31 Jan 2010

Kibble Palace and the mystery of Victorian decadence

Kibble Palace feels like a place with two histories. The bulk of the facts lay on a well trodden path through time, from the day it was built to its restoration and its ongoing status as one of Glasgow’s most famous buildings. But there are crumbs of another history that lead off in a different direction entirely, following a trail through giant ferns and emerging in the realm of pure imagination.
The facts are as follows: Constructed of wrought iron and glass, Kibble Palace was built by engineer and photographer John Kibble in the 1860s before it was dismantled and moved from his home at Coulport, Loch Long to Glasgow on a barge in 1871. Gifted to the city as the Kibble Crystal Art Palace and Royal Conservatory, it was used as a venue for concerts and exhibitions for several years until the 1880s when it began to be used for the cultivation of plants as part of the Botanic Gardens.
Following a lengthy and painstaking restoration, Kibble Palace reopened in 2006. The building’s innermost sanctuary continues to be dominated by a collection of Australasian tree ferns, many of which date back to the 19th century and have grown in the glass house for more than 120 years. A series of 19th century sculptures dot the outer walls as walkways splice through the jungle-like clutter.

Now on a typical weekend afternoon the dominant sound is that of children running and laughing as they chase each other or try to hide from their slower moving parents. Everywhere you turn, tiny explorers are bursting through the undergrowth, planning their next move.
It all sounds very straight forward, doesn’t it? Marvellously, Kibble Palace also looks a little like a Dr Who episode that has been set inside The Lost World, but there is still something missing. Despite the magnificence of the ornate columns and the surreal beauty of the centre dome, overall the place lacks the kind of warmth and lustre one would expect it to have.

Perhaps my expectations would not have been raised had I not read in my Rough Guide to Scotland that the palace, when it was first reconstructed in Glasgow, was used not as a concert venue but as a “Victorian pleasure dome.” The idea certainly changed things in my mind. Looking around, I imagined red carpeting, candlelight, ridiculous plush furniture and grown men and women playing very naughty games of hide and seek among the plant life. The Garden of Eden come to life.

Certainly, John Kibble himself paints an odd and intriguing character. Along with his decadent glass palace, Kibble’s inventions included a floating bicycle that he pedalled across Loch Long, and in 1858 the world’s largest camera, which was so big it had to be mounted on a horse-drawn cart.

For what it is, Kibble Palace is magnificent. It is an important piece of British architectural history and a valuable home to some very old and wondrous plants. But as I sat there all I could do was yearn for those morsels of magic that weren’t being utilized, and for the rest of the afternoon I continued to chase the ghosts of debauchery around my mind. Oh, what a luscious film set it would make.
Before we step away from the dreamlike world of glass and tall, strange plants, we have one more stop. A few steps from Kibble Palace is the Botanic Garden’s main range of glasshouses, there exists the most beautiful iron spiralled staircase reaching up-up-up towards the ceiling.

Rusting in places, the staircase is nestled among the trees and gated at the bottom to keep visitors from attempting to climb up. When the sun shines through the glass and pierces the gaps in the leaves, it is easy to imagine the stairs are ancient and abandoned and that they lead upwards into the clouds like in a fairytale. Or maybe it’s just me, following those invisible crumbs again.

30 Jan 2010

Restarting the engine with some sensual news

A new laptop has been purchased and I am online once again. Oh, the trials of cyberland.

Good news: An online magazine, Yareah, is featuring my piece on the gardens of Lauriston Castle. You can read it here.

In just two days Edinburgh's annual City of Literature event will kick off. This year the Carry a Poem campaign will include book giveaways and a host of poetry events. So if you're in love with a Scottish poem, now is the time to share your thoughts. Check out the event's new Web site for more.

The city of Perth is one to watch in 2010 as it is celebrating its 800th birthday. There are events going on all year, from historical city tours to art exhibitions and concerts. The month of June is Archaeology month in Perthshire, so if you've ever dreamed of getting your hands on some history, this could be your chance. Perth 800 has a list of events here.

Another successful Celtic Connections is wrapping up in Glasgow. Even though I wasn't able to make it to any gigs this year, I love looking through their roster of bands. I never fail to discover a new band whose music I love.

Finally, good news for Edinburgh chocolate lovers. Once Farmers' Market regulars, the folks from The Chocolate Tree have opened a cozy cafe in Bruntsfield where they are selling their handmade organic chocolates and gorgeous cakes. And the locals in Gorgie finally have a beautiful patisserie in their own neighbourhood (ie my neighbourhood!). I am already waiting for picnic season, as Patisserie Jacob will be my one-stop shop for goodies.

