Friday, 12 June 2015

Beyond Courage, Beyond Words

William Angus VC
 (photo Wikipedia)
It's not easy defining what courage, gallantry, bravery or selflessness actually is, and yet we constantly have a need to do so.

I suppose by praising incredible actions taken by often very ordinary people during extraordinary times, we're perhaps holding up some kind of mirror to ourselves and, in doing so, glimpsing what potentially we all could be.

Although this may seem like a bit of a reflective ramble, it was triggered by a story appearing in the papers today, and featured on national radio and TV, concerning the actions of Scots soldier William Angus who a century ago was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain's highest award for gallantry.

Before the start of the First World War, Lance-Corporal Angus was a miner turned professional footballer, having spent time with Glasgow's world-famous Celtic Football Club. And because he was also a member of the local territorial battalion of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), he was immediately mobilised when war broke out in 1914.

In the early part of 1915, Lance-Corporal Angus and his HLI comrades were transferred to the 8th Royal Scots, to bring the regiment up to strength after it had suffered heavy casualties. On June 12, at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée near the Franco-Belgium border, Lance-Corporal Angus volunteered to venture out from the safety of the trenches into no-man's land to save wounded comrade Lieutenant James Martin. The two  also came from the same Lanarkshire town, Carluke.

What happened next was simply incredible because Lieutenant Martin was lying within yards of the German trenches. The enemy knew he was there, too, and tried their hardest to finish him off. Fortunately for Lieutenant Martin, they couldn't stick their heads above the parapet because of the steady stream of rifle fire being directed at the trench. So they lobbed grenades at him instead.

The London Gazette

The entry in The London Gazette announcing the award of the Victoria Cross says, "No. 7709 Lance-Corporal William Angus, 8th (Lanark) Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry (Territorial Force). For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Givenchy on the 12th June, 1915, in voluntarily leaving his trench, under very heavy bomb and rifle fire, and rescuing a wounded officer who was lying within a few yards of the enemy's position.

"Lance-Corporal Angus had no chance whatever in escaping the enemy's fire when undertaking this very gallant action, and in effecting the rescue he sustained about 40 wounds from bombs, some of them being very serious."

One of those serious wounds included the losing of his left eye. And yet after spending only two months in hospital, Lance-Corporal Angus was able to travel to Buckingham Palace in London where he received his medal from King George V.

Anniversary

Lieutenant Martin and Lance-Corporal Angus both went on to live long lives. Every year, on the anniversary of the rescue, Lieutenant Martin always sent a message of thanks to Lance-Corporal Angus. When Lieutenant Martin died in 1956, the Martin family continued the tradition until the death of  Lance-Corporal Angus in 1959.

Now, there were many acts of extreme courage and bravery during the First World War. Indeed, more than 600 VCs were awarded in total, all of them highly deserved. But to me, what makes the award to Lance-Corporal Angus stand out is the fact he volunteered to save his fellow comrade.

This was not done in the heat of battle, when the blood is up and any act is likely to be more instinctive than anything else. No, he deliberately chose to put himself in harm's way, to venture out beyond the safety of the British trenches into no man's land, picking his way some 70 yards under heavy fire, dodging bullets and bombs and suffering dozens of wounds. Yet he never turned back.

An incredible story of courage which certainly makes you think. Placed in a similar position, I ask myself what would I have done? The honest answer is I don't know. Perhaps, in reality, holding up the mirror is in truth a pointless exercise.  

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Great Sadness As Charles Kennedy Dies

Charles Kennedy (photo Lochaber News)
Tributes have been pouring into radio and TV stations across the length and breadth of Scotland and the wider UK today following the sad announcement of the death of former MP Charles Kennedy, aged 55.

The one-time Liberal Democrats party leader and recently dislodged Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP was found dead at his home in Fort William.

In a statement, Police Scotland confirmed there were no suspicious circumstances.

A statement issued by Charles Kennedy's family described their "great sadness" and "enormous sense of shock".

The statement added, "We are obviously devastated at the loss. Charles was a fine man, a talented politician and a loving father to his young son."

Immense courage

The Liberal Democrats said on the party's website, "Charles was one of the greatest politicians of his generation, devoting his life to public service, having been elected as a Highlands MP at the age of 23. He was well known for his wit and charm when speaking, which touched many people beyond the world of politics.

