Crete 4: Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The Museum was stunning. Our guide issued us with earbuds as she had to use a radio mike to keep her voice down inside the museum. After waiting in a long queue we started upstairs in the fresco gallery. These were the original frescoes, first excavated by Arthur Evans. They included the bull-leapers, the dolphins, the ‘Prince with the lilies’, and the cup-bearer. For years I’ve seen photos of the originals, and of the reconstructions. Now I could stand in front of them and admire. They did not disappoint.

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Downstairs we went through the galleries in chronological order, from Neolithic to the Classical Period. There’s such a wealth of material that the afternoon just wasn’t enough to take it all in. The material is from Knossos, Phaestos, Zakros, Agia Triada and other sites. We saw the still undeciphered Linear A hieroglyphs, and examples of Linear B. The ceramics were amazing – such quality, such decoration. We saw octopus, snake and bird symbols. Jane wondered about the owl symbolism, and I said I thought it might have to do with the goddess Athena. I’ve since looked it up, and the Little Owl (Athene noctua) is indeed associated with Athena. I loved the bull’s head rhyton, made from steatite, and the lioness head rhyton. We saw the two snake goddesses, one with a cat on her head. I googled the Cretan wildcat, and it’s a fearsome looking beast. The image is copyright, so I won’t post it here, but do look it up. I loved the sarcophagi. So much, just so much. It’s wonderful.







Walking round Heraklion and the archaeological sites I reflected that I had grown up learning the Greek legends. They became part of my history, my culture. The more places I visit, the more things I see, the more languages I encounter, the more internationalist I feel. I’m a Scot of course, and I love the country I live in, but I feel my European heritage and kinship acutely, especially in these times.

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Crete 3: Lasithi Plateau, Krasi, Lato, Kritsa

Our next trip was to the Lasithi Plateau, a high, flat region surrounded by mountains. On the way up we saw lots of ravens, hooded crows, and a couple of lammergeyers, the first I’d seen since Tibet. On the way down to the plateau we saw traditional Cretan windmills, built in Venetian times to draw up artesian water and to grind grains. We gave the Diktian Cave a swerve, because our guides both said that the approach track was dangerous, the cave was unmanned, and we’d have to climb a gate to get in. We saw on the way back that the track consists of smooth limestone, polished and made slippery by thousands of visitors. The cave is reputed to be the birthplace of Zeus – but so is the cave on Mount Ida. We were treated to the story of Kronos eating his children one by one – gulp – according to our guide. Zeus was hidden by his mother, and survived to become the God of all Gods.

The plateau is farmed quite intensively, as it has deep soil and a water supply for irrigation. They grow orchard fruits and vegetables, and graze sheep and goats.

We stopped at a very nice café high up on the hillside, and had fresh juice made from oranges and pomegranates, with little warm pastries filled with a curd cheese called myzithra, and drizzled with honey. Each region has its own design for these pastries. They were delicious, as was the juice.

Lasithi Plateau

We drove on through several picturesque villages and stopped at Krasi to see an ancient plane tree and the 19th century stone sinks for washing clothes, and the adjacent troughs for watering animals, all fed by spring water. On the wall there is a plaque to the distinguished Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, who loved this village. His epitaph was: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

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We drove on through several villages with narrow streets, and encountered some car drivers who didn’t appear to know how to reverse out of the way of the bus.

Back in the hotel we had an interesting conversation with a 92-year-old ex-Marine and his much younger wife.  He told us that the Lasithi Plateau was actually the site for the main German paratroop landing during the Battle of Crete in 1940. Many of the paratroopers were shot by British and New Zealand troops as they descended, which put Hitler off future paratroop operations. But landings elsewhere and the lack of re-supply meant that Crete was lost, despite the bravery of the local resistance.

In the evening we had a talk on Minoan Crete talk re-scheduled from the first day because of our Knossos trip.

After an early start the next day we headed east. Lato is a small village high in the mountains, overlooking Agios Nikolaos and the Gulf of Mirabello. Access was up a track with natural and cut stone steps. We entered at a point where featured a stone-cut cistern, once roofed, showing evidence for pillars and steps leading down to the old water level. Near there is the open-air sanctuary and a stone rostrum in the agora. Behind it is a tiered seating area. To the right is the area of workshops and dwellings. Far right there’s the theatre area, again with tiered seats, a temple with an altar, and more rooms. The larger buildings are made from massive squared-off blocks of limestone. I discussed with our guides and members of our group how difficult it must have been to shape these blocks using only granite hammer-stones (and these would have to be imported). But of course by the 4th century BC, when it was built, the Iron Age had begun in some regions, and they might have had iron tools – again imported. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a major feat of stone-masonry for the time, however it was achieved

The whole place is extremely spectacular and atmospheric. It’s of Dorian (Doric) age, 4th century BC, and it was abandoned in the 2nd century BC. Excavation only started in 1967, and it’s clear there’s a lot more to be discovered.

