Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

 The Cruel Stars cover

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson was first published in 2001 and it is very curate’s eggish – that is good in parts, however the good parts will probably be different for everyone that reads it, so it should be of interest and entertaining to various types of readers. Having said that – although I’m really interested in geology – that part didn’t work well for me because I think you really need good photographs to illustrate geology and the small black and white photos in the book don’t show any detail at all. On the book cover it says “the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins” which are probably the most well-loved of birds, but in this book they are only mentioned as a means of the inhabitants of the past being able to survive by eating them, and nowadays they are eaten by the thousands of black rats that infest the islands. Nicolson does write poetically about the islands which he is obviously in love with. The Shiants were owned by the author Compton Mackenzie in the past.

Adam Nicolson, who is Vita Sackville-West’s grandson was given the three islands 5 miles off the coast of Lewis in north-west Scotland as a 21st birthday present from his father. The Shiants (Shants) as the islands are called had been used in recent years by a sheep farmer who rented the pasture and left the sheep to get on with it until they were big enough for market. The only habitable house is lived in now and again by Adam Nicolson, although at the end of the book he claims that anyone who wants to visit the place can have the key to it! But this book is like a love letter to the wild place and its atmosphere and he covers it from all angles, history, geography, geology, the wildlife, the people who inhabited the place in the past. There’s quite a lot of humour from the real locals who live on the bigger islands and who generously enable Nicolson to live on his islands for a short time each year – and clean him up at the end of his sojourn. I suspect that it is their very good manners which guide them as I can’t imagine that an old Etonian landowner such as Nicolson goes down all that well locally.

For me it was the social history parts which were most interesting, the desperate struggle that people in the past had to keep body and soul together, living on puffins, sea bird eggs and large amounts of limpets.

Adam Nicolson sees the islands as a place for men, well neither of his wives took to the place at all and who can blame them, having to camp out in a tent as it seems safer than being in the house due to the rat population there. It seems like Nicolson has taken to the nth degree that shed bolt-hole idea that so many men cling to. He plans to hand the islands on to his eldest son eventually, whom he hopes will hang on to them and love them as much as he does. Apparently if they ever do come onto the market again there will be a chance of a community buy out, something which the Scottish Government has instituted for areas such as the islands.

One thing that the puffins have to thank Nicolson for is his refusal to turn the islands over to the RSPB who wanted to turn the whole place into a destination for birdwatchers, with all the necessary paths, cafe, toilets and such which go with large amounts of galumphing human beings.

You can see images of the islands here.

Kirkcaldy’s Heritage in Fifty Objects

This blogpost is very parochial, being about the history and heritage of Kirkcaldy in Fife, a nearby town.

To mark the 50th birthday of Kirkcaldy’s Civic Society they have decided to choose 50 objects that relate to the town and its history/heritage, hoping to stimulate memories in readers which might lead to more information being gathered, information which might otherwise have been lost. You can see some of the ‘objects’ here, so far only 16 have been written about, but I know that the Spanish Civil War memorial just off Forth Avenue will be featuring in the list at some point in the future. That memorial has been on my mind somewhat recently as I’ve just finished reading Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit and obviously George Orwell was influenced by his experiences in that war. You can read Jack’s old blogpost about the memorial here.

I only have a few Kirkcaldy objects in my own varied collection of ‘stuff’. Actually I have quite a few old postcards of Beveridge Park, some of which you can see here. Below is another one which sadly is postally unused, but is of interest to me anyway because of the clothes.

Waiting for the Boats in Beveridge Park, Kirkcaldy

The Mauchline money box below has an image of St Brycedale Free Church, Kirkcaldy. This church is still in use but is now called St Bryce Kirk. In the past the politician Gordon Brown’s father was the minister of this church.

Mauchline Ware Box, Kirkcaldy Subject

Culross, Fife, Scotland

Culross

A lot of the wee houses in Culross are owned by the Scottish National Trust and were delapidated and uninhabited until they took them over and renovated them.

Culross street, Fife, Scotland

Then they rented them out to people, I’m not sure if the houses that I’ve photographed are some of those ones but I think they are. I wish they had kept one of them as a tourist attraction, it’s lovely to visit palaces and stately homes but it can be even more interesting to see how the ordinary people lived back in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Culross, Fife, Scotland

Culross, Fife, Scotland

It’s strange but looking back I remembered having a hard time picking my way over the stones and boulders that made up the roads but I now see that some of them were tarmacked. In the photo below you can get an idea of how rough some of the roads are. It looks like a great tower house and must have a lovely view over the River Forth.

Culross house, Fife, Scotland

It’s a pity about the wheelie bins in the photo below – ugly but necessary for the people who live there. Sometimes tourists forget that these are people’s homes and have a good old look through a window, nose pressed to glass. I know someone who did that thinking the house was a museum and got the shock of their life when she saw the woman of the house staring back – it wisnae me!

Culross house, Fife, Scotland

The merkat cross below is about halfway up the very steep hill that leads to Culross Abbey, it seems a strange place to hold a market, it can’t have been an easy haul up there for any stall holders or shoppers. Maybe they held the market elsewhere despite the merkat cross being here.

