Sunday, 18 March 2018

Life is a Pantomime

I love a challenge and I also believe that we all have the capability and opportunities to create our own challenges in life. As a photojournalist and a writer I'm always looking out for new challenges that 'fire the imagination' and that present me with the opportunity to do something a bit different.

At the end of 2016 I was staying with a group of friends in Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands. I love theatre and in various ways have been involved with drama for much of my life. The purpose of our stay was to see several plays at the amazing Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was during that visit that a comment was made about our local church in Annan and some problems it had been having with roof leaks. The conversation turned to how difficult it is for churches to raise money in this day and age of dwindling congregations. We had a discussion about the usual fundraising ideas but it was later that night that I came up with the idea of writing a play that could be put on within the church hall and may attract a wider audience.

The church has a good singing group and previously had a good drama group of which I had once been a member. It had several good musicians and was also rather go-ahead in its approach - something often lacking in small communities. We bandied the idea around and took it back to the minister and others. It was met with great enthusiasm and over the course of a few weeks I wrote the 'musical play' All Aboard the Ark and took on board - pardon the pun - the opportunity to direct the production. As the project developed it was suggested that instead of putting it on in the church hall which was rather restrictive in its layout we should use the church itself. This expanded the possibilities for a far bigger theatre-type production and that in turn led to a wider church-based community project.

Essentially, the play was the bible story of Noah's Ark told through drama and music in a light-hearted and humorous way. We had a four piece band, a backing choir of sixteen persons and a cast of eight with several incidental characters. As the project grew we had a costume designer and a sewing team, set designers and constructors, a technical team including lighting and sound systems along with special effects and a make up team charged with creating animal faces. The production ended up with a team of around 60-70 people with an age range of 8-80 years! As rehearsals got under way someone suggested that it was rather like a pantomime. It had never been intended as a pantomime but with a bit of tweaking it did become more pantomime in nature and ended up being billed as such. Unsure how many would attend such a production or if it would be well received the show was put on for two nights only. It was a sell out and after the first night's performance people were trying to get tickets to come back and see it again.

The project was such a success that I was asked if we could do it again and if I would write and direct another production. So it was that over the summer months of 2017 I wrote a sequel - Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park. Having told the story of Noah's Ark the previous year I wanted to explore how we actually treat animals and the world around us. This time I wanted to fully embrace the medium of pantomime because it appeals to a wide audience. I wanted to embrace the team spirit that we had created the previous year and to use the immense resources and talent that it had become obvious existed within the church community.

Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park is a moral tale about a modern-day safari park developed on the actual landing site of Noah's Ark. At first it seems that all of the animals and the visitors to the park are having a great time in an atmosphere of holiday sunshine. But all is not as it seems and behind the scenes the mad professor who runs the park is using the animals to conduct experiments for cosmetic companies, drug companies, food suppliers, government bodies and weapons testing - not to mention genetic research.

As in all good pantomimes the baddie eventually gets his comeuppance and good overturns evil. It isn't always like that in real life and although I wanted people to be entertained and to have a family night out with lots of singing and laughter - which they did have - I also wanted them to leave thinking about the planet that we all inhabit and how we treat it.

Mercy Buckets in Noah's Park was without a doubt the most challenging thing I've ever done in terms of writing and producing a full stage production. I enjoy the challenge of writing for the stage because you see your words come alive in unexpected ways. As a director you have clear ideas of how you want the production to look and feel but as you add in costumes, make-up, lighting and sound it starts to take on a life of its own. I love it when actors bring something of themselves to the characters that a writer creates. In some ways writing it was the easy part - producing and directing it was much more challenging! Thanks to a great team of wonderful people we got there in the end and have just completed a three night run attended by more than 450 people.

It made me realise that people are the most important asset that any community can have and although it may take a bit of persuasion, when everyone gets involved and there is an exciting goal ahead then giant beanstalks from little beans can grow!

Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Choirs with Purpose and the Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir

As a freelance photojournalist I often get the opportunity to cover interesting stories. One such story that made a real impact on me and that has left a lasting impression was the day I covered a recording session in Glasgow with a very special group of people - namely Choirs with Purposes and the Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland choir.

Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir
As a regular contributor to the excellent magazine Celtic Life International I offered to cover what I thought would be an interesting Christmas story. It certainly was and a very humbling experience at that. The full article is in the December 2017 edition of the magazine that is available now - see It is not my intention to reproduce that article here but I will share with you why it touched me and what part you can play in helping someone this Christmas.

