31 Oct 2010

Haunted Edinburgh: Greyfriars Kirkyard

The following is my fictionalized version of the true story of a homeless man falling through the floor in Lord George Mackenzie’s tomb in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh. December, 1998:

He was soaked through four layers, his body aching from an epicentre in his belly. At any moment it felt as if all of his insides would abandon post and blow up, crash through his bones and skin and splatter into the cold air. Anything to spread a little warmth.
It is easy to stay to the shadows in a graveyard. Greyfriars must breed half of Edinburgh’s winter gloom, a parade of silhouettes slithering out from the womb of stone and moonless sky.

All the same he kept to the sides, trying the gates of each tomb as he went. Finally, one tomb so black it could have blended into the night. But the gate had not been locked, and inside the cold seemed at least to be holding still. It would do.

With palms flat against the stone and eyes wide open like funnels sucking in the darkness, he made his way towards the back of the tomb, to find a quiet corner and wait out the storm.

Clunk. His foot moved from the earth to what felt and sounded like wood. Impulse made him lift his left boot and bring it down three times, like a knock on a door.
Knock knock kno…

And he was gone, his mouth opening in a silent cry as he fell through the rotten floor, taking damp earth and stones with him. A moment of chaos and clamber, then nothing. He retched himself up to sitting and breathed into the ballooning silence.

He had fallen onto uneven ground, which poked into him and made it difficult to find his balance. His hands slipped around, trying to make sense of it all.

Even in the dark, there are bones the shape of which are so familiar that we can build the picture in our minds of their place on the skeleton. Now he was surrounded by them, his fingers moving over skulls, over the linking charms of finger joints and the batons of fibula. His imagination doused the scene in the green slime he knew was there, because he could feel it clinging to him.

He screamed as he reached up and through the jagged hole where he had broken through, his dirty hands emerging into the gloom like a shock scene in a horror film. Two hard pulls brought him back to the surface, and as soon as he found his feet he began to run. He hurled straight through the graveyard this time, towards the nearest lamp which illuminated the falling rain. A light to erase the shadows, the rain promising to wash everything away.
Did you like that? Since that fateful night, Greyfriars Kirkyard has never been the same. Because you see, it seems that someone, or something, was unleashed when the man fell through. The unfortunate man claimed it was the evil ghostly energy of none other than Mackenzie himself.

The reports began almost immediately. People visiting the area told of how they were attacked by something they could not see. Often their hair was pulled, or they suddenly lost consciousness, despite having no history of such occurrences.

Scratches and bruises appeared on their arms and legs the day after visiting the site. An exorcist even had a go at ridding the place of what had become known as Mackenzie’s Poltergeist. The exorcist said it was not possible - the energy was too strong, and he feared for his life. A few weeks later he died of a heart attack.

In this age of concern for public safety, Edinburgh Council thought it best to close off the area entirely, until a ghost tour company convinced the council to let them lead small groups of people into the tomb while telling visitors the history of the area. (Mackenzie’s tomb is on the left down past the locked gate. There is no way in now without an official guide).

Now I’ve been on the City of the Dead tour, and it was, as JP would say, wank. They stuffed a dozen of us into the black mausoleum and made us wait there in the dark to see if anything would happen.

We all stood in silence, some of us hoping, willing this demonic ball of energy to graze our necks with icy licks. Nothing. Well, until one of the tour guides jumped out like a bogeyman in an attempt to illicit some screams. Talk about ruining the vibe.
Never mind. The story -and all the unanswerable questions - are what matter. For example, why Mackenzie? Was it because during his years as a lawyer he so mercilessly persecuted the Covenanters, who chose Presbyterianism over the crown’s favoured Episcopacy?

His relentless cruelty toward them is why he became known as “Bluidy” Mackenzie. How high and mighty of him - sending down all those poor folks for their beliefs. How very awkward for him then to eventually be buried in the same ground as many of those who died as a result of his prosecution. Perhaps that is the cursed friction that keeps him spinning out of the grave.
Greyfriars Kirk is my most beloved graveyard, simply because it is so creepy. I love the dancing skeletons and the giant tombs. I love the gravestones that look to be slowly sinking into the mud. 

