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?” What indeed!



Saturday, 15 February 2014

Notes from a Wildlife Garden in Edinburgh January 31st 2014



The mild winter (so far) is probably the reason that we have not had the excitement round the bird feeders I have sometimes enjoyed describing. However, yesterday I was pleased to see a siskin on the feeder normally reserved for goldfinches. They are now well established visitors to gardens, so there is nothing rare about this; but they are a most neat and precise yellow and black. The goldfinches are plentiful, with so many of us neighbours feeding them, but they are by no means taken for granted. A pair of collared doves arrived yesterday as well. They have an irritating moaning sort of coo, but are very elegant. When I was a boy we never saw them. Now they are common. Soon the ivy berries will be attracting wood pigeons.


Another remarkable example of how bird populations and habits shift can be seen in Roseburn Park. I was there the other day with my grandson, feeding ducks. The mallards never got a look in, for at least ten goosanders, big, strong bullies with sharp, fish-catching beaks, elbowed them aside and snatched every crumb.

To all but an enthusiast my pond-life tank would be very dull at this time of year; but there are still leeches wriggling up and down like miniature water-snakes, and little water-fleas, the size of pin heads, bustling about. Every so often I top it up with another jar of pond water and one never quite knows what will appear. Asellus Aquaticus, which looks like an under-water woodlouse, is abundant in the pond.

Winter is a time for reading about gardening, not actually doing it. If you enjoy this column you will love “A Plank Bridge by a Pool” by Norman Thelwell. This famous cartoonist was able, in the 1960s, to buy some land in Hampshire and dig not a pond but a lake. He connected it to the river systems, stocked it with trout and rejoiced in the fish and birds and mammals that came onto his property. At least, he rejoiced in most of the wild-life, though the pike and cormorants that ate his fish, and the water-voles that undermined his banks could be an irritant. You can still buy the book fairly cheap second hand. It has beautiful pen-and-ink drawings on every page


Soon the days will get longer and there will be no excuse not to get back outside and hack back dead vegetation. I deliberately leave more stems and seed-heads than a conventional gardener might, in the hope that mini-beasts will find food and shelter. However, they need to go in the end or the wild garden would become a wilderness, which is not what you want in a small urban plot.


And finally, a New Year Resolution for you: Please do not use pesticides.