It’s here!

The Pinning Stones cover

Available to download now…

I am delighted to be able to release the final version of The Pinning Stones online today. Despite my best efforts, the process of design and approval has taken much longer than I had expected when the work was done during (as I remember it) the snowy winter of 2012-13, so it’s great to be able to share it now.

I’m very conscious that many people gave time, effort and care to help in the work and I’m sorry that it’s taken so long for you to see the result. I can only hope that, if not exactly worth the wait, the book will be an interesting read. To download the book, please click on the links below:

Aberdeenshire Council will publish The Pinning Stones as a paperback book this autumn, and I’m grateful to them for allowing me to make the digital version available prior to publication. I would also like to thank the people who have contributed so much to the final result, in particular Fiona Jack, who did much of the background mapping work; Anne Murray, whose beautiful woodblock print is the basis of the whole design; Ray Smith, for the stunning portrait photographs; and Niamh Mooney at Aberdeenshire for the immaculate layout and graphic design.

There are many other people without whose support I simply couldn’t have undertaken a project such as this, and many more whose generosity, insight and confidence inform every page. As in all my work, The Pinning Stones is not my story but theirs retold. Their names are recorded in the book itself, but I thank them again and wish them all well at this time of historic choice for Aberdeenshire and for Scotland.

Finally, here are some of Ray Smith’s portraits of Aberdeenshire people: the resolution isn’t great, but they look fantastic in the book.


Once More for Greenland We are Bound

It’s been a long time since I added a post here, so a word of explanation is due, if not of apology. The process of refining and improving The Pinning Stones has been going fine, but it’s now in a phase where it depends more on other people’s decisions than mine. We are getting there, though, and I expect that the printed version will be available—with Anne Murray‘s beautiful artwork—in September. I’ve been in Aberdeenshire twice in June and will be here again next week. After the months of snow that accompanied my visits this winter, it was almost a shock to rediscover the lovely greens, ochres, browns and blues of the Shire’s summer. By way of compensation for the delay, here are a couple of artefacts you might enjoy.

Songs of NE Scotland

The first is very local. Frieda Morrison has been filming performances of some songs from the Greig-Duncan Collection in the context of her role as Artist in Residence at Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Here is one of my favourites (perhaps because my ignorance of Doric is less of  a handicap) You can see many more songs on her YouTube channel: they’re a delight.

Stories of migration

And, in complete contrast, my own latest book. It’s called Bread and Salt, and it considers migration, through the experience of 18 artists who have come to Europe from Latin America, Africa, South Asia and Japan. It was published in Holland ten days ago, and is available as a free download from here. There’s nothing about  Aberdeenshire or even Scotland, but teh experience of migration has marked this area deeply.   It’s a long way to Greenland, but wonderful when you get there…

The Pinning Stones


The Purloined Letter is one of three detective stories by Edgar Allen Poe in which he created the template for the cerebral, amateur detective that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle subsequently made famous, drawing on his Edinburgh medical school experience. Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin, is challenged to recover a compromising letter that has been stolen from its owner. The thief is known; the location of the letter, in his apartment, is known. Police officers have ransacked the place in the blackmailer’s absence, piercing cushions, dismantling furniture, and even lifting the wallpaper. Still it cannot be found. With a little mental effort, Dupin discovers the missing letter in a cheap card rack hanging from the mantelpiece, hidden in plain view.

Aberdeenshire, the largest part of the North East part of Scotland, which is itself the largest part of the country, also seems to be hidden in plain view. Jutting its forehead towards Norway, it is cut off by Scotland’s own great north road, the A9 passing its western edge on the way to Inverness and Thurso. This is the road to the Highlands, known to millions of visitors in search of wilderness Scotland. It is sufficiently part of Scottish culture to have inspired a band, Session A9, and Ian Rankin’s latest novel, which sees John Rebus winding his way up and down the road to Caithness. Given the natural, historic and cultural assets of the Scottish Highlands and Islands it is understandable if few of those on it look east, to the right of the mythic A9, where the Cairngorm Mountains shield the open lands beyond.

That is the opening of ‘The Pinning Stones: Culture and Community in Aberdeenshire‘, the draft essay which is the result of this research project. It is now being circulated in draft form to all those who have contributed to the discussions that took place over this winter. Please download it by clicking the link below and let me have  your responses, corrections or suggestions before the final text is produced this spring.

You can write comments on this page or send them by email but please let me have any feedback by

Monday 15 April 2013.Heartfelt thanks to all those who’ve contributed so far – I hope you enjoy the result.


This project has been commissioned by Aberdeenshire Council with support from Creative Scotland.