Lucy Lintott
Lucy Lintott is Scotland's youngest diagnosed sufferer of the horrible disease know as MND (motor neurone disease). Motor neurones carry the messages from our brains to our muscles and the disease gradually destroys these cells stopping the messages from reaching the muscles. Sufferers slowly become paralysed - losing the ability to walk, talk, swallow or breath. Lucy was the subject of a BBC Scotland documentary - MND and 22-Year-Old-Me. I watched it and although it had moments of great sadness it also had a message of immense courage. Lucy refuses to be defined by her illness and has decided to live life to the full. She is an incredible woman and an amazing example to all of us.

Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir
James Hawkins and Clare Cook of James Hawkins Music also saw the documentary and approached MND Scotland to put together a choir to feature on their Christmas album 'Together We Stand' by Choirs with Purpose. Choirs with Purpose brings together choirs from across the UK each singing a song that in some way is connected to, or represents their cause. Together We Stand will feature tracks by all of the choirs and also a mass-choir track of a reworking of Sir Paul McCartney's 'We All Stand Together'. The profits raised from the sales of the album will be divided equally between all of the causes represented.

Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir
In Glasgow I met the amazing Lucy Lintott and the terrific MND Scotland choir. Every single member of the choir has been affected in some way or other by MND - usually through the death of a friend or family member as a consequence of the disease. Yet, despite all of this the recording session was held in an atmosphere of great sharing, love, fun, laughter and mutual compassion.

Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir
If you want too read the full story about this day please visit -

Lucy Lintott/MND Scotland Choir
If you want to be part of this amazing project and contribute to a number of terrific causes this Christmas then please go to and order your copy of the album. It comes out on December 15th but can be pre-ordered as a CD or as a download. Please consider this small gesture. It is a small price to pay for some huge causes and you will make a difference...

Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

Friday, 22 August 2014

Clootie Wells

Water is essential for life. We can survive quite long periods of time without food but only a few days without water. Despite the fact that we live on a planet where most of the surface is comprised of water the pure, clean, fresh water that we need to drink is an incredibly valuable commodity. Some nations have it in abundance and others have so very little. The fundamental relationship between water and life is the reason why scientists trawl the universe looking for planets that exhibit properties indicative of water-rich environments and the same fundamental relationship between water and life was what made our ancestors revere it, wonder where it came from and who was controlling it.

Waterfall in a Celtic Rainforest

As life-giving water often emerged from holes in the ground or oozed from cracks in cliffs it was assumed that it must be coming from another dimension, a world that we did not inhabit. It must also be controlled by the forces or spirits that lived in that world, for some times it flowed freely and other times it dried up. In these ancient times and without the science to explain it, it is perhaps not surprising that man superimposed his own beliefs upon this life-giving substance.

Across the world there are many examples where wells have assumed a greater function than solely providing water. There is evidence of gifts being left and rituals performed. In the Celtic lands, wells were often places where the veil between this world and the next was thin. It was a place where thanks for abundant crops and good health could be proffered, often by leaving tokens of gratitude such as coins, jewellery, pins, pottery and even animal bones. It was also a place where prayers could be made to the spirits in the hope of ensuring ongoing good health and prosperity. If the gods controlled the water that sustained life then they could be responsible for good health beyond the simple provision of water. Such wells were places where the sick could be cured and good health could be sought. With Celtic traditions drawing on even older pagan beliefs these wells were often places of ritual and ceremony on key dates in the ancient pagan calendar: 1st February - Imbolc, 1st May Beltane, 1st August Lughnasadh and 1st November Samhain. Christianity would subsequently subsume these dates and to some extent these traditions into the new order.

Not so long ago there were hundreds of these important religious wells across what is now the UK. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, they were not restricted to what we regard as the Celtic nations. It seems that their roots go further back into the mists and myths of time. Today we only have local folklore, a few documents and some names that provide valuable clues regarding what is now simply a well but which was once much more than that.

Clootie (cloth) wells were one such manifestation of these ancient beliefs. Customs varied slightly around the country but the principle was fairly universal. Leave a strip of cloth for the spirits of the well, make a wish and as the cloth rots away the spirits would, if they accepted your offering, grant your wish. On account of the moisture from the well leaching into the surrounding soil there was often a prominent tree in the immediate vicinity of the well. This tree, like the well itself, assumed an important role in the ancient beliefs. With the most prevalent function of these clootie wells being to seek a cure for the ill, a strip of cloth from the sick individual would be tied to the tree and the necessary offering and prayers made at the adjacent well. If anyone tampered with, or removed the cloth from the tree they would take the illness from the sick person and bestow it upon themselves.