"He led the Liberal Democrats to our party's greatest electoral successes and showed immense courage when standing up against injustice, most notably when his spoke for the country against the invasion of Iraq."

Personal tribute

The media and personalities from the world of politics, business, sport and entertainment often pay little more than lip service following the death of a high-profile figure. But, in this case, almost uniquely, the tributes have been wholesome, honest and heart-felt. Charles Kennedy really was highly respected by both the man in the street and by those at the top end of society.

I met him on a number of occasions while working as a reporter for the Ross-shire Journal, a weekly newspaper which covered his parliamentary constituency. And I would often talk to him over the phone at least once a week, mainly about the column which he wrote for the paper.

Sometimes he would call me from the House of Commons. More often than not it would be from the departure lounge of Heathrow, or another UK airport, as he was waiting for a flight to some European capital.

What always struck me was the sheer energy, honesty and integrity of the man. And no matter how busy he was, you always felt he had time for you, and that at that moment, you were the most important person on the planet.

Yes, I always looked forward to reading his column, as did thousands of his constituents, because it always gave a real insight into the workings of the UK parliament, particularly if there was an issue which had a direct bearing on the Highlands.

Charles Kennedy was not only a great speaker, a talented writer and a giant of a man, he really cared passionately about the area and the people he represented. He will be sadly missed by everyone.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Dunfermline's Greatest Son

Be it ever so humble. Andrew Carnegie's
birthplace in Dunfermline.
It's funny how a haircut can make you think about life and how much you've achieved with it. A few days ago, feeling rather pleased after a quick trim, I asked the barber how much I owed her for the haircut.

She hesitated, then asked me if I was usually charged pensioner rates. Surprised, not to mention slightly taken aback by the question, I said no, I'm 62.

And with a great amount of pleasure, I paid full price, eagerly forcing the money into her hand while thinking to myself I'm not over the hill quite yet!

But it was the first time in years anyone had not only questioned how old I was, but also whether I was above or below pension age. Tempus fugit - time flies. As I walked back home, mulling over some deep thoughts about the meaning of life, I passed the humble abode of Andrew Carnegie, just as I'd done dozens of times before.

Richest man in the world

As I passed Andrew Carnegie's birthplace in Dunfermline, I did so with a huge amount of respect, if not awe. For here was a man who dragged himself up by the bootstraps to become, during his lifetime, the richest man in the world. His near $500 million fortune, most of which he gave away, would be worth in today's money somewhere in the region of $13 billion.

Andrew Carnegie, photo courtesy of Forbes.
Whilst my lifetime achievements may be commendable, or perhaps not, as the case may be, of one thing I am certain, they'll likely not be remembered or figure anywhere within the grand sweep of history. Not so with Andrew Carnegie.

Now, I'm not going to spout facts and figures about Andrew Carnegie's rise, from the son of impoverished weavers, who emigrated to America, to steel-industry giant of the 19th century. Instead, check out the brilliant article by Chloe Sorvino in Forbes; or the excellent piece on the History website. Both are highly commended, giving interesting perspectives into the life and times of Dunfermline's greatest son.

The magnificent Andrew Carnegie statue
 in Dunfermline's Pittencrieff Park.
All I'll say is this. From an early age, Andrew Carnegie worked hard, certainly harder than anyone around him. He was highly intelligent and no matter the job always sought ways to improve it.

For example, while working in Pittsburgh as a messenger boy in the telegraph office, he memorised not only the street layout but also, usefully, the names and addresses of the city's most important people.

But more than any of that, Andrew Carnegie had one other important attribute - the ability to spot and take advantage of any opportunity which came his way.

That, along with an uncanny grasp of the 'big picture', meant he was always destined to rise far above his lowly beginnings.

So if you've ever wondered what it's possible to do in just a single lifetime, think no further than Andrew Carnegie.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A King Lost...Then Found

Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, once
lost but now found!
On the left is a photograph I took a few days ago of the final resting place of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, in Dunfermline Abbey. Incredibly, the man, who more than any other helped Scotland gain its independence, was actually lost to the world for hundreds of years.