And that's all my sensual Scottish news! Happy weekend to all.

24 Jan 2010

Forced sensual break

My plans for a lead-up to Burns Night have been dashed by the death of my laptop last week. Actually, we don't think it's completely dead. As in The Princess Bride, it is simply "mostly dead" until I can get it fixed.

So instead of lusicous photos of haggis, neeps and tatties, I am quickly borrowing JPs laptop to wish everyone partaking in Burns Night a splendid supper. I raise a toast to you and share this lone photo of the IrnBru taxi, from the recently completed Kelvinbridge Mural in Glasgow. Sláinte!

(**sad update. Laptop is not just mostly dead and I will have to replace it. Will be offline until further notice).

17 Jan 2010

All hail the Tattie Scone

“It’s not a potato scone, it’s a tattie scone!” my colleague exclaimed, the word “tattie” bouncing out on her Edinburgh accent without its Ts and becoming “ta-ee.”

Tattie scones aren’t always part of a Scottish breakfast but they should be, because there are few things that go more perfectly with a bit of runny egg yolk than these stodgy beauties. Indeed, as soon as my friend had uttered the word “tattie scone,” her expression changed into a far-away dreamy gaze.

“Oooh, tattie scone on an egg banjo….” (I think it highly unlikely that anyone will know what an egg banjo is, as my friend has led me to believe it is something her father came up with. That said, the first person who can describe to me the intricacies of an egg banjo shall be awarded a prize).

You can buy tattie scones in the supermarket, although they will often be wiped out on weekends as people raid the shelves prior to the weekly Sunday fry up. But like most things, they are so much tastier made from scratch and it is a fantastic way to use up leftover mash. Armed with Catherine Brown’s Classic Scots Cookery, I discovered there are only a few ingredients:

Some floury potatoes, mashed
Plain flour
Pinch salt

While the recipe does give specific weights, I realized they are not necessary. It’s all about feeling your way to the right consistency, adding flour until you’ve got a soft, pliable, smooth dough. Roll out some dough on a floured surface until you’ve got a circle that is about ¼ inch thick (or thinner if you prefer). Then cut into four pieces.

I cooked them dry in a fairly hot non-stick frying pan, about three minutes a side. In no time at all they start to brown up and look amazing. You can eat them on their own with butter but they do seem to cry out for fried eggs. And if you really want to be naughty, toss them in with the cooking bacon for that extra crispiness and flavour.

Homey and comforting, make tattie scones once and you won’t ever want to eat your Sunday breakfast without them.

12 Jan 2010

Turn here for Tarbet

After the winter we have had so far, I feel in need of an escape. So we turn and drive three miles off the main (albeit single track) road to a tiny cove in the north called Tarbet.

It is early spring, and as you descend from the eerie grey-brown expanse of the northern highlands, this place is like a hiccup of green before the silver blue of the sea takes over.

It can be a place to rest and linger for a few minutes (or hours) before continuing your journey, but for many people it is a the leaping off point to Handa Island and its protected nature reserve. Boats take tourists out to the island between April and September, and visitors are given three hours to wander the seabird-laden mass of red Torridon sandstone, careful not to peak too far over the edge of the sheer cliffs.

We landed in Tarbet almost by accident, deciding on a whim to take the narrow road that led down to the shore. There was something so idyllic about the place, from the small piles of fishing nets near the dock, to a trio of geese waddling up from the shoreline. There was a dilapidated stone wall running up the hillside, near which grew the most wonderful storm-beaten tree. Its trunk and branches bent by the constant wind, it seemed to be reaching desperately inland, simultaneously blooming and attempting its escape.

With a long drive ahead of us we weren’t able to take the day to visit Handa Island. However from what I have read and the photos I have seen, it seems like a magical place. If anyone has been before I would love to hear the story of your visit.

11 Jan 2010

Walk this way, Julia R

Julia's name appeared from the hat this morning to claim the Lonely Planet book Walking in Scotland. A Canadian of Scottish ancestry, Julia's dream would be to walk across the country and also visit Skye.

Congratulations Julia! I hope the book comes in handy during your inaugural visit to Scotland. Please email me your address. Here is a springtime photo from Skye to get you dreaming.

10 Jan 2010

Lingering before A Lady in Grey

Every time I walk through the doors of the National Gallery of Scotland, I can feel a presence beneath my feet. The main floor, with its lush carpeting and high red walls, holds paintings from a host of European masters, while the gallery’s oldest, most fragile pieces are on display upstairs.

