I've been reading Neal Ascherson's Stone Voices, surprised to find it full of the mid-Argyll landscapes of my childhood. The looping Kilmartin Road, running down to Ardfern. Lonely standing stones and unconsidered monuments, bristly lichen marking the grooves, fashioned by some ancient hand in rock, and long worked to smoothness by the wind and rain. The echoes of Dalriada at Dunadd, rising from the Great Moss with its stylised boar and its lasting, kingly footprint, hewn into the stone. Saint Columba's cave, where the holy man fetched up from Ireland in his coracle and where I, miscast as a musical nipper, provided tuneless clarinet accompaniment to annual evening services, hazy with midges and smirr.
Elemental Christianity in the raw in several senses, and evidence enough for this young heathen, that any creator God which had summoned those gnawing clouds from His imagination could not be perfectly good. My other juvenile experiences of the divine were largely limited to South Knapdale Parish Church - an uninhabited, musty, plain, grey whitewashed spot just up the Ellary road, whose minister boasted a pair of ears to outmatch Roald Dahl's BFG and a brass singing voice of such profundity and noise, that it drowned out the rest of the congregation. Already an irreverent little mite, and godless too, I thought this absurd mismatch in resonance extremely amusing.
Ascherson's book is pensive, rich in detail and delightfully written. But for my legal readers, I wanted to pluck out this entertaining passage on the history of the Scottish Land Court, which was entirely new to me and concerning which a brisk trawl of the internet provides few details. Disputes between landlords and tenants are not the natural stuff of comedy. But bear with Ascherson. He's recovered a rare old character in Lord Gibson, who chaired the Court between 1941 and 1965.
"The Court met in the community hall at Balivanish, on Benbecula. The chairman was Lord Gibson, a judge of powerful eccentricity in an old Scottish tradition. Advocates in Scotland tend to declare political allegiance as their careers advance, more as a sort of gamble on the party likely to hold power than as a statement of personal conviction, and Lord Gibson had long ago declared for Labour. For that reason, and because he was unpopular in the Faculty of Advocates, Gibson's career had not prospered, and his appointment to the Scottish Land Court had been regarded in Edinburgh as the equivalent of managing a power station at Krasnoyarsk, which in those days was the Soviet reward for Politburo veterans who had fallen out of favour.Lord Gibson, however, took over the Land Court with relish. He would show them! Not short on vanity, he insisted that as Chairman of the Land Court he was entitled to a ceremonial mace, to be carried before him in procession. The Lord President of the Court of Session had a mace. Why not the President of the Land Court? Attempts to dissuade him failed; he persisted and grew aggrieved. The exasperated Faculty consulted the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Scotland's chief Herald, who at that time was Sir Thomas Innes of Learney.A resourceful Lyon, Sir Thomas went to his toolbox and made a mace out of his kitchen rolling pin. He turned it and carved it into pretty contours, then applied varnish and polish. Finally, he tipped it with a gleaming gold point which was one of Lady Innes's old lipsticks. This mace was borne before Lord Gibson on great occasions, but whether he ever took a closer look at it is not recorded."