Of course, the seminal moment which ultimately led to Scottish independence was the two-day Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where a vastly outnumbered Scottish army led by Robert the Bruce defeated the military might of an English army which was at the time, arguably, the most powerful in all of Europe.

This bloody battle showed once and for all Scotland would not be conquered. But independence itself would have to wait for another 14 years with the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328 which finally brought to an end the more than three-decades-long First War of Scottish Independence.

However, the treaty unravelled a mere four or five years later, presaging the start of the Second War of Scottish Independence which lasted some 25 years. But even at its end in 1357, Scotland still retained its independence, a status enjoyed by the country until 1707 and the Treaty of Union, an agreement between the parliaments of England and Scotland which led to the creation of Great Britain.

Silver casket

It almost goes without saying the above is just an outline of just some of the fascinating events taking place during an extremely turbulent period of both English and Scottish mediaeval history. After Robert the Bruce died on 7 June 1329, aged 54, at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton, his heart was removed prior to his body being embalmed and then buried in Dunfermline Abbey.

King Robert's greatest wish had been to go on a crusade to the Holy Land before he died. But when he knew this wasn't to be, he instructed Sir James Douglas to take his heart on a crusade instead. Douglas placed Bruce's heart in a silver casket on a chain which he wore around his neck.

When no crusade materialised, Douglas, along with a number of other Scottish knights, headed for Spain to fight against the Moors and was killed at the Battle of Teba. According to legend, Douglas, outnumbered by Moorish cavalry, took the casket from around his neck and threw it into the midst of the enemy. As he bravely fought to follow his king and retrieve it, he was cut down.

Later, after the battle was over, Douglas's body was found along with the silver casket and both were returned to Scotland. In line with his wishes, Robert the Bruce's heart was buried in Melrose Abbey, in a part of Scotland he loved dearly.

A giant among men

In 1818, the long-lost vault containing the body of Robert the Bruce was discovered by workmen building the new parish church at Dunfermline, which is on the site of the ancient abbey there. The vault contained the remnants of an oak coffin and the skeletal remains of a body enclosed in lead, with fragments of a shroud made of gold cloth around it. Over the head, the lead had been shaped into a crown, leaving little doubt as to whom the remains belonged.

Inside Dunfermline Abbey
A wider view of  the final resting place of Robert the Bruce
 inside Dunfermline Abbey.
From the length of the skeleton, too, it was estimated Robert the Bruce must have stood at just over 6 feet tall, making him a giant among men in mediaeval Scotland where the average height would have been something around 5 feet 4 inches.

Later, further inspection revealed the sternum had been sawn to enable the removal of the heart, providing further confirmation of the skeleton's identity.

In a ceremony befitting a former king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce's remains were placed in a new lead coffin and re-interred in the vault at Dunfermline Abbey in 1819.

Dunfermline Abbey
Dunfermline Abbey.

Strange to say, Robert the Bruce's heart was also lost for hundreds of years, too, until the chance discovery of the casket by archaeologists in 1920.

Unfortunately, when they reburied it, they forgot to mark its location. During construction work in 1996, however, the casket was uncovered once more, and following scientific analysis confirming it had indeed contained human tissue, was finally reburied in Melrose Abbey in 1998.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Site Of Slaughter

Hard to believe it now but this was a site of slaughter
where hundreds died in an almost forgotten battle.
Looks like the sort of modern units you'd find on most industrial estates anywhere in this or any other country.

You know, spacious, well lit, and well ventilated hi-tech bespoke offices built to the highest of specifications, with staff sat in front of a myriad of computer screens and the like.

Only, this is Scotland, where seemingly every square foot of ground has been fought over at some point in the past. And thus many of the office workers sitting at their desks, answering telephone calls or inputting data into spreadsheets, are doing so probably unaware of the carnage that once took place only a few feet away from them. For this was a site of slaughter, the tragic ending to a little-remembered battle more than three centuries ago.

Extremely complicated

Now, I'm not going to go into any great detail about the Battle of Inverkeithing itself, or the events which led up to it, simply because it's all extremely complicated and I'm no history expert. Wikipedia does a very good job of explaining it all here.

Suffice to say, the battle was fought within walking distance of where I live in Dunfermline on 20 July 1651 between an English parliamentarian army under John Lambert and a Scottish covenanter army acting on behalf of Charles II, led by Sir John Browne of Fordell. Each side fielded about 4,000 troops.

