Friday, 30 September 2011

The Alexander Brothers

Last Friday night  I went to a performance given by the Alexander Brothers. I was sure that it must be a tribute band; they couldn't possibly still be alive, never mind singing. I was wrong, there they were, Tom still a virtuoso accordianist and Jack the warbling singer of old, both now in their mid-seventies or more and still looking good. I was there in the Wick hall really to support the organisers, part of the extended family. Like many Scots, led by the radical Billy Conolly, I'm not too keen on the shortbread tin image that the Alexander Brothers portray. However I did get swept along on the tartan tide and ended up with a lion roaring in my heart. The repertoire was a mix of their own classics and tributes to their long departed former contemporaries like Andy Stewart, Calum Kennedy and Will Star.
     Lang may their lums reek!

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble, and for reviews and Kindle sales.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Stuart heir goes to Malvern College

An interesting coincidence has occurred linking my fictional Stuart hero in The Stuart Agenda and  Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein, who is in the direct line for the official Stuart succession. In my novel, released in July, the fictional Stuart scion, Robert, starts school at Gordonstoun the famous Scottish public school. In real life, Prince Joseph has just started school at Malvern College, the equally famous English public school. This adds to his interesting background- he was born in London, while his siblings were all born in Switzerland.
     So what is going on? Parking your English born son on its playing fields is hardly tanks on the lawn of Buckingham Palace, but are they making a subtle point? Or is the truth to be found in the banking crisis in Liechtenstein? The LGT bank owned by the Liechtenstein royal family got itself into very deep water after being accused of being ' a willing partner and an aider  and abettor of clients trying to evade taxes, dodge creditors or defy court orders,' in a US Senate report. Might we therefore see Prince Joseph go from Malvern to Oxbridge, then to the City of London before going home networked and credibly equipped to run a major banking operation in harmony with the rest of the banking system.
      For students of history, after the deaths of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his brother, the catholic Cardinal Henry, the official Stuart succession went all the way back to Henrietta-Anne, youngest daughter of Charles I, who married into the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Stuart baton then passed through the House of Este (Modena), before ending up in the Bavarian Kingdom. The current Duke, Franz, is childless and the title will likely pass to his brother Max. Max's daughter Sophie, Princess of Liechtenstein, cannot under Salic Law inherit the Bavarian title but she will be the Stuart heir, followed by her oldest son Joseph.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Holyrood Palace by Fiona Bruce

Continuing her series on Royal Palaces, Fiona Bruce arrived at Holyrood on BBC1 last night. There were lots of dreamy shots of the palace, including the side on view from high up on the crags that forms the cover of my novel The Stuart Agenda. Holyrood Palace is a Stuart construct and Fiona concentrated on the two most heroic and tragic figures in the dynasty, Mary Queen of Scots and her desendent, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince Charlie of later Scottish folklore.
     Mary's details were well presented. After the death of her father she went to France with her mother, Mary of Guise, to escape the clutches of Henry VIII of England, who wanted her to marry his son. In France, she married the Dauphin when she was fifteen but within three years he was dead and she returned to Scotland to take up her crown there, still just eighteen years old. She fared little better in Scotland with a disastrous marriage to the unsuitable Lord Darnley who orchestrated the murder of her Italian servant David Rizzio, before being murdered himself. Mary then married the chief suspect, The Earl of Bothwell, finally ruining her flagging reputation to the point where she had to flee Scotland and throw herself on the mercy of her cousin, Elisabeth of England, setting in motion the intrigues that led to her death on the scaffold in 1587, aged 44.
     Bonnie Prince Charlie also got a good airing. Raising the clans at Glenfinnan in 1745 he quickly took Edinburgh and proclaimed his father King, but must have felt like one himself, sleeping in the Angel Bed in Holyrood Palace. After a series of victories he was forced by his own side to turn back at Derby, leading inexorably to the debacle at Culloden against the Duke of Cumberland's army. The Highlands then suffered  horribly at the hands of the Hanoverians who were determined to finish off the Jacobite culture.
     Reconcilliation finally came in the shape of George IV in 1822. He visited the palace, impecably dressed in a special outfit of Royal Stuart tartan, signifying his Kingship of Scotland.
     Fiona didn't ask whether we might ever see a Stuart in Holyrood Palace again. For the answer to that you need to read The Stuart Agenda.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and

Monday, 26 September 2011

Yellow Door- My Birthplace

While home births these days are the preserve of a certain sort of independent mother they used to be the norm  before the NHS. Which brings me to....

