Tracing the Butcher of Gippsland

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If everything seems to go a bit quiet on this website from time to time, it’s because I’ve got my head down working on a big project. Currently I’m working on the first draft of a family memoir in which I retrace the story of my great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, who fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances and became a celebrated explorer in Gippsland, Australia – only to reenact brutal ‘clearances’ of his own, upon the local aboriginal people.

I have been lucky enough to receive funding from both Creative Scotland (through their Quality Production programme) and Arts Trust Scotland (through their Emerging Artists programme), which has enabled me to visit Gippsland myself to conduct interviews, follow McMillan’s original exploratory routes, and gain insight into the problems affecting the Gunai people today as a direct result of McMillan and his peers’ actions.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this project – or if you have some information which you’d like to share – I’d love to hear from you. I also keep an Amazon wishlist of books I’d like to acquire for research purposes – so if you’d like to make a contribution I’d be delighted!

A girl’s got to eat so I’m still taking commissions – do get in touch if you’ve got some work for me!

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My gammy leg: leg-lengthening surgery

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My account of my childhood experience of disability, a result of being born with one leg shorter than the other, was published in the Sunday Times Magazine this weekend. I was in and out of the operating theatre more than 20 times by the age of 15 as I underwent leg-lengthening treatment using an external fixator (and a second approach, which slowed the growth of my stronger, right leg). Left untreated, the discrepancy between my legs would have reached between 10cm and 15cm.

Thanks to the wonderful care and treatment I received at The Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, there is now little evidence that this was the case, and I live a very active lifestyle.

The only reminder is the network of scars that track my legs: up either side like Adidas stripes, a silver slash over one hip, a line like a zip up the front of my left thigh.

Full text of the article and the PDF clippings are available on the Sunday Times website here, and after the break:leg lengthening ST Mag 1

Continue reading

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Voting #Yes: Sorry England, it’s not you. It’s me

yes sheep

I’ve written a post for the National Collective pro-independence arts movement explaining why I’ve decided to vote Yes in the coming referendum.

Together, as the UK, we’ve achieved a lot and there is much to be proud of. But we’re different, we really are, and now we’ve got an enormous opportunity to build the future we’ve been dreaming of.

Full text can be found on the National Collective website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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This land is my land, this land is your land

Who owns the Lake District - Cumbria life coverWho owns the Lake District - Cumbria Life - Sept 2014_Page_2

My eight-page special report “Who owns the Lake District?” made the cover of this month’s Cumbria Life magazine. It explores the special responsibilities that comes with land ownership in an area of great natural beauty, where public access and commoners rights must be protected by law.

It was prompted by the media outcry over the Earl of Lonsdale’s decision to sell Blencathra, the saddleback mountain, earlier this summer for £1.75m – sparking a local campaign to bring the beloved landmark under community ownership.

British national parks vary from the American system in that the national park authority does not own the land it oversees, rather acting as a planning authority. Around 60% of the Lake District national park is under private ownership.

I’ll post the full text and clippings online when the magazine is off newstands in a few weeks.

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Council bosses cash in as services are cut

Council bosses cash in - Sunday Times July 2014I worked on this survey of council executive salaries, published in the Sunday Times last week. Our analysis found that more than half (61%) of executives received remuneration totalling more than £142,500, the prime minister’s salary.

All the information is available in the councils’ annual statement of accounts, which are released in their initial form in June/July each year and opened to the public for inspection.

Find the full text on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

Truffle hunting in Istria

Istria food tour

My reward for winning the Independent on Sunday/Bradt travel writing prize last year was a ludicrously luxurious tour of Istria, the Croatian peninsula, and a commission to write it up for the IoS travel section. We hunted for truffles with dogs, tasted dozens of different wines and ate until we couldn’t eat any more.

It was published last weekend – find the full text on the Independent’s website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Undercover with Oxbridge Essays

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I went undercover for this Sunday Times investigation into the ‘essay mill’ Oxbridge Essays, posing as several students seeking to cheat in their undergraduate degree.

I spoke to employees who were willing to:

  •  provide a ghost-written exam answer for a student sitting a 24-hour take-home history exam at Bristol University, guaranteed to a guaranteed first level, and submit on her behalf directly to the university, for £630
  • provide an 8000-word social psychology dissertation ready to be turned in to Oxford University exam schools under a student’s name, at guaranteed upper-first level, for £2005

“So I’d just open up the word document and copy it into another one, stick my candidate number on it and submit it?”
“Exactly, yeah.”

As part of the sting I set the company my own dissertation title from my university days, then handed the first two-thirds of Oxbridge Essays’ offering to my former supervisor Miles Hewstone, professor of social psychology at Oxford University, to have it assessed. He said: “The whole thing has a bit of a cut and paste feel… the main complaint is that they have not included any work since 2010 — there’s no way you would get a first for that. There is some loose language too.

“Reading all this, I am inclined to say we should bring back viva voce exams, so that every student expects/fears that they might be viva’d on any aspect of their Finals. This might help to cut down this vile practice.”

Full text of the resulting article, plus an audio recording of my conversation with Paul Serrecchia, one of Oxbridge Essays ‘academic consultants’, is available on the Sunday Times website here, or after the break.

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A trail of digital breadcrumbs

I’m appearing on Cormac Moore and Daniella Moyle’s show on the Irish station iRadio tonight to discuss phone data and personal privacy. I’ll post up the podcast later if possible. If you heard the show and want to read some more of my work on technology and privacy, you might be interested in:

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The new face of UKIP?

All eyes are on UKIP this week as we head into the European and local elections with support for the party at record levels. I took a closer look at the candidate list for The Sunday Times and found dozens of former Conservative councillors (even former mayors and local Conservative party chairmen) were now swelling the UKIP ranks. Experts suggest that the electoral experience and credibility these new recruits bring could mark a crucial turning point for the party once described by the Prime Minister as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. The article can be found on the Sunday Times website here.

I was also surprised by the number of young candidates in the glossy ‘young Tory’ mould. Jack Duffin, chair of the party’s youth wing Young Independence, told me that membership has doubled in the last year. I’ve profiled a few of the young guns here.

The party has been attempting to rebrand itself after being dogged with claims of racism among its membership. Continue reading

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Gàidhlig gu bràth!

Scotland issue cover NS Springtime for Gaelic - New Statesman

I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the New Statesman’s recent special issue on Scottish independence.

I wrote about how a burst of enthusiasm for Gaelic-medium education looks set to halt the language’s centuries-old decline. My 2-year-old nephew’s enrolment at a Gaelic-medium pre-school on Skye has sparked new interest in learning (or relearning) Gaelic among my own family members. 

The same issue included a rallying call for the Yes campaign written by first minister Alex Salmond and a fun essay on the joys of the Caledonian sleeper train by Kirsty Wark.

My article was made recommended reading on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog. Full text is available on the New Statesman website here, or after the fold.

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