The Scots army was made up of a hotchpotch of experienced covenanter and royalist troops, raw recruits, militia from Dunfermline and Highland clansmen. Up against them were the highly seasoned and disciplined soldiers of Cromwell's New Model Army who earlier had landed from the sea and established a bridgehead at North Queensferry, a small village on the Firth of Forth.

North Queensferry with the Firth of Forth and its iconic
railway bridge clearly visible. Part of the road bridge
can also be seen. Photograph: Transition Network.
But on hearing news the Scots were about to be heavily reinforced, the parliamentarians decided to launch a pre-emptive strike which was initially repulsed.

However, the inexperience of the Scots quickly proved their undoing, enabling Cromwell's men to push northwards towards Inverkeithing and then to Dunfermline.

Initial success turned into a fighting retreat and a last stand by the Scots in and around the precincts of Pitreavie Castle where most of the slaughter, particularly of the clansmen, took place.

Indeed, the 800 or so Maclean clansmen who fought in the battle were killed almost to a man despite some asking for sanctuary within the castle walls, a request refused by its owners, the Wardlaw family.

No quarter

The fighting throughout was a bloody hand-to-hand affair, conducted principally with muskets, pikes and swords, and with little or no quarter given or expected by either side. Some 2,000 or more Scots died in the battle, with around 1,600 taken prisoner. Accounts at the time talk about bodies lying piled up in the surrounding fields, and the nearby Pinkerton Burn, according to local legend, ran red with the blood of the slain for three days.

The main part of the inscription reads: "Near here Sir Hector
Maclean of Duart was killed at the Battle of Inverkeithing
along with some 760 of his men 20 July 1651." 
In 2001, the Clan Maclean Heritage Trust erected a small cairn nearby with a plaque in both English and Gaelic in memory of clan-chief Sir Hector Maclean of Duart who died along with 760 of his clansmen. Beside the cairn is an interpretation board explaining the battle.

According to Historic Scotland, "This is the only commemoration and interpretation of the battlefield, which is surprisingly little known considering the importance of the battle in the last stages of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms."



Pitreavie Castle, which was built in 1615, was owned
by the Wardlaw family at the time of the battle.
Pitreavie Castle, built in 1615, has gone through extensive renovations and additions since the day of the battle.

It remained in private hands until 1938, when it was acquired by the Air Ministry, and became RAF Pitreavie Castle.

When the RAF station closed in 1996, the castle was converted into residential apartments. These are still in use today.

The castle is considered to be an important example of an early 17th century symmetrically-planned house.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Green Fingers, Triffids And The Joys Of Gardening - Not!

Now that's what I call a garden! Check out Perfect Gardens to
see how it should be done.
The god of gardens both great and small sure passed me by when dishing out green fingers.

I mean, I want to have a great-looking garden. Honestly I do! But, sadly, gardening nirvana is something I'm not likely to experience this side of the ether no matter how many gardening mantras I dutifully chant.

But it's spring, again, which means grass grows and hedges take off into the wide blue yonder and weeds turn into triffid-like monstrosities, no doubt out to take over the world, beginning with my little garden.

So you've all been warned!

Triffids? So what are they exactly? According to good old Wikipedia, triffids are a fictitious, tall, mobile, prolific and highly venomous plant species, the titular antagonist in John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids and Simon Clark's 2001 sequel The Night of the Triffids.

Fictitious? Funny, but that just about describes the plants...I mean weeds in my garden to a tee! And talking of weeds means it's about time for the annual ritual, which goes something like this.

Armed with a vicious-looking hoe, I head over to the patch of ground peppered with green somethings and the remnants of last year's perennial wot's-its, closely followed by my eagle-eyed partner.

"Stop!" she shouts. "That's not a weed!"

"Is this a weed?" I say.

"No, it's a plant."

I try again. "So what's this then?"

"It's a plant."

"And this?" I say. "Another weed?"

"No, that's a plant. This is a weed. Do you get it now?"

I don't really but the ritual carries on until all potential weeds in the garden have been identified and marked down for destruction. Ah, the joys of gardening! Wouldn't miss it for the world.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Revealed, Common Scottish Words And Phrases You Never Even Knew Existed!