Later we drove the short distance to the village of Kritsa, where we visited the little domed church of Panagia Kera, dedicated to Santa Anna and Saint Antony. The whole interior is covered with wall paintings, which have been extremely well conserved. The earliest date from the 13th century. I loved the long-suffering lugubrious expressions on the faces of the saints and followers.


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Crete 2: Malia and Knossos

At our first briefing from the Saga Archaeology group guide, she said that the Cretan custodians and guards at the sites and museums were all going on strike on the Thursday, so everything would be closed. So the excursions were all rescheduled. It meant that we would be visiting Knossos and Malia that afternoon, so she gave us a talk on Knossos and Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who carried out the work there in the early 20th century.

After lunch we boarded the bus, driven by Nikos, who was our driver for the whole of the week. And we met our Cretan archaeology host, Katerina.

Our first visit was to the Minoan palace site at Malia. According to legend, it was ruled by Sarpedon, one of the brothers of King Minos, if you believe that sort of thing. It’s a large site, spread out quite widely, with some sections of it protected by roofs. Katerina took us into the most recently excavated part of the complex, showing us the workshops (ceramics, seals), and the conjectural wooden roofs. In an island like this, and with the climate then probably similar to the climate today, flat roofs would have been fine. This area gave us our first glimpse of a feature we would become very familiar with throughout our trip – the lustral basin. Essentially a sunken room entered via a short staircase and a dog-leg wall. The archaeologists think they were used for ritual purification, but I’m not so sure. None of the ones we saw had any outlet drains.


Malia is the third major palace in Crete, after Knossos and Phaestos, all started around 2000 BC, subsequently rebuilt, and all destroyed by fire around 1450 BC, after which the Myceneans took over the island. Like the others , it has Neolithic and Prepalatial artefacts and structures. Malia, however, is built on a provincial scale.

I was impressed by the ‘kernos’, a circular stone offering table with a central well, possibly for oil, and numerous circular pits round the circumference, one pit larger than the others. I’m wondering if kernos has the same root as our quern?


After walking along a raised processional walkway, we came to a group of circular storage rooms and a large central courtyard. On one side there is a group of storage ‘magazines’, behind a portico of alternating stone and timber pillars, square and circular. Floors were of limestone, mostly pale, but some were darker and much harder. They’re either argillaceous or more strongly metamorphosed by pressure. I saw one block made of cementstone. We saw the royal apartments – his and hers – and an odd building – the ‘diagonal building’ arranged on a different orientation from the rest, and probably Mycenean.


Next we drove to Knossos, not far from Heraklion. I suppose Knossos would be the highlight of any archaeological tour of Crete, so it was a bit odd to be visiting it on our first day. Would everything that followed be an anti-climax? But it turned out all right. It was startling at first to see the red-painted concrete pillars at the site entrance, but it’s entirely possible, given the pigments available at the time, that this had been their original colour. It was certainly the same as on some of the original frescos, now in Heraklion Museum.


It’s a massive construction, around 20,000 m2,, and as an administrative and economic centre it housed the ruler, officials and the priesthood. The range and quality of the buildings is incredible, and I didn’t find Arthur Evans’ reconstructions detracted – I thought they enhanced it.

Knossos_lustral basinb

As elsewhere, the Neolithic underlies the Bronze Age, but here it hasn’t been excavated because of the complications of unravelling original and reconstructed buildings.

Most of the building stones are limestone, mostly pale, but the dark limestone predominates in the central square. Where a whiter, reflective finish was desired, gypsum has been used, but it weathers badly, so it’s mostly been protected by concrete. At one point we came across a collection of porphyry boulders in a storage area. The closest source I know is Egypt. What were the rocks doing there?

Knossos_porphyry stoneyard

Several of the rooms have reconstructed frescos – the dolphin fresco, bull-leaping, the Prince with the lilies. They are stunningly beautiful. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ are a stylised representation of the horns of a bull. Large storage jars called pithoi are in the storage areas and elsewhere.

Knossos_dolphin frieze

For all that we were awestruck and amazed, I just couldn’t picture the lives of the original inhabitants of the complex. They’re too far removed from us by time and cultural differences.

Knossos_bull frieze

We finished our tour at the ‘theatre’ area, sloping and paved with flat slabs.

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Crete 1

I normally use my Lumix camera when I’m away, but this time, maybe because I had a deadline for a funding application, I wasn’t as prepared as usual. I forgot to pack my spare camera battery and charger, so in the wonderful museum at Heraklion, battery power ran out, and I was forced to use my phone camera from then on. It wasn’t a total failure – the camera is actually very good, but it’s a pain in the neck having to transfer the photos from the Gallery to my desktop for processing, and I haven’t finished that job yet.