The Clootie Well at Munlochy, Black Isle

Today there are three clootie wells in the UK that still, to varying degrees, cling to the past and fulfil, at least for some individuals, a function beyond the provision of water. It is difficult to assess whether it is simply the continuation of an ancient custom with no real reverence for the beliefs that lie behind it, whether it is a minority of individuals who genuinely believe in the ancient ways or if it is new-age disciples who have a different agenda but wish to root their beliefs in the past. All three of these wells are located near Inverness. One is not far from Culloden battlefield and the other two are located on the Black Isle. Of these, it is the one at Munlochy on the Black Isle that is by far the biggest and most visited. This well and the beliefs that surround it go far back in time and although the well was 'adopted' by the christian church in an effort to erase the ancient pagan beliefs it is perhaps the latter that are most evident when visiting this place.

The Clootie Well at Munlochy, Black Isle
Located in a wood close to the main road the well at Munlochy is easily accessible. It is a strange and  somewhat eerie place. There are probably some who seek hope or answers in the same way that some people are superstitious. There may be some who truly believe in the ancient ways and there are many others who simply leave a strip of cloth because that is 'what you are supposed to do'. The problem is that if you believe in the ancient ways then it is preferable to have the cloth disintegrate as rapidly as possible, for then you benefit from a quick cure. Hanging modern synthetic fabrics is not a good idea and yet the place is festooned with such!

For me, the most interesting of these wells is the small and little known Craigie well near Avoch. It is in an isolated location close to the shore and when I visited, it only had a few simple pieces of cloth tied nearby. The fact that anyone had made the journey to find the well and had resisted any overload of modern day fabrics suggested to me that these cloths were more likely to have been left by someone seeking answers to real problems. Much more so than at Munlochy, I pondered who these individuals might be and what troubles they carried.

Craigie Well at Avoch, Black Isle

Robert Chambers of Chambers' Dictionary fame also wrote a famous Book of Days. It is a fascinating work that outlines many of the important festivals, dates, events, rituals and phenomena that contribute to our culture. For anyone that is interested there is an excellent first hand description of Craigie well in use in the 1800s that can be found in the last section of the page on the following link:-

It provides a fascinating insight into ancient beliefs that even then had begun to lose some of their original potency.

The next time you run the tap for fresh water take a moment to think just how important this commodity was to your ancestors and how it connected them to their world of beliefs and its powerful spirits.

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Monday, 10 February 2014

The Bass Rock and The Northern Gannets

The inhospitable but amazing Bass Rock
The Bass Rock, or simply 'The Rock' as it is referred to by locals, is a volcanic plug that rises out of the waters of Scotland's Firth of Forth and dates back some 320 million years. It shares a common ancestry with the not too distant Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and also Castle Rock on top of which stands Edinburgh's world famous castle.

To reach Bass Rock necessitates crossing the waters at the mouth of the Firth and Forth and it is only when doing so that you realise just how inhospitable and inaccessible The Rock is. Even in a gentle breeze the waters around the steep cliffs that rise from the depths have a notorious swell and dangerous swirling currents that make landing on The Rock very difficult.

Trips to the Bass Rock can only be arranged through the Scottish Seabird Centre in nearby North Berwick as they have exclusive landing rights. I have made the crossing on a small traditional Scottish fishing trawler and there is only one place where the boat can manoeuvre alongside the cliffs to permit me to disembark. It is not an easy operation and involves a delicate approach to a steep staircase that forms part of the vertical cliffs. The boat rises and falls precariously as the crew get a temporary mooring and the few of us who have made this crossing disembark.

Once off the boat, it is a short climb to a more level area and here I get the first chance to take in my surroundings. Over to the west I can clearly see the Scottish Coastline and above me The Rock still towers ever higher but it is the birds that dominate the scene. Everywhere I look there are thousands and thousands of seabirds. The sky is full of them and those that aren't flying cover the rocks and cliffs all around me.

Seabirds cover the Bass Rock
I climb higher and come to an old fortified wall through which I have to pass before continuing. It is here that I first become aware of the dark secrets of this place. Although unoccupied today it was not always so and The Rock has a sinister past. In the 6th century it was home to St Baldred, a Christian missionary and recluse and the place where I am now standing is the site of an ancient castle dating back to the 13th century. It was also the site of a crown prison in the latter part of the 17th century. Here, in terrible conditions, many Covenanters and Jacobite supporters were imprisoned and died for their beliefs. Being at the mouth of the Forth on the approach to Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh resulted in Bass Rock becoming an important part of Scotland’s historic defences  Canons from the castle could fire down on approaching ships and Mary Queen of Scots had a garrison here, including French troops, in the early 16th century. The dank history of the place is palpable in the crumbling stones around my feet.