It's as clear as mud! But listen to the sound
each word makes. Braw, don't you think?
Don't you love words in all their simplicity, complexity and down-right beauty, often conveying over the length of a sentence or two an avalanche of mental imagery and complex emotion.

But it's not just the meaning and the context of words which is important but the sound they actually make, too.

Here in Scotland we're lucky in that as well as the Queen's English being spoken widely, we also have great variety in the number of dialects you can hear as you travel across the land.

Indeed, words which mean one thing in a town or city can have a completely different meaning only a few miles away. But all of that just adds to the richness of the phonetic tapestry.

Favourites

Here's a good word to get your teeth around, drookit, as in 'drookit dug'. Think drowned rat and you come somewhere close to the meaning. Personally, I love the word. Speak it slowly and at the same time picture in your mind's eye a wet, shaggy dog clambering up a river bank and frantically shaking the water out of its fur, soaking everyone within spitting distance at the same time. That's a drookit dug!

Stooshie, stramash, rammy, three Scots words which essentially mean the same thing, a strong disagreement, argument, or even a physical fight. But don't they all convey a sense of drama, movement, confrontation or even a slightly anarchic feeling? They certainly do for me.

Another favourite is blether, as in chat or talk. Blether, along with blethering, makes me think of a couple of old friends having a relaxing conversation, perhaps with a cup of tea, or something stronger, in their hands, each enjoying the other's company. It's a friendly, intimate sort of word. Of course, in a completely different context, a blether can mean a gossip, or someone who talks a load of rubbish.

There's something about the sound of the word glaekit which perfectly describes someone who is foolish or stupid. I find you simply don't need to add anything else to adequately convey its meaning. It's one of these economically descriptive words often found in day-to-day conversation here in Scotland.

Colourful

If anything, the URL of this website, the Scottish vernacular for window (windae, as in 'winday'), has certainly been the inspiration for this post. I love the phrase, 'Yer bum's oot the windae!', which is another way of saying your talking a load of rubbish. It's got a kind of earthy sort of feel to it, don't you think?

Another of my favourite phrases is 'Awa' an bile yer heid!' or, put another way, 'Please go away and boil your head.' Kind of charming, no? It's a colourful way of saying get lost. 'Haud yer wheesht!' is a Scottish phrase that's up there with the best of them, exhibiting the sort of sonic quality which'll end even the most vociferous of arguments!

Finally, 'Lang may yer lum reek!' is a peculiarly Scottish way of saying I wish you good health and continued good fortune. Lum is simply the Scots word for chimney, reek is the strong smell given off as smoke belches out of it, and lang means long. In other words, long may your chimney give off a strong,unpleasant smoky smell, indicating you're well enough off to afford to burn coal or some other fuel to keep warm.

There you have it, just a very few of the many words and phrases used every day in Scotland which visitors can sometimes find a trifle perplexing. What about explaining some of the common words and phrases to be found in your neck of the woods? Tell me about them!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Marketing Music Is A Whole Different Ballgame!

Available from iTunes, Amazon, Google Play,
Bandcamp and other music stores.
Not written anything for a day or two which is rather frustrating. The reason is marketing, at least my ham-fisted attempts at it. The target of my marketing efforts is, of course, We Are Skittles - and you can read all about the song and watch the YouTube video by clicking the page above or by going here.

I'm not a complete stranger to marketing's dark arts. In fact, up until now, I had thought I was rather good at it having pushed the sales of my partner's memoir, No Easy Road, from a few local sales to something around 100,000 sales on Amazon's Kindle platform.

But marketing music is a whole different ballgame. It's much harder simply because there's so much more competition out there and, to really make inroads, you've got to spend a little cash. In fact, the more you spend the easier it becomes, assuming the product is good enough in the first place.

Research is vital

One of the biggest problems any would-be marketer has to overcome, no matter whether it's a song or a book, is separating the wheat from the chaff, particularly if you intend turning to all things online, which is what most people do nowadays.

There is literally a plethora of websites all claiming to provide all manner of opportunities - for a price, of course. You could easily end up spending a fortune and still be little further forward. That's where doing a fair bit of research, prior to parting with any money, becomes ever-more vital, especially if the budget is a little bit on the low side to begin with.

