Tracing the Butcher of Gippsland

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If everything seems to have gone a bit quiet on this website recently, 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 the odd commission – do get in touch if you’ve got some work for me!

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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

Oxbridge Essays cropped

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.

Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

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The bloodthirst of fungi

I’ve recently had an essay published by Aeon magazine, an online journal “of ideas and culture” recently nominated by Pando Daily to be “the best magazine on the internet“. If you haven’t come across Aeon before, please spend some happy hours browsing their previous offerings.

My favourites include Mary HK Choi’s tribute to her mother My Foreign Mom which made me cry and laugh out loud (sometimes at the same time) and Olivia Laing’s ode to loneliness Me, Myself and I. My friend Samira Shackle also wrote a great essay for them on Pakistan’s young generation, I’m No Terrorist.

My own essay, The Last Supper, was on the wonders and dangers of foraging for fungi, after a summer spent picking berries, herbs and mushrooms in the Lake District. Early forays into mycology only served to show me how much there was to learn about mushroom hunting, where one false identification can lead to death or a life on dialysis. Is the risk part of the charm?

It made Real Clear Science‘s daily reading list and picked as one of Pilcrow’s best longreads of 2013. Full text can be found on the Aeon website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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The call of the wild

Arctic winter cover - Telegraph magazine

My diary of the time I spent working on a husky farm in the Arctic Circle made the cover of the Telegraph Magazine shortly before Christmas.

My words were accompanied by some beautiful images taken by the up-and-coming Norwegian photographer Anki Grøthe who spent a week with us in Hetta, and was not at all phased by the sub zero temperatures or the boisterous dogs.

Full text of my article is available on the Telegraph website here, or after the fold. I’ll also post some more of the images later, if I can. Continue reading

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A weekend in Melbourne

48hrs in Melbourne - IndependentI’ve been in Australia this month to do some research and took the opportunity to explore Melbourne for the ’48 hours in…’ slot for The Independent’s travel section.

What an excellent city – brunch, beach, sun, galleries, bikes, artists’ markets, cocktails on rooftop terraces. Top recommendations: brunch in the sun at The European (opposite parliament), swim in the sea baths in St Kilda, then head to Cumulus Inc for supper & fine wine.

Full text is available on the Independent’s website here, or after the fold.

Continue reading

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Scottish friction, Scottish fiction

edinburgh

I’ve written an essay on Scottish literature and the independence movement for the American online journal The New Inquiry. It was made recommended reading by 3 Quarks Daily.

What could be more inspiring than the grandest of narratives: the struggle for freedom? It provides a framework for everything from the kitchen sink drama to the most sweeping of visions. Braveheart sentimentality or hoarse-throated socialism; freedom or self-determination. However you like to write it.

Novelist Alan Bissett, poet Magi Gibson, playwright David Grieg and Ross Colquhoun of the National Collective were all generous with their time & views.

Full text of the article is available here, the full PDF of the issue can be accessed for $2 here, or read on. Continue reading

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