I should add that the reason there were so many bones under the floor was the churchyard was apparently the home to many unregistered burials during the plague. The number of headstones in the graveyard is estimated to be just a fraction of the number of bodies underfoot.

If you fancy reading more about the ghouls and ghosts of Scotland’s capital, pop over to Edinburgh’s Dark Side.

I’ll haunt you later…(oooooh...chocolate eyeballs!)

28 Oct 2010

A giveaway for letter writers

Ring of Brodgar
Halloween approaches. In the old Pagan Calendar, Samhain is the symbolic crust of the year, cut off with the end of the growing season. The old god will die and will not be born again until the solstice. Until then we will hang in the shadows, watching the plumes of our breath.

With the Dark Season falling on us like a book that is slowly closing, we await the hush that winter will bring. This is the favourite season for creative introverts, the time when our desire to wrap ourselves up and tuck ourselves away is perfectly justified.

For many of us, the long nights by candlelight bring a desire to write. Not the clatter of fingers against the keyboard, but the smooth flow of pen against paper, thoughts and stories strung together to those we love.

We are the ones who, in this time of electronic domination, still swoon over the idea of a new pen or the crisp flick of a fresh sheet of paper, the delicious crack when the spine gives on a new notebook.
Castle Stalker

Edinburgh Victoria Street
We also know that a beautiful card can be a gift in itself. We approach those two small pages as if we could fit an entire world onto them, scrunching up our handwriting so it looks like a maze.

All of this to announce my delight in this month’s giveaway. Ever since I moved to Scotland I have loved the work of painter Keli Clark, having first been drawn in by her images of witches soaring across a moonlit sky and cats curled in front of a roaring fire, a fat-bellied cauldron bubbling nearby.

Keli is kindly sponsoring 10 of her gorgeous cards. It is my wish to divide these cards between five winners, two cards each.

The Watchers
Entering this giveaway is very easy. First, visit Keli’s Web site and browse her selection of lovely cards. Perhaps you will love the one of the shaggy Highland Cows, or maybe the one of Edinburgh’s Victoria Street in the winter. There are several sections to choose from, so follow the links at will:

Edinburgh Cards
East Lothian
Scotland Cards
Fife Cards
Animals and Birds
Pagan & Wicca
Magic & Mystery
Faerie Cards
Christmas Cards
Highland Cattle
The Green Witch
After looking through the selections, choose your two favourite cards and write them as a comment on this post. You can also email me with your choices at scotland4thesenses@gmail.com, including “Keli Clark artist” in the subject line.

The deadline will be that most glorious day of the year, 31 October. I will announce the five winners on 1 November.

Wishing you a happy Samhain.

****Update**** This giveaway has now finished. Congratulations to the winners!

26 Oct 2010

A tale of two Smokies

The first time I ever ate an Arbroath Smokie, I had just spent hours walking myself into a tired but content stupor at the Royal Highland Show. I emerged from a path onto a large open green space, where a long queue of people were standing in a continuous billow of the most aromatic smoke I had ever smelled. It was sea and charcoal, salt waves and wood and the drawn-out ache of an almost-fire that is never allowed to catch.

Sometimes in life you come across a scene that just draws you in. As soon as you see it you can’t imagine not being a part of it yourself.

Immediately I made my way to the end of the queue and stood in the wafts of smoke, watching with watering eyes as a man lifted a jute sack from one of the barrels where the fish were hanging and with an expert eye, hoisted them up in a silent declaration that these Smokies were ready to eat.

A Smokie was handed to me in a paper wrapping and immediately the juice began to ooze through my fingers.

I knew the smoke smell would be in my skin for hours, but I didn’t care. I just sat myself down on the grass and used my wee wooden fork to flake off big chunks of haddock flesh, chewing slowly to match the rhythm of the long summer afternoon.

The second time I tried an Arbroath Smokie, it was a bit of disaster. After visiting Arbroath Abbey we couldn’t leave town without a wander down to the harbour. Go to Arbroath without buying a Smokie? The word sacrilege comes to mind.

