Friday, October 9, 2015

The Bonnie Banks, revisited

I am at Bouchercon and therefore, not at home enjoying the force ten gales. It is beautifully sunny here in New York.  I think I might now understand baseball, maybe.

Here is a rerun of one of my favourite blog can never look at this scenery  enough.

An island map

Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.

The words of a very famous song, the identity of the author is long lost in the mist of time. As is its meaning.
It might have been written by a soldier, waiting for death at the hands of the enemy.
Or more popular is the version that it was written by a soldier returning north after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops in the 1745 rebellion. Or it could refer to the Celtic belief that if you die away from home, the faeries will take you back via the 'low road', some kind of transport friendly underworld. Or it be that the high road means ‘hanging by the neck until dead’, the low road means ‘by foot’ i.e. the faithful will get home before the traitor.

The banks of Loch Lomond are indeed bonnie. The loch has many islands, about 60 in low water and about 20 at high water. With that lot on a loch 18 miles long and 4 miles wide you’d think I’d find one suitable for my new book.

But alas not, so I invented one.

The islands are dotted with religious buildings, follies, old ruins and castles and in my case, some dead bodies. There are also a fair amount of crannogs (also found in Scandanavia) where ancient types also had difficulty finding an island to suit them so they built some. Probably some ancestor of Ikea.  One upright stake sunk deep into the loch bed, then stones piled round it until it breaks the surface and hey presto - your own island. They were used as homes, status symbols, refuges, hunting and fishing stations. They date back 5000 years, some of them were still in use in the mid 1700s.

                         A member of the Moray Club took this picture, he blinked and the deer was gone.

As well as the famous wallabies, there are white deer that swim the loch looking very ghostly and rather magnificent.

Here’s a run through of the islands - 

Bucinch (island of goats)
Has no goats.   

Used to be owned by the Earl of Lennox. In 1225 he gave it to his clerk ( a Buchanan ) for an annual rent of a pound of wax. The Buchanan’s became a very powerful family from this small start. This island has it’s own wee crannog, Keppinch or The Kitchen.

Ellanderroch (island of Oaks)
Has oaks.  Very big ones, for a small island.  One oak was weakened by a big hollow in the trunk so the locals filled it with concrete. It was then struck by lightning leaving only the concrete. The loch has many squalls and this is the Island the fisherman head for safety.

Fraoch Island (Heather island)
Covered in heather. Only 150 metres long and  12 metres high.  Has little soil to it dries quickly and autumn appears here a month before anywhere else on the loch. A 1792 map shows  the island as a prison. It is also said to have been used as a deposition site for nagging wives.


 Inchcailloch The island of the woman
The woman being St Kentigerna.  This is the most accessible of Loch Lomond’s islands. In the 13th century a church was built in her memory and the Buchanan family used to row across  for their  Sunday worship. The church was abandoned in 1670  but the graveyard was used until  1947.


Inchconnachan (Colquhoun's Island)
Although no real evidence of occupation remains, there are signs of a grain drying kiln and rumours abound of an illicit still closeby. This is the island of the walllabys. Rarely seen but the place is covered in their droppings seemingly. Or are the sightings of Australian wildlife and the production illegal hooch somehow related....


Inchcruin (Round Island)
Inchcruin  has a couple of sandy beaches but is mostly rocky.  At low tide it touches Inchmoan island at a strait called  ‘the geggles’. Previous owners kept a ex-US army truck on the island. Handy as there are no roads.
Inchfad (the Long Island.)
Boasts its own  canal. The canal gave access to a (legal ) distillery on the island. The grass is rich here and is thought to sustain the white deer.

Miniscule. About 25 feet high. Probably an overgrown  crannog.  The surface is covered by the remains of a castle built by the Galbraiths of Glen Fruin.

Inchlonaig (Yew tree Island)
Has Yew Trees! They were planted by Robert The Bruce. His army used up all the previous ones, using the yew for the bows of his archers

Inchmoan (peat island)
Locals used this island as a source of peat obviously. Has some splendid ruins.  Swimming here is relatively safe ( but never warm), but the interior is impassible due to  gorse and rhodedendrons.


