At the end of June we got around to visiting Largo and Newburn Parish Church in Upper Largo. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for decades as I could see it in the distance every time we drove to St Andrews. The church wasn’t open though so we didn’t get a keek at the interior. The oldest parts of this church date from the 17th century but there has been a church here since the 9th century.
It was a really hot day and as all of these old churches are built on the highest ground in the village there was a decent view over the rooftops to the Firth of Forth. Originally before this was a place of Christian worship this was probably a place of religious significance for the older religions, possibly some sort of druids.
There’s an ancient stone monument in the photo below, I think this was originally a Pictish stone and when the place was Christianised they carved a cross on it. It’s behind ‘bars’ for protection as you can see.
The decoration on the other side is definitely Pictish.
I’m glad we managed to get there – before the very recent collapse of part of the churchyard wall, which seems to have been caused by the frequent bouts of torrential rain that we’ve been having over this strange summer. You can read about it here.
You can see a lot of old and new photos of the area here.
The Pocket GIANTS publication on Robert the Bruce by Fiona Watson is a slim volume at just 114 pages but if you’re at all interested in The Bruce and Scottish history then it’s a must read for you. It’s a well written explanation of the hinterland of the Bruce family and Robert in particular although what we think of as The Bruce was the seventh Robert in the family.
I believe that the author has since written a much longer book on the same subject but this one is ideal if you just want a better understanding of the politics of the time. If by any chance you get the opportunity to go to a lecture given by Fiona Watson (as I had last May) then you should definitely go, she has such enthusiasm for her subject and brings the people to life in a very human way. There definitely won’t be any students sleeping through her lectures I’m sure!
The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter is the second book in his Robert the Bruce trilogy. The first one The Steps to the Empty Throne ended with the disastrous battle of Methven in Perthshire, when Bruce and his army were attacked during the night as they slept. That made Bruce realise that he would have to ditch his chivalric behaviour and adopt dirty tactics as the English King Edward I did. Previously The Bruce and King Edward I had been fairly friendly and the two countries had been on good terms.
In this book Scotland’s main castles are inhabited by the English as are many smaller castles and strongholds. King Robert is having a hard time with people who don’t recognise him as king and as usual the many clans in Scotland who have been at each other’s throats for generations are still causing problems. When he learns that his wife, daughter and sister have been taken prisoner by King Edward, and that they and his brothers had been handed to the English by a fellow Scot – the Earl of Ross – the gloves are off so to speak, especially when he’s told that the women have been hung in cages which dangle from various city and castle walls.
The Bruce begins the task of slowly grabbing back the smaller castles from the English invaders, using the guerilla tactics he learned from William Wallace. Slashing and burning the lowland parts of Scotland which the invading English army had to pass through, making sure that there was nothing left for the army to eat or even any shelter for them. That must have been heartbreaking for Bruce as the Border country had been his. There’s a lot of fighting in this book, interspersed with some bedroom action which I suppose is Tranter’s attempt to sex it up and bring in some variety.
This was a good read which ends on a high with the Battle of Bannockburn where Bruce used his knowledge of the surrounding land close to Stirling to win against a massive English army led by Edward II. I hadn’t realised quite how huge the English army had been, when the first of them marched into the Stirling area the end of the army was still marching through Edinburgh over twenty miles away! It must have been a terrifying sight.
Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a while before reading the last of this trilogy as I had to take the omnibus edition back to the library instead of updating it as someone else had requested it. I have plenty of other books to choose from though and will take a rest from historical fiction for a wee while.
Recently a friend and I did one of those FutureLearn free online courses on the Battle of Dunbar, one of the bloodiest of what used to be called the English Civil Wars and is now called Wars of the Three Kingdoms, featuring that dastardly killjoy Oliver Cromwell. It was Maureen’s idea to do the course, she has links with the Durham area of the north of England and as she’s keen on archaeology and local history, as am I. She was very interested when the news of human remains being found at Durham Cathedral broke, and it turned out that the skeletons belonged to Scottish prisoners who had been incarcerated within the cathedral after the Scots lost the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, so we decided that it would be a good idea to take a look at the actual battlefield.
We chose a beautiful day to go there, Jack did the driving and as we got close to Dunbar which is in East Lothian, south of Edinburgh I was scanning the roadside, looking out for a sign pointing the direction to the battlefield. We had a book, and had looked on the internet but it was surprisingly difficult to find, but after some to-ing and fro-ing we got there – we think.
I say we think as sadly there is no proper information board there. Other battlegrounds that I’ve visited pointed out where the various rivalling factions were gathered at the beginning of the battle. It’s really just modern memorial stones that you can see and we were left to guess.
Over the centuries the area hasn’t changed too much, although there’s now a cement making factory on part of the land, a blot on the landscape. But we had a lovely walk as far as we could go before reaching a gate that we weren’t allowed to go past. The animals aren’t at all bothered by the industrial blot, we saw sheep, a deer and hordes of geese. It was a good day out.
