31 May 2009

Touching the sky at Stirling Castle

It’s been hot. The big blue sky god has thrown back his cloud coat and is flashing his full glory to the nation.

Everywhere I go Scottish women are out in their small t-shirts, airing out their cleavage which had been bundled in layers for the winter. Many are wearing their summer dresses, which makes the men giddy with gratitude. Teenage boys strut through the streets with their shirts off, their white skin gleaming. There really should be a phrase akin to snow blindness to describe the effect of looking at a shirtless Scotsman in the sun.

People are going to the parks to lie down on the cool green grass. They sit in the cafes with iced beverages or pack up picnics and head to the lochs and beaches.

But not me. All I could think of when presented with that cloudless backdrop was this:

I could see in my mind the way the pale yellow of Stirling Castle’s Great Hall would cut against the blue, a bulb atop the volcanic rock on which the castle sits. And I knew that inside the hall, the light would be streaming through the huge windows and medieval music would sound like it was falling from the ceiling, where the amalgamation of high rafters resembles the hull of a ship.
I love Stirling Castle and get an itch to visit at least once a year. While Edinburgh Castle is a monument to military history, Stirling Castle (despite now being home to the wonderful museum of the Argyll and Southern Highlanders) holds on to a distinctly feminine feel. It was where royals flouted their finery while gazing at the rolling green countryside below.
On days like these when any small breeze is a gift to a sweating brow, there are countless cool nooks in Stirling Castle, empty spaces which balloon with silence where once there was so much heat and mayhem. When you go underground into a stone room on a hot day, the stones push cold with invisible hands, mixing their aroma with that of the earth and creating a metallic tang that reminds me of the root cellar we had when I was a child.

My favourite place of all is the kitchen, or The Great Kitchens. Once I’m over the drawbridge and past the forework, this is the first place I go, following the stairs into the darkened belly to greet its frozen inhabitants. It is a scene of drama and abundance, where the characters have been caught in mid-breath and held there forever.

I always expect they will come back to life at any moment. Steam and scent will erupt into the room, combined with an overwhelming clatter. The cook will continue his tirade against the boy who dropped the dish. The baker will turn back to the oven, the butcher will try to keep a side of beef away from a hungry dog, and the big man will don a warm smile as he languidly prepares cabbages.

After visiting the kitchen I spent most of my time walking the perimeter, taking in the views around Stirling, including the Royal Park and Gardens and also that famous spike in the landscape, The Wallace Monument. I also became enamoured with a set of stairs that are part of the outer wall. I convinced myself they lead to a never-ending drop. I dubbed them Zen Stairs.

I was only sad that the palace (this includes the royal apartments) is not open and is not set to reopen until 2011. However Historic Scotland is dedicating vast funds for archaeological research and for refurbishment, in order to restore the interior of the palace to some semblance its former glory.

Part of that journey includes employing a team of weavers to create seven huge tapestries that will be hung in the palace. The weavers work on-site and tourists can watch them as they painstakingly build on scenes depicting the hunt of a unicorn. Each tapestry takes four years to complete, and the project is set to finish is 2013.

Perhaps next time I will choose a rainy day and spend all my hours drifting around the open floor of the Great Hall, counting the five fireplaces over and over. But probably not. I’ll probably still be in the kitchen, keeping still and holding my breath to try to fit in.

29 May 2009

Smoke up my kilt

Dearest, lovely wee clutch of readers,

My flat is filled with smoke. This was my attempt to toast oats for my planned "build your own cranachan" post. The alarm went off and I jumped up and down beneath it, waving a towel (1. I have very high ceilings. 2. I despise jumping). Now the window is open and I can watch the smoke pouring out. Air...precious air...

Just so you know (cough)...if I don't make it through (wheeze...sputter)...you're all really super.


26 May 2009

A drive through the Scottish Borders

It was a day of green, blue, and white. And green, and green, and green...

23 May 2009

Balnakeil: Death of a Highwayman

There should be a word for a saga which time has faded into myth and obscurity. It has taken more than 400 years, but the details of the life of Donald McMurdo (aka Domhnull MacMhurchaidh) seem to be all but washed away. Even the spelling of his name - which my Scotland guidebook lists as “MacMurchow,” - seems to be in some dispute.

What remain of the specifics of his life twist meekly in the wind beneath his title of “highwayman and contract killer.” Contract killer seems straight forward enough, but “highwayman” comes storming through the mind in a veil of mist and legend.

In this case the “highways” are narrow roads located in the north of Scotland in what is now the district of Sutherland, a world of deadly moorland, strong winds and wild seas. Claw your way back through the years to the 1600s and you’re looking at a soggy horse track through an endless vista of bog and peat.