A further climb takes me to the site of an ancient chapel. This is as far as I can go and standing below the 105metre summit of the Rock that still rises above me I find myself in the middle of the largest single-rock gannet colony in the world. Sixty thousand breeding pairs of northern gannets surround me.

Northern Gannet with Nesting Material
Birds soar overhead, some carry nesting material while others proffer seaweed and feathers as courtship gifts to their mates. 
Chicks and parents sit on nests so densely packed that there are more than two nests to every square metre of ground. Looking down to the sea I watch gannets fold their wings and turn themselves into avian missiles plunging up to five metres into the water at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour (96 km/hour) in search of fish. The scale of the spectacle is breathtaking. 

Northern Gannet with Gifts for his Mate
The northern gannet  is the largest indigenous seabird to be found in the UK with a wingspan of just under two metres. Some 60% of Europe’s gannets make Scotland their breeding ground and the latin name of the species, Morus bassanus reflects the significance of Bass Rock in its classification. They have a lifespan of up to 35 years. Mature birds are strikingly white with a long neck and yellow blush around their heads and weigh around 2.4–3.6kg. The ends of their wings are black. They have long pointed grey-blue beaks with black linear markings and a stunningly vivid blue eye surround. Early records reveal that gannets have been occupying The Rock since at least the 6th century. Bass Rock offers a safe and suitably remote site with an adjacent rich supply of fish. It is an ideal location for raising offspring. Although most gannets start to settle on The Rock from March some will arrive as early as late January. Most will stay until late October although some may leave earlier.

Mature Northern Gannet
Young birds usually pair at around three years of age with pair bonds generally lasting for life. Once the mature birds have arrived on Bass Rock they await their mate whose arrival will instigate a courtship and bonding ritual comprised of stretching wings accompanied by often prolonged rubbing and ‘fencing’ with their distinctive beaks. They are highly territorial and nest sites are fought over and protected fiercely. Straying into another pair’s territory will result in a noisy confrontation and often an unpleasant clash of beaks. One of the reasons these birds prefer rocky stacks is that the wind uplift permits an almost vertical take off and landing from the nest site. A bird that has to walk through the territories of others in order to reach its nest will be made to suffer.  

Northern Gannet with Chick
Only a single egg is laid, usually between mid April and mid June and it will hatch around six weeks later. One parent remains with the chick at all times while the other searches for food comprising mainly fish. The parents will feed the bird for about 11 weeks after which time it will attempt the dangerous journey of gliding down to the sea. This is the stage at which the young bird, or guga as it is known, and its parents separate. Alone at sea, gugas have to learn quickly how to fly and fish in preparation for their journey south along with the rest of the gannets in October. At this stage the mortality rate is high with approximately 75% of youngsters coming to grief during their descent or succumbing to starvation and exhaustion in the ensuing weeks.

Northern Gannet with Chick
With much talk in the news these days about dwindling fish stocks it is good to see the gannets faring well. Part of the reason for this is that summer fishing is generally good on the rich fishing banks close to The Rock. However, the birds are capable of travelling significant distances to get food and have been recorded fishing as far away as 200km from Bass Rock. Because of this they fare better than some other seabird species.

For gannets born on Bass Rock those that survive the harsh journey towards adulthood will head to areas around the Mediterranean with some traveling down the west coast of Africa. Some of the young birds will return to the place of their birth in their second year although for others it may be later and they may make the journey several times before being ready to breed.

As I leave the Bass Rock behind and return to the Scottish mainland I am in no doubt that I have witnessed one of the world’s most amazing wildlife experiences on an ancient rock that has also played a significant part in Scotland’s history.

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Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Plight of the Scottish Wildcat

The summer sun dips behind the pine trees. A deer drinks at the edge of a rippling stream; its ears flicking with every sound. An owl on sentry duty calls, heralding the changing of the forest guard. There is a stirring on a branch above and the rising moon catches a pair of waking eyes piercing the gloom. Then slowly he descends, like amber sap sliding down ancient bark. On the ground he pauses, displaying tiger-like black markings and a distinctive broad, ringed tail. He is alert and his senses keen. Something in the heather moves and he hugs the woodland floor, silently edging forward. He pounces, lifts his head revealing a small vole, turns and melts into the night.

He is a Scottish Wildcat and his ancestors have lived in these forests since the last ice age separated this land from modern day Europe. He was here before man came to these lands and before domestic cats existed. Back then, he shared this island with his distant cousin the Lynx, before the latter was hunted to extinction. Now the wildcat stands alone, the only native member of the cat family to live in Britain and sadly, it too is perilously close to extinction.

The Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is around fifty per cent larger than the average domestic cat. He is stockier, muscular, untameable, and has a pelage with distinctive black stripes and a blunt broad black-ringed tail. This, and his reputation as a ferocious fighter, has given rise to his other title of ‘the Highland Tiger’. Other less obvious differences between this cat and his domestic relatives include slightly different skull dimensions and a smaller intestinal tract. There are also genetic differences and scientific research in this area is on-going.

The wildcat’s preferred habitat is a mixture of woodland for shelter, fresh water for drinking and open land in which to hunt. Voles, mice, rats, birds and rabbits all form part of his diet and the ancient Caledonian forests of the Scottish Highlands and adjacent tracts of open land provide the ideal home. It is only here, in the north of Scotland, that native wildcats can still be found. Wildcats tend to breed in midwinter producing an average litter of 3-4 kittens in the spring and otherwise, they are solitary animals. Scent marking is the main way of communication with a male’s territory ranging up to eighteen square kilometres.

The independent and fearless qualities of the wildcat were admired by ancient Scottish tribes and clans: The myths of the ancient Catti tribe of northern Scotland tell how their ancestors were attacked by wildcats: Caithness (Land of the Cats) was home to the Pictish tribes that venerated the wildcat: Today, the Chief of the Sutherland Clan is known as Morair Chat (Great Man of the Cats): The federation of Highland Clans, known as Clan Chattan (Clan of the Cats), that led the charge at the Battle of Culloden has the clan motto, ‘Touch not the cat bot (without) a glove’ and many clans have the wildcat as their motif.

Historically, wildcats have been hunted for their fur or because they killed small farm animals or birds bred for game shooting. This, along with habitat loss through deforestation, has greatly reduced their numbers. Today, the biggest problem for the wildcat is interbreeding with domestic and feral cats. The resultant hybridization destroys the true genetic signature of the species whilst contact with domestic cats renders them susceptible to unfamiliar feline diseases.

Establishing precisely how many wildcats exist is difficult. Recently, efforts have been made to record as many wildcat sightings as possible and then attempt to establish if these are pure wildcat or hybrid. The results suggest that at worst, there may be only a few tens of these cats in the wild and at best, perhaps four hundred.

The situation is critical. If these numbers are correct the Scottish Wildcat is now more endangered than the Bengal Tiger.

The plight of the wildcat is now acknowledged but whether the situation can be redressed remains to be seen.

In 2007-2012 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) instigated the Cairngorms Wildcat Project. It was a Species Action Framework intended to raise awareness of the wildcat problem. SNH sought to educate farmers, game-keepers and cat owners as well as expanding neutering programmes through local vets. It endeavoured to work with estates to promote feral cat control without harming true wildcats and it intensified reporting and documentation of potential sightings.
There are various initiatives in the pipeline including the option of having expert scientists trap potential wildcats in any areas where there are frequent sightings and there exists the likelihood that some of these are true wildcats. All the cats could then have blood samples taken to test if they are genetically true wildcats. All other cats could be neutered and removed from the programme leaving the true wildcats to be reintroduced. If necessary the genetic pool could be be diversified further through the introduction of captive wildcats. Somehow the feral cats have to be removed from the equation for they are the greatest risk to the Scottish Wildcat.

Sadly, none of this is easy and it may well be that time has just run out for the wildcat.

As the first shafts of sunlight sparkle on the woodland stream I look for the wildcat that inspired my ancestors but he has gone.

I can no longer be certain that he will return.

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Thursday, 7 February 2013

Party Politics

It’s the party political gathering 
hear you’ve never had it so good
as the fizz from the Moet et Chandon
preludes the five star food
swimming with upper class oysters
while the pearls on the ocean floor
drown in a sea of indifference
and the wines of injustice they pour

Observe the herding instinct
as they chase around in packs
it’s the cosy rubbing of shoulders
and the intimate scratching of backs
it’s the diamonds and rubies and Rolex
mixed with the scent of Chanel
climbing ivory towers to false heavens
to look down on the captives in hell

See the mutual admiration
that by so many is held
for the Christian Dior dresses
and the suits by Lagerfeld
but they forget when they flash the plastic
in their fancy expensive stores
the victims of their decisions
they stepped over to get through the doors

Sheltered by lies and statistics
from the winds of change that they blow
the barometric measure of wealth
shows how the investments grow
and the fat cats bask in their sunshine
tinted shades hiding the pain
of the souls on the streets where the shadows are cast
and the lives that are lived in the rain

by Tom Langlands  


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