I think I've stumbled on a pretty good website where, for a few dollars or so, you can get your song in front of music-industry specialists who'll take a listen and give you a fair and accurate review. The website, New York-based Music Xray, appears to be the real deal - at least that's my initial impression. But we'll see what happens over the next weeks and months.

Two points to finish with: I'm not a Music Xray affiliate; and, you've guessed it, I'll keep you all posted over any developments!

Friday, 17 April 2015

Moments That Changed You, Me, And The World Forever

Ben Nevis, photo courtesy of the Guardian.
I often find myself wondering why events separated by decades of time and great distances can have such a profound effect on the way you continue to look at the world, even to the point of defining who you really are so many years later.

A good example is the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. I was 10 years old at the time and living thousands of miles away in a small, isolated village in the Scottish Highlands. The village lies under the shadow of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain both in Scotland and within the rest of the British Isles.

What I particularly well remember was not the shocking event itself but the reaction of my father. The time was late evening and I was in bed sleeping. Suddenly I was awakened by my father standing silhouetted against the open bedroom door.

"The president's been assassinated!" he blurted out. I looked at him and he looked at me and although there was barely any light in the room, I was somehow aware of the shocked expression on his face. A moment or two later he turned around and walked out the room. That was it. Within seconds I was fast asleep once more.

Funny thing is I've never forgotten the moment. Was it the assassination itself, or the profound sense of shock on my father's face, something I'd never seen before, which has stayed with me ever since? Probably the latter.

It was only over the next day or two while watching television that I began to slowly realise how momentous an event the death of JFK really was. And that realisation only grew stronger with each passing year.

Strange atmosphere

Just over a year earlier there had been the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, in which for almost two weeks during October, the whole world held its breath as civilisation teetered on the brink of possible nuclear war. Even although I was a year younger at the time, I still had a feeling something was very wrong although I didn't know what.

My parents were acting strangely, tense and often distant, talking in hushed, quiet tones. I didn't really have the sense to ask them what was going on. They wouldn't have told me even if I had. At that time I didn't listen to the radio, read newspapers or watch very much television. So I had no idea at all. But that strange atmosphere in the house could be felt everywhere. Tension seemed to be etched onto every passing face.

Then, one day, everything returned to normal. Everyone, including my parents, was laughing and smiling once more and the strange atmosphere hanging over everything simply vanished into the cold autumn air.

Mesmerised

I suppose it was from that point onwards I began to take a greater interest in what was going on around me. I watched more television, particularly the news, even although much of it simply sailed over my head.

Then one day, quite by accident, as I passed the television set which had been left switched on, I watched a man speaking to tens of thousands of people about a dream that he had. Sitting alone in the living room listening to him, the tingles ran up and down my spine rooting me to the spot. I was mesmerised. I'd never heard anything like this before.

That man was Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in America. Even although I didn't understand what was going on, his words touched my very soul and changed me forever. And his words have been with me, guiding me, ever since.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

7 Steps To Pop Super Stardom (And You Won't Have To Lose The Shirt Off Your Back Either)

They say everyone has a book or a a pop song hiding somewhere inside of them. I don't know about the book, but the song? Here's 7 simple steps you can take right now to turn a potential hit pop tune into reality!

1. Compose a catchy song - kinda goes without saying, almost.

2. Grab a DAW, short for digital audio workstation (sequencer) and download onto your laptop. There are some great free DAWs you can use - check out LMMS, for example (just Google it). Or for less than $100, try Cockos Reaper, Mutools Mulab or Zynewave Podium. I've tried each one and they're all extremely good.

3. Create the drum, bass and instrument tracks. Don't mix them down.

4. Buy a half-decent USB microphone (the Yeti from Blue Microphones is excellent and costs around $130). Record the vocal track of the song in your DAW of choice.

5. Now do two things - convert the completed tracks (drums, bass and instruments) into a midi file; and create a WAV file of the tracks with the vocals included.

Recording studio

That's phase one of the project completed. The next step, Step 6, involves finding a reasonably-priced recording studio to professionally record the vocals. Unless you plaster your living room or broom cupboard with cardboard egg cartons, to absorb both audible and inaudible extraneous noise, you'll never be able to achieve the desired vocal quality.