McMurdo is said to have killed 18 people, often tossing them down the “blow hole” at Smoo Cave near Durness. I imagine a dramatic swoop of a black cape as he hurls his screaming victims over the edge before mounting his dark horse and riding off with his spoils.

McMurdo is buried in the churchyard at Balnakeil, his grave indicated on the south wall by a skull and crossbones. The elements are slowly wearing away the ruins of the 17th century church, and as many times as we circled we could not find the promised marker.

According to my research, we should have turned left into the little nook below. There we would have found his tomb and read "Donald Makmurchou here lies low/ Was ill to his friend, and worse to to his foe/ True to his master in prosperity and woe. DMMC 1623"

It is said that the clergy of the church had not wanted to bury such an evil man in sacred ground.

A compromise was reached, spurred on by payment (one source says it was his employer who paid, another says McMurdo himself prearranged his burial in the churchyard to guard against those who would desecrate his grave).

McMurdo’s grave was positioned “half in and half out” of the ground, protecting him within the church walls but leaving his eternal soul partially exposed, like a shiny thing for the eye of the Almighty.

During our wanderings we found some graves whose moss-covered skulls drew our attention far more than the desire for historical accuracy. For us, these rubbed-out and sinking monuments spoke more convincingly of a long-ago story of darkness, thievery, death and a timeless descent into spiritual rot.

Long before Balnakeil church, the first place of worship is thought to have been built some 1200 years ago (in Gaelic Balnakeil means “bay of the church”). The spot is also the final resting place of Gaelic poet Rob Dunn.

The church still looks out over to Balnakeil Bay, which leads to Faraid Head. It was there that an emigrant ship sank in 1849, killing all on board. Their bodies are housed in an unmarked mass grave, their combined bulk creating a small raised area in the south corner of the churchyard.
The whole scene is overlooked by the worn and stoic Balnakeil House. Built in 1744, it resembles a home from an atmospheric thriller, in which a harmless holiday to the seaside turns into something ghastly, as the walls begin to seep with the memories of past evil deeds. But perhaps it is just my imagination…

The tablet has landed

Good news!

I have received the first reports that the bars of Scottish tablet that I sent out into the world have reached their destinations and are now being enjoyed by sweet-toothed recipients. I hope the rest makes it through customs unscathed.

Plans are in motion for June's glorious and sensual Scottish giveaway. :)

**UPDATE** This giveaway has now finished. I do a wee giveaway every month; please feel free to take part!

17 May 2009

The bleak beauty of the far north

You can easily spend days driving through this moonscape of brown,black and grey. When the clouds roll in, even the lochs take on a mercury sheen.
Scotland is a small country, but up here, everything seems vast. The mountains are so old, their edges have worn away. They have become hulks that have curled up to sleep.

But their shapes also give them character from which to build our myths. Below an ancient man with furrowed brow, burdened by time but never too weak to spring to life and swallow trespassers.
Head down into the valleys and become enraptured by the colour of rust, which bleeds into green and blooms around the spider web strings that slink down the hillsides. The mist will be cold. It is like a fabric made of tiny vibrations, woven with the express purpose of shaking the awe from your bones.

16 May 2009

Be free, my pretties, FREE!

I have returned from the post office, having sent off a cascade of envelopes containing treats of excellent goodness.

Thanks everyone for your most wonderful curiosity about this traditional Scottish sweet.

I do have a couple of bars leftover and have not even managed to finish the one I had already set aside for myself, so if you missed out and you wish to sample some butter tablet, please email me at scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com.

Hooray for sending candy in the post!

**UPDATE** This giveaway has now finished. I do a wee giveaway every month; please feel free to take part!

15 May 2009

Get it on, Bang a Gong (or not)

We will begin with an excerpt of Mick Jackson's glorious novel, The Underground Man, which highlights the life of a reclusive and eccentric Victorian Duke. While the book has nothing to do with Lauriston Castle, one item in the home filled me with such delight that Lauriston shall for me be forever linked to the character of the Duke, who I adore.

In the novel the Duke's diary reveals the old man's belief that jumping between hot and cold baths will invigorate his health. However the baths are in separate rooms, connected by a long hallway:

"From one bathroom to another is a good fifty- or sixty-yard trot and it has become necessary to seal off the whole landing by hanging up blankets at both ends. This follows an unfortunate incident when a housemaid happened to come round the corner with a pile of towels as I was going down the corridor at full-pelt. The poor girl almost leapt down the stairs in fright and had to be carted to my study by Clement and given a brandy to bring her round. Indeed, the sight of a naked old man must be very alarming to one of such tender years. Especially when he is haring towards you for all he is worth.