Going back to that online course, I was really surprised that the few prisoners who survived the starvation and disease of their captivity in Durham were sent out to America as indentured servants, which in some ways was even worse than being a slave. A few managed to live into old age though and married and had families. I bet they were always thinking of their homeland though.
I’m not complaining, but on a sweltering hot day when we were on our way north to Perthshire we stopped of at Strathmiglo, instead of just driving past it. We had to get out of that hot car! Below is a photo of the tolbooth which was built in 1734.
The kirk/church below would have been a perfect example of Presbyterian austerity if someone hadn’t tacked that completely different coloured stone porch onto it back in 1925. The Monkey Puzzle tree – or Araucaria if you’re a plantsperson or Guardian crossword person – is a beauty though, don’t you think?
I admit that the photo below isn’t the most scenic, but I do love it when you can stand in a street and see the hills not far away, in this case – the East Lomond.
Jack and I are really well matched as we both enjoy mooching around old graveyards and burial grounds (what’s the difference I wonder). He’s normally looking for Commonwealth War Graves, usually of those poor souls who got home from their battleground only to die of their wounds later. I’m seeking out much older stones as you can see from the one below. The date on it is 1713 and at the time skulls were seen as a suitable decoration, a reminder of mortality to anyone looking at it. Sadly half of this stone has sunk down into the grave (I hope it missed the body!) so it isn’t possible to read who’s actually buried here.
The one below has sunk even more, but I was amazed by how well it has survived the weather and years, I’m sure this one dates from the 1600s, I believe there was a date on the back of it. I’m impressed by the designs on it. Whoever’s grave it is must have been a gardener or something similar. There are two crossed spades in the middle of the design and the flowers on either side seem to have his initials incorporated into the design – J C being at the end of the stems, with the C looking like a scythe. The flowers have a very modern look somehow – there’s nothing new under the sun!
Strathmiglo is definitely worth a look around if you’re passing by that way. There are some rather grand looking houses in the high street too, but it’s a very sleepy wee place nowadays.
I meant to mention before that the road which goes around the side of the church leads to a road called Cash Feus – named because the land belonged to the ancestral family of the Country and Western singer Johnny Cash. Obviously his branch of the family must have been the poor cousins as they took the decison to leave for the New World at some point. However he did come back to visit when he had researched his family tree, but it was the nearby village of Falkland that he went to most as he played some concerts there. I think one of his daughters still visits. Well, there are lots of links between Scots traditional music and country music.
Last Saturday we drove down to Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, the south-west of Scotland. It was a glorious day, a bit too hot really for me it was about 70F I suppose.
Jack was going to a football match there so I decided to take a stroll along the riverside walk along the Annan which flows through the town. It has a lovely ancient red sandstone bridge.
Just a stone’s throw from the bridge is the remains of Robert Bruce’s motte and bailey, it seems just to be a few lumps and bumps in the ground from a distance anyway, I couldn’t get any closer. I was interested because I had just finished reading Nigel Tranter’s book Footsteps to an Empty Throne and this is where the first battle of the Wars of Scottish Independence was fought.
I had the river all to myself with just a few swans and a heron for company, sadly the heron flew off before I could get a photo.
They are obviously proud of the Robert the Bruce connections in Annan and had this statue put up on the Town Hall, but Bruce also had a manor/castle at Cardross near Dumbarton where I grew up, although nobody knows exactly where it was. In fact that’s where he died.
Below is the town hall from another angle, if you lok closely you’ll see it’s desperately in need of being weeded of budleias and various other plants.
I enjoyed my walk around Annan and Jack enjoyed the football because Dumbarton won – unusually!
The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter was first published in 1969 and it’s the first of a Bruce trilogy. I do think though that Tranter was a bit generous with what is known of the history regarding Robert the Bruce, at one point Bruce comes to the aid of William Wallace at the end of a battle, something which almost certainly didn’t happen. In the early days Bruce was known for not being where he should be – when it came to battles. I suspect this was because he had had quite a close relationship with Edward I of England – before Edward became known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’.
Scotland had always been an independent country but when King Alexander III fell off his horse and died at Kinghorn in Fife (see his memorial at the location here) and then his daughter (The Maid of Norway) – who had been his heir died, that left a power vacuum and that’s what this book is about. The Scots made a huge mistake in asking their neighbour King Edward of England to help to choose between the candidates. Edward decided that John Balliol should get the top job but he had decided to take over himself in Scotland and Balliol was really just Edward’s puppet. As you can imagine this didn’t go down well with the Scots who ended up getting rid of Balliol and signed a treaty with France, always England’s enemy. Edward took this as an excuse to invade Scotland and so began the Wars of Independence. As ever though the Scots were as much at each other’s throats as at war with the English.