Yellow Door

I’m roaming my northern native place,
like a Hindu going back to his village.
I always walk along that street
bathing in the early memories,

when all the doors were dark stained,
gateways to the secrets of the old town.

This time, the door to number twelve
is yellow, a shocking mustard among the
still dull portals. For brightness, they blindly
chose that fevered, jaundiced hue; but my
epitaph is elsewhere, so should I really care
about the colour of my birthplace door?

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and

The Stuart Agenda- How William and Kate lost Scotland.

Picking a name for a book can be tricky. The title has to catch the attention of browsing and more serious readers. It also has to be vaguely relevant to the plot and convey a sense of what the book is about. In the case of my new novel, The Stuart Agenda was the third title to be considered and finally chosen. When I began the novel more years ago than I care to remember, I set off with Restoration as the title to convey a sense that my Stuart hero was simply taking back what was rightly his in restoring the Stuart dynasty to the throne of Scotland.  Restoration also conveyed the idea of correction, as though the Hanoverian period had been a mistake or a blip on the face of Scottish history. However as you can imagine, various other books had already used that title and its lack of specificity eventually ruled it out.
     I then adopted The Next King of Scotland  as my title and ran with it almost until publication when I got feedback from an author whose opinions I respected. The view was that my title might be confused with Giles Foden's Last King of Scotland, a novel about the life of Idi Amin, which was made into a very successful film. I was torn between accepting that opinion and saying that such confusion might be very helpful and that crumbs from a broad table would be very welcome. The clinching argument was that the title gave away the ending, removing the uncertainty for the reader.
     The Stuart Agenda had been around as a possible title for some time. It introduced the dynastic competition from the long deposed Stuarts and also trailed the conspiracy that had to be mounted to achieve the final objective. It also had the right sort of ring for the thriller genre, so it ended up on the cover.
      Coming fully up to date and looking ahead, it's now clearer that in the time frame of the novel set in the mid twenty-thirties, the Hanoverian monarchs are likely to be William and Kate, so an updated subliminal title might be, How William and Kate lost Scotland.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Bengt Sture from Trelleborg in Wick Harbour in 1936

Images from the Wick Society’s Johnston Collection- The Bengt Sture

 by Alan Calder

Browsing in the Wick Society’s Johnston Collection provides a constant stream of interesting images that shine a light on hidden details of our local heritage and that of others. In the case of the image showing the Bengt Sture unloading wood at the South Quay of Wick Harbour, it reminded me of a student summer holiday job in a team moving wood from the quay and building stacks near the sawmill in Lower Pulteney for ‘ Mr Davie Logie’.

The Johnston photograph shows the Bengt Sture unloading staves (for barrels) and battens at the South Quay. Harbour records in the Wick Archives confirm her date of arrival as October 3rd 1936, on her sole visit to the town. Further down the quay the SS Halladale, a frequent visitor to the port, is loading a cargo of salt (in barrels) and empty herring barrels. Behind the SS Halladale lies a steam drifter, with WK 127 inscribed on her funnel. This is the Laurelia, built in Wick in 1908 and finally broken up for scrap in Orkney in 1937.

Switching to Google gave a lot more details. The cargo steamer ( 872 ton, 64.7x9.63m ) was originally built in 1917 for Danish owners by Unterweser at Lehe near Bremerhaven in Germany. It then passed through various German hands before being renamed the  Bengt Sture registered to Swedish owners at the port of Trelleborg,  on the southern tip of Sweden in 1930. The peaceful scene of the Swedish ship in Wick Harbour in 1936, is in stark contrast to her subsequent fate in WWII.

On October 28th 1942, the Bengt Sture  left the German controlled port of Danzig for Oxelosund in south west Sweden with a cargo of coal. She was torpedoed at 23.19h by the Soviet  Shchuka (pike) Class U-boat SC 406, north west of the Stilo lighthouse, violating Swedish neutrality. It is reported that most of the crew of 15 were killed, but some survived to be taken back to Leningrad and never seen again.  SC 406 had previously been attacked by the Swedish Navy on July 21st 1942. The Soviet U-boat was eventually sunk by the Finnish ship Riilahti off Steinskar Island in the Gulf of Finland on May 26th 1943.