So, as I say, we now take the precaution of hanging up blankets. And, in order to clear the area, Clement strikes a small gong just before I go."

Ta-da! A long hallway, complete with GONG! No, I didn't strike it, and I am sorry if that disappoints anyone. Not only was I on a tour with 15 other people, but striking a gong in a house that has lain empty for 80 years could...wake something.

For a moment let us ignore the ghostly footsteps and visit the prettiest room, Mrs. Reid's drawing room. Apparently Mr. Reid intended the room to have a French tone, adding panels of red silk damask and a rock crystal chandelier. Is it just me, or do all the chairs look terribly uncomfortable?
The hallway walls are covered with the framed prints that the Reids adored. At the end of the hall there is a little nook of stained glass windows, full of stories I didn't know, so I just made things up.

"What are you doing here, kneeling and looking so sad?"

"That guy, over there - stole my cow."

"Then I shall buy you a new one."



(*a little aside. Since I first posted this, a friend has emailed me the most hilarious alternate caption for this picture. I am curious to hear more. Please leave any ideas in the comments)

Which brings us to the library. The bookshelves had apparently gone from floor to ceiling, but Mr. Reid had the top half covered so he could hang even more prints. In one corner a false bookshelf becomes a door, which creaks open to reveal a hidden staircase. Just one more thing I have always desired in a home.

My favourite thing in the room, other than the alcove with the wooden ceiling and a view of the garden, was a chair that was "for men only."

This reading chair requires the user to straddle it in order to lean over the little desk. Considered unsuitable for women, I of course was consumed with treacherous thoughts.

Since recent flooding and water damage restricted access to the dining and sitting rooms, we have but two rooms to go. Below is the oak room, one of the older rooms in the house, and home to another hidden set of steps that leads to secret chamber. Before the new ceiling was fitted in 1827, it was possible to hide in the chamber and spy on the people in the room.
And finally Mrs. Reid's Bedroom. Even though they both slept there, this was still considered her room. It is eerie to see all the small items like a brush and a small collection of perfume bottles, all adding to the atmosphere of pristine abandonment.
Thanks for reading. Linger as long as you like and show yourselves out:

13 May 2009

Lauriston Castle Part 1: The Gardens

Well, the addresses are coming in and it looks like the Great Tablet Giveaway will be a success. Mailing begins Friday = exciting times.

In the meantime, let's go somewhere pretty.

Time stopped for Lauriston Castle in 1926. That was the year the Edwardian mansion was gifted to the nation, along all of its contents and the 30 acres of surrounding grounds and groomed gardens.

In accordance with the wishes of owners William and Margaret Reid, a childless couple with a love of prints, porcelain, and tapestries, the house has since been maintained and displayed just as it was when the Reids were alive, a testament to “intelligent education of the public taste.”

The oldest part of the castle is the tower house, built in 1593, with the rest of the mansion house being added in the 1800s. A litany of facts exist regarding the architects and earlier owners of the castle, but as usual we won’t clamour around on the wires of historical time lines.

Instead let’s take a moment to nestle against the idea of a massive stone house remaining unchanged and uninhabited for more than 80 years. Cared for by the City of Edinburgh, the shelves are dutifully dusted, the chimneys dutifully swept and the rugs dutifully cleaned. The grandiose gardens are kept up so that weddings and croquet tournaments can be held on the lawn that looks out to the Firth of Forth and (on a clear day) the mountains of Perthshire.

The gardens are both quaint and refined. A dancing nymph is frozen amidst the small reed bed that lies to the left of the upper driveway near the house, against which a giant’s bouquet of pink rhododendrons is growing.
On a bright blue morning in the spring, the mouths of daffodils sing mute songs along the wide trails that line the property . A long row of benches face the expansive view of the languid Forth, and a soft breeze blows the new leaves that are squeezing from the branches of the towering trees.

But guess what? There is no one else around. Thirty acres, an immaculate garden, an empty castle, but no host of eager tourists, no dog walkers or history buffs. A Saturday morning at the start of the tourist season and you can easily find yourself remarkably alone, with the exception of the single pheasant who ducks beneath a shrub every time you approach with your camera.

During my morning visit I did come across one woman who was also taking photos. She lived nearby and advised me that the castle, including the attached Japanese Garden (one of the largest in UK) it is rarely busy with visitors. The interior of the castle can only be visited as part of a guided tour, and currently there is just one a day.
Even if you removed the experience of seeing this truly stunning location, the exquisitely eerie feeling that comes from solitude amidst this lonely grandeur is alone worth a visit. Next time we shall venture inside this glorious building, which is apparently haunted by the sound of ghostly footsteps wandering the rooms.

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