So how much will that cost you? Shop around. About $30 (£20) to $45 (£30) an hour is not unreasonable. And three hours in the studio should be more than enough time to lay down the vocals. Just hand the studio the midi track you've saved onto a pen drive and, hey presto, there are your drums, bass and instrument tracks ready to go. The WAV file simply allows the studio to gain an impression of what the vocals sound like against the instruments.

If, at this point, you decide the track perhaps needs the addition of a guitar part, ask the studio if they can suggest a competent and reasonably-priced session guitarist. Most studios will have several musicians that they regularly use. Anything around $110 (£75) per hour is reasonable - it shouldn't take any more than an hour to lay down a guitar track, for example.

Adding it up

So let's add up what we've spent so far:

Catchy song - $0.00; DAW - free to $100 (£67); microphone - $130 (£87); studio time, including session guitarist - around $225 (£150). Total cost: $455 (£305) (approximately).

We'll probably need to add maybe two hours of mixdown time in the studio to produce a master copy of the track, as well as MP3 and WAV versions to upload to music stores and streaming websites. So add another $60 (£40) to the cost, which brings the total to $515 (£345).

But there's one final piece of the jigsaw to consider, Step 7, distribution, to the likes of  iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify and other top stores and streaming websites. And, again, that'll bump up the final bill.

Confusing

However, unless you know about ISRC numbers and bar codes, which have to be incorporated into your MP3 or CD in order for official music charts around the world to track any sales you make, you're better off leaving that side of things to one of the many distribution companies which you can find online. And because there are plenty of them, offering all sorts of plans and deals, it can all become rather confusing and time consuming.

The use of a distribution company is vital because they know how to correctly format the track so it'll be accepted by iTunes and the other stores. And many will issue the track with an ISRC number and bar code as part of the deal.

After much research and deliberation, I finally went with DistroKid. Their plans start at $19.99 (£13.50) per year, which allows you to upload unlimited songs and albums. And they're fast and deliver precisely what they say. I'm impressed (and, no, I'm not an affiliate or something like that).

So there you have it, a final bill of around $535 (£359) and seven steps to potential pop super stardom. Marketing is the next stage, of course, but that's a story for another day.

And here is an example. Click  on the 'We Are Skittles' tab at the top of the page to listen to the end result, or simply click this link instead. Money well spent? Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Day UK Democracy Died

If you live outside of the United Kingdom (UK), you may or may not know there's an election currently taking place to decide which political party leads the country for the next five years. And, as you would probably expect, there's daily wall-to-wall media coverage.

But, in a sense, there's really two elections taking place simultaneously. There's the one here in Scotland where all the polls indicate the Scottish National Party (SNP) is likely to take the majority of seats and return a record number of Members of Parliament (MPs) to the UK parliament in London.

Then there's the one in the rest of the country, where neither of the main parties, Conservative and Labour, look likely to win an overall working majority. And, if the polls prove true, that will mean they'll have to co-operate formally or informally with one of the smaller parties, the Liberal Democrats, UK Independence Party, Greens, SNP, Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, or the Respect Party.

So why does the political landscape appear to be so different here in Scotland, where traditionally Labour have held sway until relatively recently? Four words - the Scottish independence referendum.


Last year's independence referendum changed everything, particularly the way the Scots now look at politics. Indeed, the referendum, which independence supporters narrowly lost by a 55% to 45% majority, was simply a natural progression, driven initially by a resurgent SNP who proved beyond doubt they could run a government - the Scottish government - in a responsible and progressive manner.

But all of that is about as much as I'm going to say about the UK general election. On the independence referendum, however, which I fully accept was a defeat for the Yes campaign, I want to say a couple of things.

Firstly, the two-year-long campaign was an energising experience for millions of Scots. For the first time in my life, I took part in a march and rally in Edinburgh, joining more than 30,000 independence supporters from all over Scotland. My whole family was there, all marching proudly. None of us will ever forget it. I can now cross that one off of the bucket list!

Secondly, I'd like to say something about the media, particularly the BBC. It was bad enough every daily newspaper in Scotland was aggressively anti-independence, spewing bile and hatred on an unprecedented scale.

Yes, that was their right, I hear you say. Sorry, but I vehemently disagree, and that's me saying so with my ex-journalist hat on. I was always taught a journalist's job is to report in a fair and balanced way. If I'd ever written the sort of biased stories that I constantly read during the referendum campaign, my old editors would have chewed both my ears off - and quite rightly.