At one of the smokehouses we bought two Smokies, sold cold. When we got home I set to work attempting to resurrect the pleasure I had experienced in June. I wrapped the Smokies in foil and put them in the oven to heat them and within minutes the signature heady scent filled the flat. Except this time the smell seemed to press against the walls like it was trying to be absorbed so it could seep out again later.
It just wasn’t the same. The flesh wasn’t as moist and flaky and eating it inside just didn’t fit for me. It was too heavy, too rich for indoor consumption.

For me Smokies feel like work food - wholesome outdoor fare that you eat after you have exerted a lot of energy and need to power up again. Also, for the same reason that I have never made Cullen Skink, I just don’t like my home to smell of smoked fish.

The next time I get a chance to be outside and eat a freshly cooked Arbroath Smokie, made by people with years of experience, I will happily stand in a long queue to partake in the deliciousness. This is one Scottish delicacy I am content to leave to the experts.

For more information on Arbroath Smokies, Iain R. Spink’s site gives insight into the history and cooking method.
***A wee note...If there are any Scottish bloggers out there who fancy trying their hand at guest blogging, the lovely Melissa at Smitten by Britain is looking for writers to add some Scottish flair for her readers. :)

24 Oct 2010

There's a Rumblethump in my kitchen

I had planned to write about Arbroath Smokies, but with the news this past week focusing mainly on the dramatic forthcoming budget cuts throughout Britain, my mind has been swirling with ideas of traditional Scottish foods that tick all the boxes of taste, practicality, nutrition and economy.

Smokies certainly tick all those boxes, but they aren’t something I would toss together for an evening meal (for reasons I will explain in a later post).

Flipping through a couple of my Scottish cookbooks, I happened upon recipes for a dish called Rumbledthumps.

Similar to the English “bubble and squeak” recipe, Rumbledthumps may sound like the name of a goofy and loveable cartoon character, but is actually Scots for mixed (rumble) and mashed (thump), and combines mashed potatoes with onion and cabbage to make what was traditionally eaten as a meatless main meal with oat cakes.

After making your mashed potatoes (King Edward is nice and floury), the Maw Broon cookbook suggests frying off the onions and boiling your chopped cabbage (savoy cabbage is great) in a separate pot. However I used Catherine Brown’s method of sautéing the onions for a few minutes then adding the cabbage until it had wilted, thus avoiding the extra washing up.
I didn’t have the chives that both recipes asked for so I added some chopped spring onions. Everything is mixed and smashed together really well (don’t forget to season!), loaded into a buttered baking dish, topped with strong grated cheddar (I used Isle of Arran, one of my favourites) and baked in the oven.

Catherine Brown actually suggests just putting it under the grill to brown the cheese, but Maw Broon says to bake it for a half hour, which is what I did.
After it has been in the oven just 15 minutes, the pervading scent of “something is cooking which will make the world okay“ was already hanging heavy throughout the flat.

Overall, this is easy to make, flavoursome, comforting, Moorish, nutritionally dense and so very cheap. The cabbage lends texture and a slight sweetness and the melted cheese makes it seem richer than it is.
We ate it alongside a beef stew but I found that the stew overwhelmed the flavours of the Rumbledthumps and I wished I had made something a little plainer in order to enjoy the simple goodness of it. I think eating it with oatcakes would leave me feeling too full, but it has been suggested to me to try it with some Lorne sausages, which I think would be perfect.

Final verdict: This is one traditional Scottish dish I will be making again and again throughout the winter.

Have you tried Rumbledthumps? What is your favourite “cheap and cheerful” Scottish dish?

18 Oct 2010

The broken splendour of Arbroath Abbey

Arbroath Abbey is a field of massive stone shards, rusted dominos that rest together like old men who have known each other for more years than any of them can remember.

At one time the abbey was one of the most impressive buildings in medieval Scotland, 90 metres long with a trio of towers meant to inspire awe and reverence.

Today the grave of the abbey’s founder, William the Lion, lies exposed among the ruins of the nave, the carved words “King of Scots” flecked with fresh grass clippings.
But the gaze will always be drawn towards what it finds most beautiful, stopping there to help the imagination rebuild what time has torn away.