Inchmurrin (St Murrin's island)
The largest island,  1½ miles long, 300 ft high. St Mirren, the saint not the football team, is said to have had a chapel here but no remains have ever been found. Inchmurrin was renowned for its whisky until the exciseman got a boat and put a stop to all the fun.


Inchtavannach (Island of Monks)
Monks, not monkeys. ( some people have misheard it)   At Ton-Na-Clag  the monks used to toll their bells to call the faithful to worship.

Isle of Inveruglass
'Island of the Black Stream', the Clan MacFarlane had a nice castle on the east side. Oliver Cromwell destroyed it.

Tarbet Isle (Isle of the Portage)
Tarbert is a Gaelic word  meaning, literally  'to carry over' or 'portage'. Here it refers to boats being dragged over a narrow strip of land. In this case the land lies between the north ends of Loch Long and Loch Lomond where the Viking King Haakon's men dragged their longboats across to get access to Loch Lomond  where they  caused havoc.  Sweet justice was forthcoming  as they lost ten ships in a storm on Loch Fyne, as they sailed to join Haakon’s fleet at the Battle of Largs.

The loch and its islands are in the top ten of the greatest natural wonders in Britain.

English  writer, H.V. Morton wrote:
What a large part of Loch Lomond's beauty is due to its islands, those beautiful green tangled islands, that lie like jewels upon its surface.

I'm away now to design my own island, with an illegal still, monkeys, duck billed platypuses and ....sunshine

                Caro Ramsay originally blogged 18th April 2014,
                reblogged 09/10/2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015




Over the last couple of years I've posted a couple of times about the startling discoveries of new hominid species that have been coming to light at the Cradle of Humankind cave complex north west of Johannesburg.  Last week I made a trip to the visitors' center at Maropeng to see a special limited-time exhibition of the actual fossils discovered two years ago and subsequently described as a new species of homo, Homo naledi.  The center is excellently done and absolutely worth a visit if you pass through Johannesburg on your way to a more attractive part of the country.

Being with the actual remains of a being so like, and so unlike, us who lived possibly two million years ago, and who has left only these traces was a very moving experience.

Homo naledi with a few examples of Homo sapiens with him
Photo: Jonathan Everitt
Michael with Australopithecus sediba - sediba is the good looking one on the right
Photo: Jonathan Everitt


Artists reconstruction of Homo naledi from the skeletons found
Last week, University of the Witwatersrand anthropologist Lee Berger announced the discovery of a new species of hominid – Homo naledi.  It followed his remarkable discovery of Australopithecus sediba some years before, but this discovery is widely regarded as still more significant and surprising.

A selection of the remains

Naledi – a star in the Sesotho language – is an extraordinary creature, somehow mixing features of Australopithecus and Homo.  The skull is really small—the brain was about the size of an orange—yet adult individuals were comparatively large at around 5 feet and 100 pounds. The hands share many of the features of our own, yet the fingers curl and the shoulders slope which is more characteristic of the Australopithecines who were probably tree climbers.  The feet are quite similar to ours and the legs are long, suggesting that naledi walked and ran in a similar way to us, and spent much time on the ground.  If you would like to read a much more in depth account, Homo naledi makes the cover of National Geographic next month and you can preview the article HERE.

So then is naledi claimed as the so-called ‘missing link’ between Australopithecus and Homo?  Is South Africa—indeed Johannesburg!—truly the ‘cradle of humankind’?  The answer is no, or at least not yet.  The missing piece of information is age.  So far no one has been able to determine the age of the fossils from the Cave of Stars.  And the age options for naledi are truly fascinating.

Researchers at the Dinaledi cave
If nadeli is more than 3 million years old, then Australopithecus was just a side bar; Homo had evolved from something else already. Naledi would probably be our ancestor. Yet the similarities of certain features to each genus suggest rather an age of between two and two and a half million years and then naledi could indeed be the link between the two genera. And if naledi is younger still—less than a million years, say—then there were at least two very different species of Homo living in Africa at the same time.