Space and silence

Space and silence

The two qualities you admire above all others in works of creative endeavour are space and silence.

This, according to Bill Duncan’s The Wee Book of Calvin, is one of the signs of a Calvinist. Religion didn’t come up much in the discussion groups last week, though space and silence were often mentioned as distinctive attractions of Aberdeenshire for artists.

There was plenty of space and silence as I crisscrossed the shire on Stagecoach buses last week. I looked out over cold fields and snow clad cottages and marvelled at everyone’s ability to get on with it. As one of the members of Buchan Heritage Society said to me when I thanked him for coming over to Fraserburgh on such a snowy day, ‘Och, we’re used to it’.

SnowcoachNonetheless, thanks to all those who made it to the sessions, and to everyone who gave me hospitality in their galleries, village halls and homes. By the Burns Nicht supper at Woodend Barn at the end of the week, I felt I had enough material for a Walter Scott style three volume novel.

Fortunately for everyone, what I’m now starting work on is just an essay. My aim is to distil at least some of Aberdeenshire’s rich culture into something that is approachable, without losing any of the complexity of its unique flavours.

The draft of that essay will be ready by the end of this month, and it will be circulated to everybody who’s contributed to this process over the past weeks. That will be a chance to advise or correct me before I complete the final version. In the meantime, if you weren’t able to come to one of the discussions but would still like to speak to me, please leave a comment or send an email.

The culture of snow

In last autumn’s project outline, I said that the discussion groups would have to be held in January to meet the timetable set out in the commission.I wrote then that ‘The weather might be a challenge, but we’ll improvise if necessary: its influence is, after all, just another aspect of local culture…

Now the snow has come to show just how much influence it can exercise in a large, mountainous rural area, edged on two sides by the northern seas. The seasonal aspect of Aberdeenshire’s culture has already come up in the discussion groups held in December and earlier this month. The long summer days bring people out of doors and much less keen to spend their evenings watching theatre or concerts. Instead, there’s a different culture of gardening, walking, Highland Games and the seaside.

In winter though, people do what they have always done in these Northern lands—keep warm and keep company. It’s then that tales are spun and songs shared, in the low light of fire and lamps (before the blaze of electricity pushed the ghosts out of sight). Human beings don’t hibernate, but perhaps we slow down a bit in the cold and dark months, when there’s so much less to be done on the land.  We might have come a long way, most of us, from farming, but place and climate still shape how we live in more ways than we think.

Mind you, being out of doors in winter has its attractions: Deveron Arts is organising a snow walk tomorrow, if you’re in Huntly.

This week there will be discussion sessions in different parts of the shire, from Portsoy and Banff to Fraserburgh, Laurencekirk and Monymusk. Many people have signed up to be there but if the weather is too bad on the day, don’t worry. There will be other ways for you to contribute. But all being well, I’m looking forward to some fascinating conversations this coming week.


Discussion Venues & Dates

Discussions to explore culture in Aberdeenshire.

We are inviting people involved professionally or voluntarily in the arts, heritage, museums, libraries and other forms of culture to discussions in various parts of the Shire. If you would like to come to one of the discussions, please contact Fiona Jack.

War Office mapTo help prime the pump, so to speak, we’ve produced a short discussion paper that sets out some ideas and some broad questions. The ideas and conclusions that may end up in the final report are likely to be very different – that’s why the discussion process is so important.

You can download the discussion paper by clicking on this link.

Please RSVP to ensure a place at the discussions as numbers are limited at each venue.

Dates & Venues for Discussions

Monday  //   January 21st
Banff Castle  – Banff
11:00 – 1:00  ( Community )

Tuesday  //  January 22nd
Salmon Bothy –  Portsoy
11:00 – 1:00  ( Heritage // Practitioners )

Wednesday  //  January 23rd
Lighthouse Museum –   Fraserburgh
11:00 – 1:00  ( Museum )

Thursday  //  January 24th
Grassic Gibbon Centre //  Arbuthnott
11:00 – 1:00   ( Literature )

Monymusk Arts Trust –  Monymusk
2:30 –  4:30  ( Music & Practitioners )

Teas and Coffees will be provided at all venues.

Please remember though that this is just a paper to start a discussion. The ideas and conclusions that may end up in the final report are likely to be very different – that’s why the discussion process is so important. 

Guest post: What makes a place remote?

Here’s our second guest post, from Robert Livingston, Director of HI~Arts, and someone who has spent many years criss-crossing northern Scotland in his work supporting artists and communities in their creative lives. 