'The Stuart Agenda' by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Fishing on the Wick River

The Wick is a delightful spate river that provides excellent sport for members of the local association and visitors. Value for money fiends may like to note that the season ticket on the Wick is about the same price as half a day on the Thurso! The river can be divided into lower middle and upper sections, the latter above the village of Watten. I have rarely fished the top section but did so last week. The fishable sections have wonderful names. Scorriclet is the name of the farm in the photo, only accessible to vehicles by a ford over the river or the bridge. Not handy if you run out of coffee in a spate and have to nip into the village store. It was abandoned some time ago. Above that is Badlibster and another abandoned farmhouse. The river was kind to me and I landed a nice 6lb grilse there last monday. Above Badlibster the river divides and I followed the main right fork up into the hill. When I disturbed two red deer hinds near Kensary farm I decided I had gone far enough and turned back.
      Added to the Thurso catch described in earlier blogs, I had the very unusual problem of freezer space but cometh the hour cometh cousin Eric, artisan salmon smoker extraordinaire. His sequence of salting, marinading in his secret recipe, hanging and smoking in his garden Tardis gives  superb succulent  sides, much appreciated by local aficionados.

'The Stuart Agenda' by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and Amazon

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Society of Authors Conference, Edinburgh Saturday 17th September

This conference, held at The Surgeon's Hall, was a celebration of the new freedom that authors now have in the digital age. Self-publishing is now more or less respectable and well differentialted from so called vanity publishing. Writers who are weary of rejections and the generally snail like pace of the traditional publishing industry can take the plunge and with reasonable IT skills do everything themselves, thereby retaining a much higher proportion of the book sales income.
     Promotion of writers/books is also easier using all the social media opportunities available, although these can be time consuming and eat into core writing time. Writers were given a lot of information on what works best in trying to build an online platform that will support sales beyond friends and family.
     However most writers still want to be published via the traditional route, perhaps this is the new vanity? All the e-promotion activity is just as relevant here as authors have to do more for themselves in the face of lower publisher marketing budgets.
     Representatives of the publishing industry sounded rightly nervous about the future which for many will lie in creating specialised niches for themselves.
     Altogether an inspiring day for writers!

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Caithness Crab

After the excitement of the salmon fishing, thoughts turn to gathering rather than hunting in this autumn season of bounty. While I am helplessly sensitised to bivalve molluscs ie scallops (clams) and mussels, crustaceans are no problem and my favourite is undoubtedly the local brown crab, cancer pagurus. I even prefer it to ten times more expensive lobsters which are also plentiful around the Caithness shores. The picture above shows velvet crabs being sorted before sale, sadly mainly to Spain. To the right we can see brown crabs and lobsters, all at Staxigoe harbour, just to the north of Wick. I bought a dozen for ourseves and friends, especially those whose wives won't permit them to boil crabs in the kitchen!
     September is reputed to be the best month for brown crabs because of the quality and quantity of the brown meat. A short crab anatomy lesson is now in order. White crab meat comes from the claws and legs and the muscles in the cavity behind the legs. This is reached by pulling out the whole section that has the legs attached. From what is left of the body we then remove the remaining bony bit by pressing on it until it clicks and breaks off. Everything that is left clinging to the underside of the shell then constitutes the brown meat. A few years ago, I had a bad experience with some purchased brown meat which was very pungent and off-putting. Not this time the flavour was wonderful and I'm now a convert to slighty stronger flovour of the brown stuff.
    We experimented with devilled crab, spicy crab pie containing high proportions of brown meat as well as having traditional salads with mild fruits and white crab meat. Every one was a winner.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Salmon Fever - Beat 5