The discovery of the fossils was made about two years ago almost by accident at a cave near the Cradle of Humankind some 30 miles north west of Johannesburg.  Two amateur speleologists were exploring a popular cave system and one came upon a hidden tunnel dropping steeply downward. The two of them were looking for something new and exciting, and decided to take on this chimney.  At the bottom they found a treasure trove of fossil hominid remains.

Lee Berger and his new friend
I said the discovery was almost by accident, but Professor Berger had gone to a lot of trouble to get the word out to keep an eye open for interesting fossils in the area, and that made the link.  The two cavers brought him their news and pictures, sparking off the discovery of the largest collection of hominid fossils ever found in Africa. Realizing he had to act quickly, Berger assembled a team of volunteers who were brave enough and slender enough to get into the chamber.  He called them his cave astronauts and all of them are women. Already more than 1500 individual fossils have been collected and come from at least fifteen different individuals of various ages.  Also amazing is that the fossils are almost exclusively human, apart from a few birds and rodent-like creatures.  This is not a cave full of victims of some predator; the bones are unmarked by teeth. And there is no sign of a river washing the fossils into the cave as then there would be an appropriate mix of other materials.  No, these creatures are alone in the dark.  How did that happen?
Watch Lee Burger giving a fascinating summary HERE.

The Dinaledi 'astronauts'
For all the excitement about a new man, the most fascinating part of the whole story is that naledi apparently disposed of its dead; indeed the Dinaledi cave seems to be a graveyard.  Until now there has been no suggestion that any species other than Homo sapiens took pains to remove the bodies of the dead from the natural environment, certainly not by following a difficult route into a hidden chamber to leave them there.  But the scientists have considered every other reasonable possibility and rejected it by careful argument.

“When you have eliminated the impossible,” Sherlock Holmes once observed to Watson, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  Professor Berger rather charmingly misquoted this at the press announcement as “When you have eliminated all the probable, you are left with the impossible.”  Various people have vehemently agreed with that judgement!  On the one hand, some scientists have rejected his conclusions and insisted that there must be other explanations, while at the other extreme the whole scenario is rejected by creationists with one even describing the discovery as a white racist plot designed to keep black people at a subhuman status. (How this argument could possibly be made is beyond me; indeed the Wits Vice Chancellor, Professor Habib, pointed out at the press announcement that the implications of all humans arising from a common ancestor emphasises our similarities not our differences.)

But in the scientific community there seems to be no disagreement that we have just met an ancient member of our genus, never before even suspected.  And the mystery of when they walked the earth remains.


Earlier this month a team of scientists at the Institute for Human Evolution of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg announced an amazing discovery. It was nothing less than the holy grail of paleoanthropologists – the fossilized remains of a new species of hominid. Excitement spread through the expert community at once, but the discovery caught the imagination of the general public also. It’s not hard to understand why. Few prehistoric issues are more intriguing than our linage and where it branches from the great apes, our close genetic relatives. There is even some possibility that the new species – named Australopithecus sediba (Sediba is a natural spring in the Sotho language) - is a link between the previously known southern African Australopithecus specie - Australopithecus africanus – and Homo habilis or Homo erectus. In other words a connection between the two genera, one of which is our own.

Lee Berger with sediba
The first Australopithecus specimen was also discovered by a Wits professor. Raymond Dart wrote up his discovery of the so-called Taung Child in the journal Nature in 1925. Other discoveries followed first by Dart and then under the leadership of Dart’s successor, Professor Phillip Tobias. Several are from the same area where the new specimens where found. Pictures of Dart and Tobias, with friends, are below:

It seems that Australopithecus evolved some four million years ago in east Africa and spread over much of the continent. It is thought to have become extinct some 2 million years ago. Thus the age of the new specimens is a very important issue. Paul Dirks, then the head of the School of Geosciences at the university, was involved with the dating issues. They attacked the problem three ways. Various other fossil creatures were found in the same sediments; several of these are well-known as are their periods of existence. Next, the magnetic polarity reverses which took place in the geological past put the fossils between 1.78 and 1.95 million years of age. Finally uranium/lead dating puts them at around 2 million years. 2 million years mean that sediba lived in the same time frame as the homo species; possibly they were contemporaries. More controversially, Berger has suggested that humans may be descendents of sediba. Reaction to that has been mixed. Either way it is a branch of our tree which was unknown before.