Walk through the main floor to the back of the room and you will find the entrance for the stairway leading downstairs to a separate exhibition that is dedicated solely to Scottish painters. It is my favourite part of the gallery, because it is where she resides.

I am sure there are paintings of more glamorous women, ones with perfect postures and looks of eternal, coy assuredness swept across their features. But there is something about this single painting that never fails to capture my imagination. I love the moment when I round the corner and she comes into view, her face like a pale moon above the shadowy billows of her dress.

She is A Lady in Grey (1859), by the portrait painter Sir Daniel Macnee (1806-1882). The Lady is Macnee's daughter. Or, as I have seen it described: “an idealized portrait of his daughter.” I am not entirely sure what this means, other than to assume that he wanted to paint his child with all the perfection he saw in her.

Forgive the poor quality of the image. There are no photos allowed in the gallery so I had to scan a postcard. I love the way her hand hovers above her needlework, but more than anything I love the expression on her face. The word “expectation” clamours into my mind, but it is not enough. There is an adjective that is supposed to go with it, which would adequately describe the way she is looking at the viewer. With _________ expectation… It just won’t come to me. Perhaps it will in time.

There are so many talented Scottish artists and writers and I hope to learn more about some of them in the coming year. As always, should anyone have a favourite Scottish artist or work of art, I welcome suggestions and ideas.

Thank you to all those who have taken part in my book giveaway and shared their thoughts about their favourite walks in Scotland. The winner will be announced tomorrow.

6 Jan 2010

My cup runneth over - a sharing post

I am slowly making my way back into reality following the holidays. This Christmas I received some fabulous gifts, including a one-year Historic Scotland membership. This means I can visit all the Historic Scotland properties for free. With entry to individual properties ranging from £4 to more than £10, the cost of being a tourist can add up quickly. If you are in Scotland and plan on visiting a number of these sites, it is worth getting a membership like this, and I had been planning to buy myself one in the New Year. Lucky me, Santa beat me to it.

I also received several Lonely Planet guides about Scotland, to help me with my research for this blog. One of the books was the Lonely Planet "Walking in Scotland: 66 Great Walks."

This time Santa proved just how in tune he is with the things I love because unbeknownst to him, I had already acquired a copy of this very book.

The book gives excellent descriptions of walks all around Scotland. There are outings for all levels of walkers, from a pleasant stroll at Aberlady Bay near Edinburgh, to a challenging high circuit route in the Cairn Gorm Mountains.

It seems unfair for me to retain two copies of the same book when someone out there might be able to put the second copy to good use.

In the spirit of a new year of adventure and exploration, would anyone out there like to put his or her name in the hat for my spare copy of this suberb Lonely Planet book?

Just leave me a comment about your favourite place to walk in Scotland. If you don't have a blog but still want to enter, email me at scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com and include "Scotland walks" in the subject line.

I'll draw a name on Monday!

**This giveaway has now finished. Congratulations JuliaR for winning the book***

1 Jan 2010

Hogmanay Steak Pie

Hogmanay is the most important holiday in Scotland, celebrated with more fervour than Christmas. The reports say that around 80,000 people crowded into Edinburgh’s Princes Street last night to bring in the New Year.

However, being the creative introverts that we are, my beloved and I cannot think of anything more angonizing than being surrounded by tens of thousands of people who have had far too much to drink. I have always preferred a quiet atmosphere, good company and rich food. Thankfully this year it was Maw Broon to the rescue yet again, with her recipe for Hogmanay Steak Pie.

I have read that along with songs and dancing, the eating of steak pies or stew at Hogmanay is traditional around Glasgow and central Scotland. It makes sense, as there is nothing like a slow-cooked stew or pie on a cold night to raise your spirits and see you through the long winter nights ahead.

Maw Broon’s recipe is a basic beef stew that is cooked for a long time, then set aside to rest for awhile (preferably overnight) so the simple flavours have time to deepen. Poured into a casserole dish and covered with puff pastry, it is baked for 30 minutes until the pastry is nice and brown. Easy peasy.

A whole new year awaits us. There are so many things I want to do this year, so many places I want to see and foods I want to cook and taste. A few of my Scotland-loving desires for 2010:

-Attend at least one dinner hosted by Slow Food Edinburgh and get to know more food producers
-Learn more about Scottish heather honey
-Visit several of the islands around Scotland, including Isle of Bute, Isle of May and Isle of Arran
-Finally read Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland, Story of a Nation (it’s more than 700 pages)
-cook more traditional Scottish recipes and try a few modern ones as well

If you could send me on assignment or have me cook something, where or what would it be? I'm always on the lookout for ideas.

Happy New Year everyone!

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