At Arbroath it is what the locals call “The Round O,” a large circular window in the gable of the south transept. At one time light would have poured through stained glass, and even today the afternoon sun seems to target the orb, producing a lighthouse-like glow through the empty eye.
For those with a love of doors, you may stare longingly at the one on the other side of the south transept.

With its hinges and handle still intact but its stairway long gone, this door in the sky looks like something from a fairy tale.

If we could just climb up to open it, perhaps a mysterious rush would fill our ears and we would find ourselves in 1233, listening to the murmured echoes of the monks preparing for services in the sacristy.
The sacristy is the only part of the church which remains roofed. It is closed to the public, but it is said to have some of the best acoustics of any building in Scotland.

The guest house and the abbot’s house are squat and sturdy, having survived much of the deterioration suffered by the bulk of the abbey.

Inside the guest house is a copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, when the Pope was asked in 1320 to recognize Scotland’s independence from England and to acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the King of Scotland.

Push a button on an interactive exhibition and a sombre voice will fill the room with readings from the famous document.
“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

A short repose in the graveyard is necessary before any visit to the abbey can be considered complete.

Tall trees nestle against high stone walls, buffering external noise and filtering in a sweeping calm through the gravestones. Walk the rows searching for names and dates, tributes to lost love or the stamp-like skull and crossbones that seems to say “death was here.”
One special gravestone has been taken inside the abbey’s modern visitor centre, where it is protected from the elements and perched on a wall at eye level. On the left, an old woman leaning on her stick, and on the right, Death holding an arrow or “sting.” (1 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”)
Even in the bright sunlight, no church or abbey that I have visited has made me feel as sad as Arbroath. Only because I know how beautiful it would have been, once upon a time.

I yearned for the walls to reappear, to grow out of the ground, perfectly carved stones clicking together. I wanted to see long shadows forming over the gravestone slab of William the Lion, blanketing him in cool calm, an offer of long, nourishing rest.

However a gentle smile reappears when I cast my mind back to the Round O and the strange trick of the light through its invisible lens. Glowing hot and vibrant as it always has, as if it has never realized it is broken.

13 Oct 2010

Recycled Coo of mystery

Many months ago during the Royal Highland Show, I stopped by an art stall which featured sculptures made entirely from recyled materials.

I was smitten by the following small figure of a highland coo. His horns look to be made from bendy straws and his fringe uses the prongs of a plastic fork. Don't you love him?

At the time I took the art's business card so I would not forget his name, but of course I lost the card. I tried every google search I could think of to track him down but haven't had any luck. So if anyone out there has seen this artist's work and recognizes his style, please leave me a comment. Of course even if you don't know, feel free to praise this mystery artist's take on a Scottish icon.

9 Oct 2010

Imagination reigns at Inverlochy

The squat ruins of Inverlochy Castle lie about a mile away from the centre of Fort William.

Unlike many of the other castles around Scotland, Inverlochy does not sit on a rocky perch from where it can still cast a shroud of majesty. Instead it crumbles like an ancient frown against the banks of the River Lochy, its once grand moat grown in with grass and curled like a sleeping cat around the castle’s outer walls.

Dotted at the corners of the vast inner courtyard are the jagged remnants of the towers, which resemble hastily opened soup cans.

But its riverside location gives a sense of what an industrious place this would have been during the height of its use. An information board has been posted at the castle’s entrance to demonstrate the scale of trading operations that would have gone on here when rivers were Scotland’s highways.

 You also have to imagine your visit here as if you were a child let loose in the ultimate creative playground. Run up the path and through the courtyard, straight out towards the river.

Zoom around the moat yelling orders to your comrade, who peaks through the gap in the stones from his strategic position in one of the towers. The enemy has been spotted - prepare the defences!

When the battle is over, sit down next to the water or beneath the trees, gaze up at the stones and think back on your adventures.

Inverlochy may not be one of grandiose castles that is a destination in itself, but its unassuming charm and quiet location so close to the town make it a perfect spot for a picnic.

Does anyone else have a favourite historical spot in Scotland that they feel may be underrated?

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