For my last day I'm on beat 5, something of a favourite because I've often caught fish here in the past. Catches have always been on the Island Stream section shown above, so approaching that gives a lift of anticipation. Saturday was no exception and a few minutes after starting the section, I hooked a fish which remained on the hook for only about a minute;then that sickening feeling as the line goes slack and you realise that the fish is off. I reasoned that I had a lot of line out on a long cast and there was a big belly in the line in the fast water, so I wasn't quick enough to get good tension and a firm hold on the fish. Ten minutes later after a change of fly the same thing happened again except that this time I had the fish on for several minutes. Short taking comes to mind then, a situation where the salmon is a bit tentative in it's take for whatever reason. You know what's going to happen next; yes a third time unlucky, although this time the fish was only on for a few seconds. This was certainly a new experience for me losing three fish on the trot in such a short space of time, but that's fishing.Overall however I was very pleased with a total of six fish for the week, a good catch reletive to the angler average for the period. If was however for most anglers a disappointing week where the water level promised so much more.
     Suspicion falls on the very heavy flood of two weeks earlier which may have persuaded a lot of fish to take the opportunity of going way upstream into Loch More and out of reach. But that's only a theory. I'll be back next year when everything will be different again. That's the only thing you can be sure about on the Thurso. Next week I'll probably do some fishing on the Wick River, always nostalgic as the place where I began my fishing life and caught my first salmon.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and and

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Salmon Fever - Thurso Beat 7

The picture shows beat 7 looking upstream through the bridge past the hut. The Beat was carrying more water than I have previously experienced and some of the normally still canal water was moving gently. The windfarm is now a distant apparition upstream. I fished for half a day ,mainly on the bottom pool without result. Main wildlife sight was a good view of a male Hen Harrier that passed directly over me. It was very like a seagull.
It rained very heavily overnight so the river may be up for my final day on Beat 5

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at or or

Friday, 9 September 2011

Salmon Fever- Thurso Beat 9

On beat 11 the blades of the windfarm appeared over the hill in the distance. On beat 9 it's in your face. The photo shows the view of the farm across the Mill Stream running into the Broad Pool bordered by the ancient Iron Age broch of Achbhodiachean. There had been more rain overnight and the river level looked perfect. The top pool, Jamie Sutherlands yielded nothing and it wasn't until about 10.30 at the very tail of the Broad Pool that I got a nice 7lb grilse on a reddish conehead tied by Alan Youngson. The next fish came on the Upper Tormsdale Pool in mid-afternoon. It took one of Hugo Ross' largish orange Pot Belly Pigs and weiged in at 11lb, the biggest of the week so far.
     Late in the afternoon a Hen Harrier appeared hunting in among the wind turbines, a pleasing confirmation that nature isn't as bothered as some of the Nimbys. These are very rare birds, much persecuted in the past because of their taste for grouse.
    In the evening Alan Youngson put on a sinking line and Spey casted his way into two large hens within half an hour of each other on Upper Tormsdale. They were carefully returned.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Salmon Fever- Thurso Beat 11

Day three finds me on Beat 11. The river mood has changed as overnight rain has lifted the level a few critical inches, especially for the upper beats. The highest pool is the Snatch, just below Strathmore Lodge, a commercial shooting enterprise belonging to the Sinclair family. I was lucky to get a 6lb grilse ten minutes after starting to fish. Today the flies were different, this fish was taken on a small rather old fashioned Waddington. The River then flows quickly for about a mile down a gradient that does not hold much fishing until we come to The Old Woman's Pool. I don't know why it is called that but it is very accessible from the road. I don't think The Old Woman refers to the dear departed Queen Mother. She was a keen angler and loved the solitude of the Thurso but probably fished on the Private beat below beat 11, reserved by the previous owner, Lord Thurso, for his family and guests. I did raise a fish on the very lip of the pool but it didn't touch the fly.
      The River then took me down through the Digger Pool and the Clay Brae Pool to the Stall Pool. On the way, the tops of the blades of the Causewaymire Windfarm waved over the horizon. In the Stall Pool  a nice pattern of large stones creates turbulence and suggests lies for grilse. Sure enough one of Hugo Ross' Pot Belly Pigs did the trick, just as a Kestrel flew past  being dive bombed by a pair of songbirds. The 6lb grilse was a fresh run cock. The last few pools yielded nothing but a fine display from a pair of dippers flitting about the shallows. On the walk back a pair of buzzards patrolled the section of moor that took me back to the car park. I was very pleased with my result. In fact it was the first time I had caught fish on Beat 11.
Tomorrow I have beat 9, one of my favourites.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder  at and and

