Tag Archives: history

Sixty Degrees North (Extract 5 – Norway)

To correspond with BBC Radio 4′s ‘Book of the Week’ shows – featuring of course our very own Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack – we will be releasing short extracts from the book each day this week!

Today, in episode five of ‘Book of the Week’, Malachy reaches the last point of land on his journey along the sixtieth parallel – a small island just off the west coast of Norway. In this extract, Malachy sits by the ocean and reflects on his journey, home, and where he now finds himself:

“My destination was the island of Stolmen, a little further south along the coast. It was the last point of land on the sixtieth parallel before it dropped back into the North Sea and then returned to Shetland, and it seemed the most appropriate place to complete my journey before going home.

[…]

Sitting there beside the sea, two hundred miles from home, I thought back to the traffic that had ventured west from this coast towards my own shores. To the Vikings who had sailed in the eighth and ninth century, and who had made their way ultimately to Greenland and beyond. To the refugees of the Second World War, who were carried in fishing boats and other vessels, in what became known as the ‘Shetland Bus’. And then to the oil tanker Braer, which left the refinery just north of Bergen in January 1993, carrying 85,000 tonnes of crude oil. She was bound for Quebec in Canada, but made it only as far as Quendale on the south east coast of Shetland, where she hit the rocks and spilled her cargo. It was a few years after my family moved to the islands, and a few miles from the spot where, later, I would find the parallel.

I’d come to Stolmen by following that line around the world. Once there, I had nowhere else to go but home. I’d known all along, of course, that this was a journey with only one possible destination. But faced with that last stretch of water that separated beginning from end, I felt nervous and uncertain. Would the place I was going back to be the same place that I had left? And did I even want it to be? Perhaps I’d expected answers, but I hadn’t found any. I’d been left with only questions. Ahead, the sky was like a welt, blue and purple ringed with pink. A crack in the clouds brought sharp fingers of light down onto the blackening waves, and the cold chafed against my face. I sat for ten minutes more, perhaps fifteen, and then it was time to go. I stood and flung a stone into the water, towards Mousa, as though to reach as far as I could towards home, and then I walked away.”

Sixty Degrees North (Extract 4 – Russia)

To correspond with BBC Radio 4′s ‘Book of the Week’ shows – featuring of course our very own Sixty Degrees North by Malachy Tallack – we will be releasing short extracts from the book each day this week!

Today, in episode four of ‘Book of the Week’, Malachy arrives in St Petersburg, the most highly populated place on the parallel. In this extract Tallack describes his first day in the city in wonderful detail:

“It was a week into September when I arrived in St Petersburg, but autumn had not yet caught hold in this corner of the north. A warm wind bustled down Nevsky Prospekt as I pushed my way through the crowds towards the river. And though it had passed six in the evening the sun was still bright, lingering like a blush against the pink walls of the Stroganov Palace. From edge to edge, the wide pavements were filled with people: tourists in raincoats and baseball caps, striding businessmen in suits and shades, girls in short skirts locked arm in arm, old women whose headscarves could barely contain their peroxide perms. The street overflowed with beeping horns and screeching tyres, over-revved engines, sirens and shouts; the smell of drains and exhaust fumes thickened the air. It was loud and chaotic, a heaving pandemonium, and I kept close to the buildings, nervous of the hustle and din that seethed between them.

Crossing the sluggish grey Neva to Vasilevsky Island, I lingered beside the red Rostral Columns that tower there, with their four marble figures representing the great rivers of Russia. Once, these columns served as oil-blazing lighthouses, aiding vessels, but today their only role is to lift your eyes up and away from the filthy water below. From there I continued to Petrogradskaya and across the walkway to Hare Island, and the fortress where this city was founded. The Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul shone butter gold in the evening sun, its gilded needle spire reaching 400 feet upward, to where hooded crows blinked like black stars against the sky. A syrupy light lay dappled among the trees around the fortress, and yellow leaves were just beginning to fall, a step ahead of the weather. In drains and on paths they were piled, dry and crackling underfoot. I kicked them as I wandered through Aleksandrovskiy Park, feeling a childish pleasure in that most irresistible of acts.

There is nowhere else like this in the north.”