And the BBC, what happened there? I, along with most other journalists I once knew, always looked at the BBC as the pinnacle of any career, a byword for fairness, accuracy, impartiality and professionalism when it came to news reporting.

The referendum proved how naive I'd been for so many years. Disappointed and disillusioned doesn't even come close. Now I can't stand to bring myself to even listen to BBC news coverage, or to read any newspapers come to that. Ultimately, democracy within the UK is a sham. I now realise it died a long time ago.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Blogger Versus WordPress - The Chatter Continues!

From the website Ayudawp.com. Nice one!
So which blogging platform is best? You know something folks, I really couldn't give a fig. And yet the chatter still rages on, incessantly, day after day, year after year, wasting so much energy and effort in between for so little gain.

In fact, the Internet is full of it, some claiming this platform is the bee's knees and others saying that that one is, with both sides usually proffering some reasonable points, it must be said.

But here's my take. It's the content, not the blogging platform, which we should be worrying about. You know, those pesky little letters making up words which you string into sentences in a bid to enlighten, inform or entertain. At the end of the day, that surely is all that matters.

Slick websites

I mean, if the message is a strong one, is entertaining and/or informative, it'll get across. If it fulfils a desire or need, are you going to worry about the platform it's on? Hardly! Yes, I hear the chatter about presenting a professional, business-like image. And that's important, but up to a point.

Let's face it, we've all seen those slick websites, filled with glitzy sales messages and pitches, selling this and that in a bid, ultimately, to prise from you some of your hard-earned cash. Probably some of you have even bought into one or two. But when you've seen one such pitch then you've probably seen a thousand. In the end it all becomes a bit of a turn-off.

Et moi?

So, are you a WordPress blogger or a Blogger blogger. Or something else? Et moi? Blogger, through and through. Here's why.
  • It's free. Who doesn't like free?
  • Unlimited disc space
  • An easy-to-understand post editor
  • Plenty of design templates
  • The power of Google behind you
  • Simple to incorporate your own domain name
Look, I could go on and on. But that last point is an important one, especially when it comes to cost. This blog, you may have noticed, has it's own domain name, purchased via GoDaddy for less than £1.00 ($1.46) for the first year, and just over £8.00 ($11.70) for the combined two years (which I went for). Talk about value for money!

So, is it easy to set up a custom domain on the Blogger platform? Yes it is. It's simple. All I did was follow the excellent  instructions on the Wonder Forest website. All worked first time and the URL was almost instantly available on the Web.

Let me know what you think. Hey, you're even allowed to disagree with me. Come on, let's add our tuppence-worth to all of that inane chatter. You know you want to!


Monday, 13 April 2015

Writing For Me!

My name is John Donaldson and I feel I'm at the start of a journey. Let me explain.

I've written millions of words over my lifetime, most of them while a professional journalist for a number of weekly and evening newspapers. I've also written hundreds of articles for several search engine optimization companies over the last few years.

Now, I'm writing for me. And I'll be writing about all sorts of things, whatever takes my fancy. That's a great feeling. Indeed, there's only one word which springs to mind.

Freedom!

From the New York Daily News Online
Hence the picture of Mel Gibson playing the part of Scottish patriot William Wallace in the 1995 film Braveheart. Somehow, it feels perfect.

Of course, I loved the film. And to say that it took more than one or two liberties with regard to historical accuracy is a bit of an understatement.

But no matter. Suddenly the world knew the name William Wallace, and that many centuries ago he stood up for Scotland. In 1995, that still had an incredible resonance all around this proud and ancient land which I call my home.

So often, Scotland is subsumed by its largest neighbour to the south, England. For as long as I can remember, England's history has replaced so much of Scotland's history, to the point of neglect.

In many respects, that's where Scotland's sense of inferiority has sprung from. After all, how do you know where you're going if you don't appreciate or understand where you've come from? I'm pleased to say that that particular pendulum is beginning to swing back once more.

So, hopefully, dear reader, this first post has given you a sense of what this blog might be all about. I say might because even I don't quite yet know where it'll take me. But then that's what freedom is all about. Isn't it? Let me know what you think.