Our Cretan holiday was an archaeological one, learning more about Cretan and Greek history, and visiting a number of archaeological sites. It was at times breathtaking, surprising, awesome and beautiful. I loved it.

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This is the Doric hilltop site of Lato, a collection of houses and workshops, with a central courtyard, a ‘theatre’, temple, cistern, storage areas and other features.


When you’ve been as familiar, as I have, with the amazing bull-leaping image from Knossos, it comes as a wonderful shock to see the original frieze from the Minoan palace, discovered by Arthur Evans, on display in the museum at Heraklion.

This post is by way of being a taster. I will post more in the days to come, once I’ve edited my notes.

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Writing in Scots

More often than not I’ll drop the odd Scots word into poems and stories, either because nothing else will do, or to make a point that it’s the language appropriate to my culture, ancestry and nationality. I’ll say dreich, or outbye, or any one of a host of Scots words that have no exact equivalent in the English that I use in everyday speech and writing.

But I don’t all that often write a whole poem in Scots – and maybe I should – and nor do I write many stories in Scots. Except that I have written a few poems in demotic Scots (Confession, in The Propriety of Weeding (Red Squirrel Press, 2012), and I recently finished a short story where much of the dialogue is in the Doric of Moray, a slightly different, softer flavour of tongue from my ancestral Aberdeenshire Doric. And I absolutely loved writing it.

But when I write something solely in Scots, I’m struck by the power of the language, its hospitality to thoughts and concepts, and the beauty of it. Read Gavin Douglas or William Dunbar to get the full force.

My first published poem in Scots was A Postcaird Frae Posteritie, but it was a linguistic hybrid. I’m happier with some of the later ones, and my favourite is probably Wrack, published in Sushi & Chips (Diehard, 2006). It’s all Scots.


I’ the herbour a selkie
speirs air, dooks,
nebs the scag
strawn aboot the glaury grund.

Neist the ness, skellie-guttit,
the ‘Blithesome Weedae’ dings a mirkie mark;
the sea’s swoof sooks in an oot
the toom winnocks o the wheelhoose,
howders the tang-quaitened bell
‘at cries the maws
til their roupit saums.

I wrote it at Cove Harbour, near Dunbar, back in 2002, imagining the wreck of a fishing boat submerged below the waves, its barely heard bell still ringing as the tides surge through its skeleton.


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Game theory

I watched Hannah Fry’s programme on game theory last night, and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been a maths nerd since I did an Open University maths course in the 1970s, but I had actually encountered game theory a short while before then.

It’s the branch of mathematics which deals with strategies of interactions. It has implications for economics, social situations and politics, as well as evolutionary theory and ecology. It links in to probability and statistics, two more mathematical disciplines I’m interested in. That way you can plug in numerical values for outcomes and work out optimal strategies that take account of competition versus cooperation, doves versus hawks, and work out the benefits and costs of specific actions.

It occurred to me while watching the programme that I could possibly write short stories which have these principles underlying them. Real life often has these situations where problems can be solved in one of two ways – or actually one of four ways if two individuals are involved (it’s a 2×2 matrix). Stories have to have a problem, a dilemma, a tension, a conflict, which the writer follows through to a resolution.

Normally when I start to write a story, I don’t know how it’s going to end. This time I’m going to know the ending, and I can work out what strategies the protagonists are going to adopt to achieve their separate goals, but I’m going to be writing it backwards.

Wish me luck.

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Books published in my lifetime

Books published 1942- [actually the list ends in 2017, but I’m not finished yet]