A few battles are fought but the book is much more than that. Bruce is a widower but by the end of the book he has remarried so there’s romance too, despite Edward’s manipulations. There’s the difference between William Wallace’s guerrilla warfare and Bruce’s chivalric leanings which he had to give up when Edward’s dirty tricks led to Bruce’s defeat in battles. The manner of Wallace’s execution also enraged so many Scots – so the gloves were off. Bruce had always been keen to avoid being excommunicated by the pope, but inevitably that happens, he was reminded that the Scottish church had originally been a Celtic church and it had been obliterated by Queen Margaret (King Malcolm’s wife) who replaced the Culdees with the Benedictines that she had grown up with. Suddenly excommunication didn’t matter any more.
I’m really looking forward to the next one in this trilogy The Path of the Hero King.
A few weeks ago we had friends from England staying with us and they wanted to visit Rosslyn Chapel which was made famous by Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. So off we set, in sunshine, but as we got closer to Rosslyn the heavens opened and it was a very wet walk for us from the car park. The chapel was originally called the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, and dated from the 15th century. It’s situated not very far south of Edinburgh.
After a brief look around the packed out gift shop and buying our tickets we raced out to the chapel, obviously getting even wetter on the way. The chapel was much smaller than I had imagined it would be and it was absolutely mobbed, but we managed to get seats and were enjoying an interesting and amusing talk from the guide. Then another guide came in and asked her to stop as another busload of tourists had just turned up! We all had to budge up and make more room for them, even William the resident cat was evicted from his comfy abode on a pew above a hot air vent in the floor, he wasn’t best pleased.
Sadly and stupidly, they don’t allow people to take photos inside the chapel, but all the foreign tourists immediately forgot that they could speak English and went about snapping anyway. We didn’t of course which is a real shame as the decorative stonework is fantastic. However all those taking naughty illegal photos have kindly put them on the internet so you can see them here.
Mind you, the official Rosslyn Chapel website has an explore the carvings section.
When I mentioned to various friends how crowded the chapel was when we were there it turned out that we were incredibly unlucky as they had all had the place almost completely to themselves which especially suited the cat lovers among them.
A Capital View – The Art of Edinburgh – by Alyssa Jean Popiel is what used to be called a coffee table book – maybe it still is but I haven’t heard that term for yonks. It’s sumptuous and features one hundred artworks from Edinburgh City’s art collection. It must have been such a difficult task for the author to choose which artworks to include in the volume as Edinburgh City Council has been collecting since the middle of the 18th century. But this isn’t only a book which focuses on the artworks, it also gives lots of interesting details on the lives of the artists and the history of the areas featured in the images, and of course in lots of cases the places have been demolished and it’s lucky that the artists preserved them for posterity.
Below are a few of the artworks featured.
The Village of the Water of Leith from a Window in Rothesay Terrace by Sir William Fettes Douglas
North Bridge and Salisbury Crags by Adam Bruce Thomson
Plainstane’s Close, 1878 by Robert Noble
The Palace of Holyroodhouse by Claude Buckle (1960) which was a British Railways poster.
Although I borrowed this book from that library that I’m not supposed to be visiting, I think I might end up buying it as it’s so interesting.
Last Monday was a bright and beautiful day so we decided to drive along The Japanese Garden at Cowden near Yetts o’ Muckhart which is in Scotland’s smallest county of Clackmannanshire.
There’s a small area given over to a gravel garden, and we watched a couple of the gardeners carefully raking the gravel and then making circular patterns in it. Luckily I managed to take this photo just before some garndparents took their grandchildren for a scuffle through it, ignoring the ‘keep out’ sign. Reading is wasted on some people!
As most of the cheery trees in streets, parks and gardens were already in bloom I thought it would be a good time to re-visit the Japanese gardens that we visited for the first time in the autumn. But it’ll be quite a while before anyone can sit under this tree below’s cherry blossom.
It turned out that as the original cherry trees which were planted in the garden back in the 1920s seem not to have survived, the trees that are there now are really small, having been planted recently.
But heigh-ho, we still had a lovely afternoon there. There’s still a lot of work ongoing, such as building new paths and expanding the woodland walk.
You can walk across the zig-zag bridge, if you aren’t worried about your balance, but you aren’t allowed onto the arched bridge – Health and Safety probably.
The large pond (or is it a lake?) has a healthy amount of frog spawn in it, or maybe it’s toad spawn as when we were in the woodland walk I almost stood on this fine fellow who was sitting on the path, as I approached him I thought he was a clump of autumn leaves – or something even worse that I definitely didn’t want to put my foot in!
The Japanese Garden at Cowden is certainly worth a visit, although I must admit that we went a bit too early – well I had a ‘two for one ticket’ which was expiring the next day! In another week or so from now the maples will be looking great.