Culross Mercat Cross, Fife, Scotland

On the way back downhill it’s easiest either to walk down the gutter at the side or along the middle of the road where the boulders are bigger and flatter.

Culross lane, Fife, Scotland

Below is a photo that I took close to the top of the hill that leads up to the abbey, looking over to the Firth of Forth. I inadvertently got a cow’s backside in view too!

River Forth View, Culross, Fife

The beach isn’t the bonniest but apparently it’s very rich in food for seabirds which is the main thing. Culross is definitely worth a visit if you are in or close to Fife.

Culross, Firth of Forth,Fife

Fife’s Pilgrim Way, Official Opening

Last week I attended the official launch of Fife’s Pilgrim Way. Jack and I were drafted in at the last minute to represent the local Community Council.

Stained Glass, Dunfermline Abbey nave, Fife

I had been under the impression that it was taking place in Dunfermline Abbey but it turned out that it was in the oldest part of it, the nave which was apparently originally the priory which was founded by Queen Margaret of Scotland (King Malcolm’s wife) – or Saint Margaret as she’s sometimes called.

They had an actress speaking as Queen Margaret and some musicians playing appropriate music on old style instruments. It looks rather empty but it did fill up, some people had walked the eight mile stretch of the Pilgrim Way from North Queensferry to the Abbey, they definitely deserved a seat, we stood though, not realising we would be there for over an hour.
Dunfermline Abbey nave,columns 1

The ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a Fife MP and lives close to the Pilgrim Way at North Quensferry so he was one of the speakers, the photo of him below is very grainy, zoomed in too close I think.
Gordon Brown, Dunfermline Abbey,

It was really the stone columns that impressed me though, the ones with chevrons are similar to those at Durham Cathedral but have more details, very elegant.
Dunfermline Abbey, nave, Fife

The nave isn’t huge but it is impressive. We didn’t go into the actual abbey where a short religious service was to take place. It is where Robert the Bruce is buried and if you’re interested you can see a previous blogpost of mine about the abbey here.

Dunfermline Abbey nave, upper storeys

Dunfermline Abbey nave, Stained Glass 1

Fife’s Pilgrim Way is 64 miles long and I intend to walk it all – but in various stages. I think I can manage eight miles or so at a time, if I get the bus back home!

The Kitchener Memorial and Marwick Head, Orkney

We were just driving along a very skinny road when we noticed a signpost saying Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, Orkney. Obviously we knew that Kitchener had drowned not long after the beginning of World War 1 when the ship he was on, HMS Hampshire, hit a German mine, but we had no idea it happened just off Marwick Head. This massive tower was built in his memory.

Kitchener Memorial from path

A view of the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, Orkney.

Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head on Orkney

Marwick Head is absolutely awash with rabbits as you can see, they aren’t at all bothered by humans it seems.

Rabbits

It’s a long way down and it was windy so I wasn’t going to go too close to the edge, some people are thrill seekers though.

More Cliff at Marwick Head, Orkney

It’s a beautiful area and there’s a lovely cliff path if you fancy a long walk. If you click on the photos you can zoom in to enlarge them.

Marwick Head, Orkney

If you are looking for more travel information about Orkney you might want to visit My Voyage Scotland here.

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution cover

Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917 by Helen Rappaport was published in 2016, is non-fiction accounts of what people witnessed in Petrograd in the run up to the Russian Revolution. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since ‘doing’ it in second year at Secondary School, so I knew all about the political details but this book focuses on what was happening out in the streets, how events were affecting ordinary people.

It seems that Petrograd was full of foreigners so there were plenty of people writing of their experiences in a chaotic environment. At the beginning the Tsar is still in power and the people (particularly the women) are having to spend hours every day in queues just to get some basic foodstuffs – if they are lucky.

There seemed to be an awful lot of foreigners in Petrograd, including Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame although this is before he wrote those books, he was a reporter for the Daily News and Observer. The writer Hugh Walpole was reporting on events for the British Foreign Office, there were lots of people writing diaries, so I found this book to be a really interesting read.

There were plenty of British and American manufacturers there such as a Singer sewing machine factory, Thorntons woollen mill and Coats of Paisley threads company. The revolutionaries encouraged the workers to demand exorbitant wages for a much shorter working week. Basically everybody gave up working and everywhere was filthy.

Sadly of course after the Bolsheviks took over things got even worse for the ordinary people and food was even more scarce than before. Although I’ve read a lot about this period I don’t think I had realised before what an evil swine Lenin was – but he was a clever one.

The Tsar doesn’t really feature much in the book, but as ever I just wanted to grab him and talk some sense into him, but better people than me tried, such as the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan. I find it bizarre that considering Tsar Nicholas was so close to the British royal family, and his cousin King George V in particular – he just couldn’t contemplate changing the Russian Imperial system to something similar to the British.

Other well known people who were eye witnesses were Somerset Maugham and Emmeline Pankhurst. Maugham’s experiences formed the basis for his Ashenden collection of short stories which were published in 1928.

There were quite a lot of newspaper photographers in Petrograd at this time but there are frustratingly few photos surviving. There are some in this book but nothing of great interest, the book is a great read otherwise.