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Salmon Fever - Thurso Beat 13

A bit stiff this morning after the heroics on Beat 2 yesterday. I didn't dream about salmon however. Todays challenge was Beat 13. On the the Thurso rotation system, the bottom beat is followed by the top, flowing from Loch More, full to the brim as you can see in today's picture. It's only really a good beat in spring high water so for most of the year it isn't lucky and lives up to its unfortunate number. Some would call it a dour beat, but I now reserve that wonderful Scottish adjective for discussion of  Gordon Brown's character. I suppose we can hardly blame the fish; if they make it to beat 13, it's just a short hop into Loch More and freedom from the prying flies of murderous anglers.
      At least the scenery is fantastic with vast views out over the Caithness peat flow country towards the Scarabens and Morven on the Caithness/Sutherland border.
     I fished the beat down to Loch Beg and then did most of the lower section below the loch. The water was nice and streamy, very grilsy but I didn't see a fish. All this preamble  of course means a blank score sheet, but that's hardly unusual. The rotation follows the odd beats down river so tomorrow it's Beat 11.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and and

Salmon Fever-Thurso Beat 2

Phew, what a relief. Two fish landed and a good start to the week. As ever it should have been more. Fishermen talk more about the ones that got away. I put it down to rustiness, a fly badly tied on and a line tangle just at the moment of take. Oh well, we still have the rest of the week. That's the executive summary. Fishing began at 6.00am effectively at first light. As usual, very early morning fishing disappointed and the Aimster Pool yielded nothing. It wasn't until 8.30am that I got the first pull on the Mill Stream Pool, pictured above. It turned out to be a largish hen fish that took me 50 yards downstream and was almost in the net when the fly parted company with the nylon leader. She was going back anyway so it made no difference. Second strike came a bit further down, this time a nice fresh 5lb grilse, nice for the table and a good centrepiece for our fisherman's dinner on Friday night. Then a rather languid mid morning spell until 11.15am on Eadie's pool. It was a second nice grilse fresh from the sea. Pm was less productive until the tangle and take. I ended up not being able to use my reel and was trying to play the fish by pulling directly on the line. He saw me coming there and was off after about 3 minutes.
The flies I used were tied by local architect and fisherman, George Harper, so thanks George. Thanks also to Alan youngson, my fishing companion who dispensed valuable advice cast by cast.
    Today I have beat 13 so call back later.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and and

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Salmon Fever

Booking a week of salmon fishing a year ahead is one of life's great gambles, considering the cost of decent fishing and the risks involved. By far the main risk is of course the weather and by that I mean the amount of rainfall in the preceeding period. If there is very little summer rain the fish tend to bide their time in the estuaries and bays waiting for the flood. The best time to fish is when the river settles down in the week after a lot of rain and a good spate. My week on the Thurso River starts on Monday 5th September and the rain Gods must have been listening to my prayer since there was a rainstorm of biblical proportions on Sunday August 28th resulting in the river bursting its banks and being completely unfishable for 2 days. Good catches have been taken every day since.
     The expectation created by the flood has given me a heavy dose of salmon fever. The incubation period is however about a month, when scanning of the long range weather forecast begins along with daily checking of the river water level on the Thurso river website. Friends and family begin to speculate on how many fish I might catch and the pressure rises. New flies are purchased featuring the latest patterns designed to catch insecure fishermen. A degree of gaudiness is creeping in, no doubt influenced by rainbow trout lures, although catching these fat farmed fish is somewhere down the sport fishing curve just above coarse fishing. Having said that salmon fishing is now more democratic and deeply penetrated by well-off arrivistes, displacing the toffs who seem to be gradually dying out.
     The Thurso is one of the finest salmon rivers in Scotland and under new ownership is going from strength to strength, with a little help from the weather. The whole river system is in the hands of the new owner who has removed the nets that filtered out thousands of fish each year. In addition the river is divided into 13 beats and on a weekly let, 6 different beats will be fished. The river flows from Loch More and cuts through a grouse moor before reaching the arable lower land round the beats nearest the sea. The fishing experience on each is very different. I start on Beat 2 tomorrow. Come back to find out what happens.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and or for Kindle