This was supposed to be a list featuring one book from each year of my life. The books are ones which I have read at least once, or which I still consider significant reads for me. Some of them I still keep coming back to. The trouble was, I found it really hard, for some years, to restrict myself to just one per year, so I’ve indulged myself and included several ‘extras’.
1942 Albert Camus: The Stranger
1942: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson: On Growth and Form [I encountered this in 1970 – an amazing concept in biology]
1943 T S Eliot: Four Quartets
1944 George Polya: How to Solve It [Encountered it as an OU maths text in 1971 and learned to apply its principles and strategies in life also]
1945 Elizabeth Smart: By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept
1945: George Orwell: Animal Farm
1946: William Carlos Williams: Paterson
1946: Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan
1947: Robert Graves: I, Claudius
1947: Albert Camus: The Plague
1948 Ezra Pound: Pisan Cantos
1949: George Orwell: 1984
1950: Ernest Hemingway: Across the River and Into the Trees [actually, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a better book, but it was published in 1940]
1951: Ray Bradbury: The Illustrated Man [The Martian Chronicles is superb too]
1952: Heinrich Harrer: Seven Years in Tibet [I also like his book on the Eiger, The White Spider. Who can forget the heartbreaking and harrowing story of the Hinterstoisser Traverse?]
1952: Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems
1953: L.P. Hartley: The Go-Between
1953: Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood
1954: William Golding: Lord of the Flies [And The Inheritors, told in the person of a Neanderthal]
1955: Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Godot [Heard it first as a radio play]
1956: Allen Ginsberg: Howl
1957: Jack Kerouac: On the Road
1957: Alan Watts: The Way of Zen
1958: Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
1958: Gregory Corso: Gasoline
1959: Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
1959: Jack Kerouac: Mexico City Blues
1959: Walter M Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
1959: D T Suzuki: Zen and Japanese Culture
1959: Jerome Rothenberg (ed): New Young German Poets
1960: Lawrence Durrell: Clea [I actually had the temerity to write about this for my Higher English in 1960. I got the Higher.]
1960: Donald M Allen (ed): The New American Poetry, 1945-60 [This book has been a major influence on me since I first read it in 1960]
1961: Joseph Heller: Catch-22
1961: Robert Ardrey: African Genesis
1962: J G Ballard: The Drowned World
1963: Thomas Pynchon: V
1963: George Schaller: The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and behavior
1964: Richard Brautigan: A Confederate General At Big Sur
1965: Frank Herbert: Dune
1965: Gordon Y Craig: The Geology of Scotland
1965: Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels
1966: Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
1966: Basho: The Narrow Roads to the Deep North (Penguin edition)
1966: Robert Ardrey: The Territorial Imperative
1966: DeVore, Irven (ed): Primate behaviour; field studies of monkeys and apes
1967: Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light
1968: John Updike: Couples
1969: John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
1970: Larry Niven: Ringworld
1970: Gass, Ian (ed): Understanding the Earth
1971: Jane Goodall: In the Shadow of Man
1972: Paul Celan: Poems
1973: Erica Jong: Fear of Flying
1973: Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow
1974: Robert M Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [I still think of this book and what I learned from it]
1975: Primo Levi: The periodic Table
1976: Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene
1976: Lisa Alther: Skinflicks
1976: Raymond Carver: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please
1977: Marilyn French: The Women’s Room
1978: John Irving: The World According to Garp
1979: Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff
1980: Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose
1981: Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children
1982: Brian W Aldiss: Helliconia Spring
1983: Charles Olson: The Maximus Poems
1984: Iain Banks: The Wasp factory
1985: Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
1986: Terry Pratchett: The Light Fantastic
1986: Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones
1987: Roddy Doyle: The Commitments [And I loved the film.]
1987: D J Mabberley: The Plant Book
1988: Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time
1989: Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
1990: Iain M Banks: Use of Weapons
1991: Angela Carter: Wise Children [And I loved Nights At the Circus]
1991: Alan Spence:  Glasgow Zen
1992: Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow
1993: Annie Proulx: The Shipping News
1993: Renni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers [The best practical writing manual]
1994: Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting
1994: Donny O’Rourke (ed): Dream State
1995: Philip Pullman: Northern Lights [Plus the others in the trilogy]
1995: Kathleen Jamie: The Queen of Sheba
1996: Colin Will: Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Highlands [My first poetry book to be published, so highly influential then and now]
1996: Robert Silverberg: The Majipoor Chronicles
1997: Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
1997: Bernard MacLaverty: Grace Notes
1998: Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters
1999: Sena Jeter Naslund: Ahab’s Wife
2000: Stephen King: On Writing
2000: Colin Tudge: The Variety of Life
2001: Yann Martel: Life of Pi
2001: Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind
2002:  Billy Collins: Nine Horses [and many other collections by him]
2003: Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
2004: Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor’s Tale
2004: Roger Penrose: The Road To Reality: A complete guide to the laws of the universe [Difficult maths but very rewarding]
2004: Christopher Booker: The Seven Basic Plots
2005: Norman MacCaig: Collected Poems (new edition)
2005: Margaret Atwood: Hag-Seed
2006: Alan Spence: The Pure Land
2007: David Hinton: Mountain Home; the wilderness poetry of ancient China
2007: Hiroshige: One hundred Famous Views of Edo (Taschen edition)
2008: Ben Goldacre: Bad Science
2009: Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
2010 James Robertson: And the Land Lay Still
2011: Caitlin Moran: How To Be a Woman
2012: Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways
2013: Barry Cunliffe: Britain begins
2014: James Robertson: 365 Stories
2015: Jean Manco: Ancestral Journeys
2016: Kathleen Jamie: Findings
2017: Barry Cunliffe: On the Ocean

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