The species had long ape-like arms, short hands and long legs which might have made it possible to run or walk like a human. Two more specimens have been discovered, preserved in a hard conglomerate of calcified clastic sediments, apparently deposited at the bottom of an underground lake nearly two million years ago.
Makapansgat where some earlier specimens of Australopithecus were discovered.

The New York Times featured Lee Berger and his young son, Matthew, with his dog, Tau, at the site, and delighted in the story of the boy picking up the first piece of fossilized clavicle bone. Tau means Lion in Setswana, which is the unofficial language of Botswana but also widely spoken in South Africa. Apparently the dog ran off and Matthew followed, returning with the fossil. It would have been an even better story if the bone had been dug up by Tau! The full story of that first discovery is at

What makes the discovery particularly remarkable is the location. The specimens were found at the Cradle of Mankind, a world heritage site where some of the Australopithecus africanus specimens were discovered. It is a rich collection of (now filled) caves which seems to have hosted a variety of species for millennia. Now it seems it hosted at least two different species of hominid over time.

The scientists have been working with the specimens, and finding additional ones, for eighteen months. I recall Paul Dirks telling me about a year ago that he was working on dating a marvelous fossil discovery at the Cradle. At the time we were discussing the use of certain geophysical techniques to try to find additional filled caves and promising sites in the area. In the end none of the high tech was necessary. It all came down to a boy and his dog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

KIZUNA, Tohuku, Japan


This blog first appeared on 12/11/2014.

Today's guest blogger is Sujata Massey, whom I've been very fortunate over the past few years to have as a member of the writing group I'm in.  Even when she moved from Minneapolis to Baltimore, she continued with the group, focussing in on the parts of our manuscripts that needed work.  For that a huge thank you.

Sujata is nearly all of us combined: she was born in England to parents from India and Germany. She grew up mostly in the United States (California, Pennsylvania and Minnesota) and earned her BA from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars program. After that she worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper before marrying and moving to Japan. 

The area where Sujata once lived, an hour south of Tokyo, forms most of the settings of her Rei Shimura mysteries. The series has collected many mystery award nominations, including the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark awards, and has won the Agatha and Macavity prizes for traditional mystery fiction. The Rei Shimura mysteries are published in 18 countries.

Taking a leaf out of Zoë's word of the week, Sujata has one of her own: kizuna, which she uses in the title of her latest Rei Shimura mystery, The Kizuna Coast, published by Ikat Press and available at on Dec 15, 2014, and at bookstores and multiple Internet platforms from February 15, 2015.

Sujata has also written a wonderful book, The Sleeping Dictionary, set in India.  It received a starred review from Booklist and is a delightful read.

In this blog, she explains why a word popularized by the government still holds power three years after Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

Please welcome Sujata Massey.

Stan - Thursday


In March 2011, Japan’s main island was rocked by a 9.0 Richter scale earthquake, the highest-power quake since such recordings began. The temblor triggered a tsunami wave that swept much of the northeastern coast. The wave reached more than 30 feet high, striking dozens of fishing villages and small towns in the scenic area called Tohoku.

Four years later, over 15,000 were recorded drowned, and more than a million buildings were damaged. Picture all that happening in one afternoon.  

Recent natural disasters have meant millions of people worldwide losing their homes and communities. Quite often survivors of these tragedies remain in trailers, tents, or on the street for years. Despite Japan’s economic strength, rebuilding has been difficult and delayed. Today, about 300,000 Japanese still live in temporary housing. In Fukushima--where a large nuclear reactor plant was damaged—whole towns of people may never be able to return home due to continued high radiation.
But as people continue to recount that fateful day in March, what stands out are the accounts of community members helping each other. Police and firefighters stayed on the job trying to help people evacuate, even though it meant they had no time to escape. Drivers packed their cars with neighbors as they rushed to higher ground. Nuclear power plant workers stayed in a lethal zone for weeks.