Where is the most remote community in Scotland? Surely the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, must be a strong contender—Unst that is, that has a primary school, a swimming pool, a campus of Shetland College, a festival, and good broadband coverage.  Plus a very regular ferry link to the rest of Shetland.  Doesn’t sound very remote to me.


OK then, what about Durness on the far north coast of the Scottish Mainland, one of the few remaining communities in Scotland only accessible by single track road, sixty miles from the nearest rail station?  It describes itself, on the website, as ‘the most remote area in Great Britain’, and ‘the most sparsely populated parish in Scotland’, with just 2.4 people per square mile. Looks like a shoe-in. But Durness has two food shops, a petrol station, a golf course, a pub, a restaurant, three hotels, and of course the famous Balnakeil Craft Village.  Plus a mobile bank and mobile library make regular visits.  Sounds like a positive metropolis, doesn’t it?

MountainsNo, I’ve been to both Unst and Durness and neither feels remote when you’re there—on the contrary they both have the air of lively, active and well-connected communities.  Unst, after all, has just been shortlisted for a Creative Scotland Creative Place Award.  So if ‘remoteness’ is about perception, not distance, then the place that I’ve felt myself to be most ‘remote’ recently is the Cabrach, a tiny rural community on the border of Moray and Aberdeenshire, just over ten miles from Dufftown and 17 miles from Huntly—both sizeable communities with a lot of facilities and many tourists.

The Cabrach is a shadow of what it used to be, with 75% depopulation in the last 100 years.  In the nineteenth century it was home to the largest lending library in Scotland outside Edinburgh.  There were once:

two schools, two churches, two post offices, two livestock markets, blacksmiths, joiners, shoe makers, a miller and a tailor. There was once a sweet shop and a large enough community to encourage Rizzas Ice cream from Huntly to make the long trek once a week to the Cabrach’.

The Cabrach Community Enterprise Ltd.

Now the Cabrach has a resident population smaller than that of the island of Eigg.  Yet everyone has heard of Eigg—that tends to happen with islands—but until I went there for the first time last year the Cabrach was unknown to me.  It is a scattered community, with no obvious centre, only a couple of key buildings—the Grouse Inn, and the Acorn, the base of Cabrach Community Enterprise (who’d invited me to meet with them)—and a series of isolated homes spaced along a glen of staggering beauty.  What really makes the Cabrach remote is that most of the area has neither mobile phone nor broadband coverage. In today’s world, that is true remoteness.

Gustave_Doré_-_Scottish_Highlands_-_Google_Art_ProjectMy point is that ‘remoteness’ and ‘rurality’ are states of mind. Moray and Aberdeenshire have a density of population five times that of the Highland Council area, and twice that of Shetland.  And for much of the area Aberdeen City is like a huge centre of gravity exerting immense centripetal force on the surrounding communities.  Yet, my experience of travelling and working in Aberdeenshire is that much of it feels much more ‘local’ than most of the Highlands, where I’ve worked for the past twenty years.  Communities need be only a few miles apart to feel very distinctive and separate.  Many small villages and hamlets nestle hidden in woods along winding single track roads.  It’s very easy to get lost.  And my perception is that the gravitational pull of Aberdeen City means that there are many fewer connections made within or across the Shire.  That’s partly a function of administrative boundaries of course—that the present ‘Shire’ is an abstract construct carved out of three former District Councils with historic associations, and a chunk of the old Grampian Regional Council. But it’s also about attitudes.  I get the same sense about the Scottish Borders—fiercely strong local loyalties to specific communities, and sometimes equally fierce rivalries with neighbouring communities.

My conclusion, surprising to me at least, is that you need a certain density of population, a certain critical mass of distinct communities, to generate a truly deep sense of being ‘local’, with the associated senses of also being ‘rural’ or remote’. Paradoxically, the fewer the communities, the more scattered the population, the greater is the likelihood that people will work harder to look outwards, to make connections, to open themselves to a wider world, as Unst and Durness have done, and as the tiny population of the Cabrach are working hard to do, against the odds.

What does that mean for the ‘warp and weft’ of Aberdeenshire?  That cold statistics will tell only a small part of the real story, that perceptions are crucial, that local diversity is a great strength, but may also sometimes be a barrier to more joined-up thinking and working.  That you can feel ‘remote’ in the centre of a large housing estate, and ‘global’ in the most isolated farm cottage. That it’s the stories we tell ourselves, and about ourselves, that really matter.

Robert Livingston is the Director of HI~Arts, the cultural development agency for the Highlands and islands, and host of the Growing Audiences North East programme, based at Woodend Barn, Banchory.