Magic Torch


As well as writing this blog, I'm also a founder member of an Inverclyde based heritage group, Magic Torch, researching, writing, collecting, recording and sometime just making up local folklore. If you like your folklore fun, definitely have a look at Tales of the Oak.

We've been around since 1999, and in that time have published 6 books, made a couple of local films and been told hundreds of different stories.

There's a few of us who are core members, but we don't have a really tight membership criteria or anything, just people interested in stories and history. All sorts of folk have helped in and out over the years. We are all volunteers.

Our main area of focus has been the folklore and heritage of Inverclyde, but we also enjoy the storytelling tradition and folklore from around the world and what that can tell us about ourselves.

Here's a few of our projects...


This was our first book, released in 2000. It was funded by Heritage Lottery Awards For All.

Tales of the Oak collected a whole range of local folktales which had more or less fallen out of the telling, and presented them back to everyone to bring them back to life. We did actually have a plan when we did this, and it was to create a sort of "mythical" history and backdrop to what is often viewed as a fairly miserable and depressed community. Taking genuine local stories, national legends and a wee bit of creative license, we tried to make our hometown seem a little more magical, to explain to everyone that our area did not start and end with the shipbuilding industry. The stories can all be read and told independently, but read cover to cover, there is also an ongoing story woven throughout the text.

To our slight surprise, "Tales of the Oak" was the most popular Greenock Christmas present of 2000, outselling Anthea Turners autobiogaphy in our local WH Smith by a ratio of 5 : 1. So there ye go. The wonderful woodcut cover was designed by Ross Ahlfeld and then cut by a local craftsman Eddie O'Donnell at a community workshop.  Ross is the main illustrator for all our projects. The book was researched, written and designed by Paul Bristow, Neil Bristow and Ray Mitchell.


We had right good fun attempting to stimulate interest in local legends by less traditional means...these are some posters from our Billboard Folklore project of 2005.


We have done quite a lot of sessions with local schools, as we're really keen that wee people get the opportunity to learn a different side of their local history and keep our stories and legends alive. We produced a magazine specifically for schools in 2006.




Our Downriver project actually won the BBC History Magazine award that year...so thats pretty good eh?

Anyhow, the members of Magic Torch continue to tell stories and campaign for local heritage both in our personal and professional life...and the Tales of the Oak blog, named after our favourite project, is one of the ways we do that.

Throughout 2013 our Heritage Lottery Fund supported project Tales of the Oak created a new locally run storytelling club at the Dutch Gable House, produced a childrens book for 4-8 year olds, Wee Nasties and a vintage horror comic based on some of the strange tales of our local area. You can hear some of these stories on Auld Dunrod's Soundcloud page.

Throughout 2014, our projects were Commonwealth based, creating a curated selection of traditional stories - 13 Commonwealth Tales and a new Sir Glen Douglas Rhodes comic of folk horror - Uncommon Tales.

In 2015 we created a graphic novel, Achi Baba, which explored the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.

Magic Torch Comics is our newest project, which aims to work with other communities to develop graphic novels and comics based on local history and heritage. Every town has a story to tell....




Magic Torch in the Greenock Sugar Sheds

In summer 2011, following the return of The Tall Ships to Greenock, Magic Torch initiated a campaign to have Greenock's historic Sugar Sheds used for community activities, bringing it back to life with art, music, song, food and dance, just as it had been during the Tall Ships event. Within a very short space of time, we had a facebook page with thousands of followers, a petition with hundreds of signatures and national press interest. Good stuff.

This blog isn't directly about community stuff, so I mention it partly because even years later, I still get linked to the whole campaign and debate, but mostly because I still occasionally write stuff inspired by the sheds. I'm lucky enough to see them every day out of my window.

While directly linked to Magic Torch's belief in local heritage, and my own feelings about the often dubious merits of what is sometimes referred to as regeneration, we felt the campaign merited its own blog, which we have left up online here, even though the campaign is no longer active. You can also visit the facebook page which kicked it all off


Our principle method of getting people interested was around creative engagement and response. So, one of the most fun things about the campaign, was asking local bands to reinterpret "Celebration Ode", the poem written to commemorate the inauguration of the James Watt Dock 130 years ago.

 Celebration Ode 2011 by Sugar Sheds

I also had good fun writing and recording a Sugar Sheds inspired Ghost Story which reached the finals of the Woman In Black Ghost Story competition in December 2011. Then it got totally battered.




Even though the campaign hasn't really been "live" since early 2012, you'd be surprised how often having an opinion can interfere with your day job. In summer 2013, an evaluation report suggested that local regeneration company Riverside Inverclyde had lost money on the James Watt Dock deal (which included the Sugar Sheds) and that the site was unsuitable for investment. Which I suppose ironically means that it would probably have been a smart move to dump it on the community after all...ah well. Though there is actually a fund available, Heritage Enterprise, which can help bridge the budget deficit in historic buildings development, providing the community are involved. Learning curves all round there I think. .. but the Sheds continue to inspire local interest, with a few arts and cultural projects (some of which I've been involved with) managing to get the use of the buildings over the last few years and months.

The Heritage Lottery funded Identity project run by Inverclyde Community Development Trust worked with Riverside Inverclyde, James Watt College and Inverclyde Council to secure permission for a one day event in the Sugar Sheds...a performance of a play written by local school pupils with support from scriptwriter Danny McCahon (Waterloo Road, Casualty, River City)

From 2013 - 2014, a major arts project funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and the Weir Trust, exploring the history of the sheds is taking place. It's called Absent Voices. Have a look at what they are getting up to...awesome.

In June 2014, a commonwealth project called White Gold staged a massive aerial arts performance in the Sugar Sheds, based on stories collated by volunteers at The Dutch Gable House. The performance really was something rather special.

Local regeneration, public art, steam power, superheroes and the Sugar Sheds also feature in my childrens book The Superpower Project, which is due to be published by Kelpies books in early 2016.

And finally, our most recent work "inspired by" the sheds, is this wee mini comic featuring everyones favourite anti-nationalisation logo Mr Cube...