After the disaster, people traveled hundreds of miles to help clean up the towns and aid the survivors. Others welcomed Tohoku refugees into their homes. Throughout Japan, people waited patiently in line for gasoline and food and water in stores (which continued to sell at regular rather than black-market prices). The Japanese word for such actions is kizuna (kih-zoo-nah) and means “bonds of loving kindness.” People spoke of kizuna so often that the Japanese public voted it the kanji character of the year.

I’d been writing about Japan since the mid-1990s when the tsunami hit. Everything I’d published before was happy and humorous: mysteries celebrating Japan’s decorative arts traditions and stylish modern culture. Now that literary world had vanished. How could I set any book in Japan without referring to the tsunami?

I decided to make the next mystery about the tsunami, to bridge the old world I’d written about with the new. And without a doubt, the title had to have something about kizuna in it. With the help of readers, I came up with The Kizuna Coast.

However, I was anxious that my slow writing process—from 2011 to 2014--would produce a book published too late to matter at all. You know how disasters fade from memory—earthquakes in Haiti and the Philippines, the cyclones and floods in Bangladesh? So many people all over the world are sympathetic for just a few months. Another concern was that some Japanese feel the tsunami is so painful that it should not be the subject of books or art.

I pondered the steady trickle of poignant news from Tohoku: grand openings of libraries, hospitals, and schools contrasting with stories about survivors still desperate for government assistance. And I realized that for me, this is Japan’s story of the century. I believe that the tsunami tale should be told often and in many different voices.

Sugihama, the fictional setting of the novel, is a charming fishing village, like so many other real places nearby. Rei Shimura, the young Japanese-American antiques dealer featured in all my books, rushes into its devastated remains with a volunteer crew, hoping she’ll find a missing elderly friend. When she encounters a suspicious corpse, the police have no time for investigation. So she’s aided by townspeople, the armed services, medical volunteers, and an adorable rescue dog.

The final pages of the book hint at the great restoration that will come to Tohoku; but I knew while writing it that realistically, this would only be part of the picture. Today, many Japanese are disappointed by the government’s lack of commitment to improving sea walls and other important structures, and also providing support for unemployed, displaced people. And I have to agree with them that honoring and preserving the communities is simply an extension of kizuna.

Sujata - Thursday

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bouchercon Hiatus #1: 20 Mistakes to Avoid in Paris

Since so many of us are participating this week in Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina, we'll be sharing with you some of our favorite posts from the past, starting with this classic from Cara.  Enjoy!

1. Missing the last Metro home
Full taxi's pass you by, you face a long walk home

2. Heels on cobblestones - unless you’re Parisian + have grown up doing this.

3. Sacre Coeur pickpocket petition scams - avoid them and go up the back stairs

4. Bicycling the rond-point Bastille - you value your life, right?

5. Sales clerks on the Rue St Honoré - only if you’re really buying that Vuitton should you face them
6. Demonstrations + strikes - forewarned is knowledge - check before leaving the house or you might have no bus or Metro to catch
7. Side stepping suspicious streams on the pavement/trottoir - you get the reason, non?

8. Les soldes/ The Sales in January and June - only if you’re obsessed, determined + have your game plan in place should you enter the fray at Galleries Lafayette

9. Touching the fruit at greengrocers - just don’t

10. Fishing in the Canal St Martin - it’s very shallow and yet they find bodies once in awhile 

11. Paris Plages - your call if you want to slap on oil and sardine crunch with the Parisians who couldn’t get out of Paris in August 
12. Driving through Sunday manifestations/strikes - again, you value your life, right?

13. Not greeting shop assistants when you enter and leave - an expected common courtesy
 14. Flashing an iPhone at Metro stations - that’s if you want to keep it

15. Puces St Ouen - instead go to Porte de Vanves fleamarket more locals and deals

16. Pigeons - hard to avoid but keep extra cafe napkins in pocket to alleviate those white plops

17. Late night kebab - eh, go for the frites 

18. Sunbaking on the Seine - see #11 Paris Plages + #16 Pigeons
19. Lining up for the Louvre - find the back entrance and enter via the Pyramid

20. Dog deficit - hop, skip + jump 

Any questions?