Sikkim and Scotland

Andrew Duff, author of Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom reflects on how he put his book together, and the connections he found between that distant province and his home in Scotland. 

In September 2014, just as the fever over the Scottish referendum peaked, I found myself writing the closing chapter of my first book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom (the story behind India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975).

I had often thought of comparisons between Scotland and the tiny Himalayan kingdom perched between Nepal and Bhutan. Here was a small, self-contained country whose people were generous and welcoming in a way that would not have been amiss in the Scottish Highlands. The terrain, too, sometimes conjured up thoughts of home: Sir Francis Younghusband, the adventurer whose infamous 1904 expedition passed through Sikkim en route to Tibet, found that the rivers reminded him of nothing more than a day fishing near Kelso.

The connection went deeper. I had first discovered Sikkim thanks to my grandfather, who had moved from Scotland to India in 1920. Two years later he had walked into Sikkim from nearby Darjeeling. He had left notes and photographs of the journey which I used to pore over as a child, captivated by the pictures of enormous mountains, rushing streams and spectacular Buddhist monasteries perched on hilltops. It looked so different from the image of India that dominated the UK media.

In 2008 I decided to take a one-way flight to India, with my grandfather’s Himalayan notes and photographs tucked in the bottom of my rucksack. By April 2009 I had reached Darjeeling where I began to follow my grandfather’s footsteps, walking down 5000 feet to the river that marks the border into Sikkim.

Sikkim - 8pp mono plate section

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a magical journey through an extraordinary landscape, but it was in a hill-top monastery that I started to learn something about Sikkim’s past – and moved towards the next Scottish connection.

The monk told me the remarkable tale surrounding India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975, and about the last King Thondup’s marriage to American Hope Cooke, who some in India had believed was a CIA agent. The story seemed improbable enough, but when it turned out the monk had been the right hand man to the King, I was completely hooked.

On my return to the UK, I started to dig further into the story. I found two Scottish women who had taught at a school in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. Both had been close to the palace, and had written weekly letters home throughout the 1960s and 1970s when the relationship between Sikkim, India and China had been at its most tense, spilling over into war in the Himalayas.
One of them put me in touch with Hope Cooke (still alive in New York and who had her own affinity for Scotland via her first governess). Although she was unwilling to interview about the events in Sikkim, she encouraged me to delve deeper into the story, again emphasising Sikkim’s Scottish connections.

King Thondup and Hope Cooke

As I read her extraordinary confessional autobiography Time Change, I discovered another Scot at the centre of Sikkim’s drama: the so-called Kazini of Chakung, the wife of the main politician in Sikkim opposed to King Thondup and Hope Cooke. It took some time to track down the Kazini’s true identity; in Sikkim there are many who still think she was Belgian. In fact she was a Scottish adventuress par excellence: already through two husbands by the time she met the Kazi, she had been Elisa-Maria Langford Rae when they married. I eventually discovered she had been born plain Ethel Maud Shirran in the small town of Doune, in Central Scotland. Her amazing capacity for reinvention fitted with a story that just grew and grew. That she should have ended up in a book alongside Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong, Kufikar Ali Bhutto, and Indira Gandhi would have tickled her immensely.

When my book comes out next month, I’m sure there will be those who draw analogies between the referendums held in Scotland last September and that held in the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim when it was absorbed into India in 1975. In truth, the circumstances were very different. During the late stages of my research, for instance, I discovered British and American intelligence records that confirmed what many had told me anecdotally: that Sikkim’s referendum had not been left to chance. In fact things had got so bad that one of the missionary teachers had resorted to writing home in broad Scots (to confuse the Indian government censors who were opening every letter) when she wanted to get the message out about the dubious actions of the Indian government and its intelligence agents in Sikkim. It made me reflect on the extraordinarily polite and peaceful conduct of the Scottish referendum.

There are many more connections between Scotland and Sikkim, many of which hark back to more than a century before any of the examples given above. But that’s another story!

I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it – mostly from a cottage in the Angus glens – and that it might lead to more connections between Scotland and this fascinating corner of the world, now India’s 22nd state.

Andrew Duff

Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom is available for pre-order now on the Birlinn website, and will be available in all good bookshops from 14 May