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, October 5, 2015

Holier Than Thou: My Problem With Orthodoxy

I am a formerly Roman Catholic atheist.  I was born into the faith and educated in it through seventeen years of Catholic school.  I was extremely devout until I was a young mother when for reasons that would seem mundane if I described them here I abruptly lost my faith.   It was as if I had been living inside a soap bubble, and it suddenly burst.  It was gone.  And that was that.

But that is not to say that I lost my interest in religion.   Or my knowing what it felt like to be part of a church that informs, comforts, and restricts a person’s day-to-day thoughts and actions.  My first two historical novels involve devout religious faith as part of the lives of my characters—as would certainly have been the case in South America in 1650 and 1868.  Now I am in the throes of writing a series based on the Ten Commandments along with themes of other evils left out of the Law of Moses.

During the time I was a practicing Catholic, orthodoxy was not an issue for me.  “Catholic” meant that the teachings of the Church were the same all over, so there was no question of sectarian competition.  One accepted it all or not at all.

I was in my thirties before I began to see how—within a sectarian form of religion—orthodoxy might work to narrow what was permissible, what was admirable, how one defined the difference between right and wrong.  In fact it was observing the life a Jewish friend that I began to see what orthodoxy could do to a person.

When I met this particular friend, she was working in a huge insurance company as a management trainer.  Despite serious physical disabilities from an early childhood case of polio, she flew around the US lecturing and training employees.  In her private life, she performed on stage and on the radio with her charismatic persona and lovely singing voice.  She gave inspiring and entertaining lectures that helped people concentrate on their opportunities instead of their challenges.  She was (and remains) irresistible.

But then, after her mother died, her father and her brothers, all rabbis, began to crack down on her activities.   As the years went by, especially after her father also died, her brothers’ ideas of what was right and proper for her constantly escalated.  All of a sudden they declared that it was immodest of her to present herself in public and speak before groups of that included men.  She complied, even though it meant quitting her job.  Not long afterwards they ordered her to confine her free-lance personal appearances to religious subjects.  And then they said she must confine her activities to religious venues.  And then to religious venues where only women were in attendance.  They made her smaller and smaller until she was practically invisible.

Whether in the context of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, this is how orthodoxy seems to work.  The leader of a sect says X.  His (It’s never a her!) competitor in the Holier-Than-Thou race says 2X.  The rebuttal is 3X.  And off they go, making the rules stricter and stricter and stricter.

This rush to ultra-orthodoxy seems also to be affecting the secular side of life.  In politics, what does it mean to be conservative?  Or liberal?   Nothing seems to be enough.   It is not enough that President Obama has walked an extremely difficult path to get the country on an even keel and keep it there in such roiled waters, that he managed to break the color barrier to the presidency, that gay marriage is now the law of the land, that 36 million more Americans now have health insurance…  I could go on.  Several of my liberal friends rail against him for not doing _______, fill in the blank with whatever their personal pet peeve happens to be.

It is not enough for the Republican Conservatives in Congress that John Boehner has given our Democratic President all kinds of hell to deal with and halted much of Obama’s progressive agenda.  Boehner has not turned the country into a paradise for the right wing.  He has therefore been branded as the enemy of the orthodoxists in his party and has been forced to step down.

It is not enough that Pope Francis has changed the conversation and sought to find common ground where none seemed to exist.  He must be vilified because he has not jettisoned everything about the Church that some people happen to dislike.  He is a “fraud” and a “hypocrite” because he has not taken that aircraft carrier he is steering and turned it on a dime in the direction they want it to go.

What I find astonishing in these people is not that they still have issues.  I do too.  It is not that they want to speak out on what they think is still needed.  I do too.  It is that they become outraged when they do not get their own way IMMEDIATELY.  They seem to think they have a right to judge and DICTATE to the whole human race.

They want to be the head rabbi, the head imam, the head priest, the boss of the entire world and until they get their way, they declare an end to any form of civilized discourse.  They never softly say I disagree.  Shouting and name calling is their knee-jerk response.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  I recently came across a photograph by a splendid artist that says all these nearly one thousand words in one image.  His name is Boushra Almutawakel.  And here is his instantaneous indictment of the evils of creeping orthodoxy.  It is called Mother, Daughter, and Doll.

 Annamaria - Monday