29 Apr 2010

I uncover my inner train geek

I didn’t think I would love it so much, the hoot of the engine cutting through the quiet morning haze, followed by the low chug-chug as the great weight shifts forward and is enveloped in the white cloud of steam. Or the sight of the coal piled high next to the engine, the whiff of it as the train passes by.
I had always thought train museums were for men. They like that sort of thing - monuments to testosterone and hard graft, feats of engineering. As a woman my instincts usually lead me to more refined aspects of history: sweeping, dramatic graveyards or the lolling green slopes leading away from a grand country mansion.
But with time to spare before the more genteel Kinneil House would be open, I pay my pound and enter the Scottish Railway Museum, which is located just outside the town centre in Bo’ness and run by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society.

The cold from the cement underfoot filters through the scent of steel and old oil and reminds me of years spent living with an auto mechanic, the almost sweet smell of his blackened hands after a day at work.

Somewhere in between it all are the lingering hints of coal dust and the microscopic silent plumes that stir around aging wooden planks.
The mute face of a 1961 diesel locomotive stares off toward the horizon it will never again try to chase. The once luxurious first class carriage from 1923 looks so inviting yet somehow untouchable, like there are already people in those seats, waiting to go. It's just that I can’t see them, and they can’t see me.
I can't get enough of the old posters that advertise the best in rail travel holidays.

A dog sits next to a stack of luggage, while a child gazes up at the fantastic machine, daring to dream he will one day travel on the Flying Scotsman.

Another boasts the speed of the London to Aberdeen night train: 525 miles in just 10 hours.

One of the show rooms features the simple flourish of a stack of worn suitcases and crates, all ready to be loaded into the luggage compartment.

All around me the quiet giants lie still, but in the corner there is a brilliant clutter of sound which seems to seep between the metal corpses and tickle them with life.

Playing on a loop on an old television is the 1936 film Night Mail, a PR documentary made for the Royal Mail to highlight the efficiency of the down postal, which ran overnight from London to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

To add beauty and drama to the film they included a reading of W.H. Auden’s poem, Nightmail, which is performed in a way that matches the clickity-clack rhythm of the journey, underlying the eagerness with which people held on to the promise of a letter. (“For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”)

There is something sad about the place, because of the perception it gives us of the way things used to be. How simple, how straight-forward.

Yet also how grand, because it shows how a complex puzzle can be overcome when repeatedly approached with the same uncompromising strategy. The people involved play the parts like cogs in a wheel, creating a seamless magic show for those watching.

I love the Railway Museum. It is a place teeming with stories, an endless parade of characters just waiting for some intuitive hand to draw them back into the world so they can carry on with their day. The woman in first class, going to visit her lover. The engineman with soot around his eyes. The porter hauling bags for passengers. They’re there - I swear they are.

************BLOG NEWS**********************
Thanks for visiting my blog today. A bit of a news announcement for the members of the accidentally formed Scotland for the Senses book group. There is a small clan of us who have bravely signed up to read the 700-page Scotland: Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnusson.

I spoke with Susan, the winner of the recent book giveaway, and in order to work around busy life schedules we are going to aim for 4-5 chapters a week. A new discussion tab will be available on my Facebook page for us to get started with our feedback.

If you’re not on Facebook feel free to email me comments you want to share, or post updates on your own blog and let me know so we can read each other’s views that way.

So open those books and let’s get reading about Scotland’s incredible (and long!) history.

25 Apr 2010

A rare glimpse inside Kinneil House

Easter is the turning point on the Scottish tourism calendar. Around this time the clocks move forward and most of the historical properties that have been closed since October fling open their doors for another season. The days are longer, the air is warmer, and I am struck with a desire to see everything possible before the months roll quickly by into winter again.

Being on Historic Scotland’s mailing list helps me keep up with unique opportunities to see properties that are not often open to the public.

This weekend I couldn’t pass up a chance to go to Bo’ness and see Kinneil House, which is only open to the public on a handful of weekends each year.

This was the seat of the powerful Hamilton family, stretching back to 1314 when Robert the Bruce gave them the estate in thanks for their support at Bannockburn. In the late 1500s it was the home of Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, who lived there with her husband, William Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk.

Centuries later in the 1930s, with the house in desperate disrepair, the local council decided to knock it down.

They had already gutted the tower house and were poised to start smashing through the palace when they uncovered intricate paintings on the walls, which turned out to be some of the best examples of renaissance wall painting in Scotland. The house went from the chopping block to being  a prized historical gem.

The paintings are so fragile that Historic Scotland is strict about not allowing photography inside (they trust no one to leave the flash off), so the photos I have I had to scan from the brochure.

My favourite room is the Arbour room, the bedchamber of the James, the second Earl of Arran, who was responsible for the palace being added to the main tower in the 1550s.

The original paintings are lush and extravagant. I can imagine what the room would have looked like when it was still new, bedecked in the finest furniture and linens and dripping with opulence at every turn.

It is hard to believe that subsequent owners (including the Duchess) covered up these paintings to suit more “modern” styles.
It was the parable room that saved the house. Chipping through the panelling that had been applied during Duchess Anne’s time, workers discovered the story of the Good Samaritan sweeping around the walls.

Looking at the image of a man being attacked, I marvelled at the violence of it and wondered how much more startling it would have been before the colours were faded by time.
To round out the visit to the house the “Duchess” herself was on hand to tell the story of her life, from being thrust into a position of vast responsibility at the tender age of 19, to bearing 13 children and going on to live to the ripe old age of 85.
It was a gorgeous day and as the actress told the story of the Duchess, the air around us swelled with the sound of birdsong. Afterwards there was the massive estate still left to explore, from the green glen of Gil Burn where James Watt once lived in a cottage while he worked on his steam engine experiments, to wide green fields that no longer bear any trace of the original village of Kinneil.
Only part of the Kinneil Church remains, while the original bell is housed in the Kinneil Museum.

I never get used to the site of graveyards like this, so long forgotten. The heavy stones were once laid down as a sign of the eternal, but now they look fragile, grass and flowers breaking through the cracks as the earth slowly swallows the last remnants of memory.
Not far away is the excavated site of a Roman fortlet and the fading remains of the famous Antonine Wall, built in 140 AD. That date seems such a simple thing to say, but when I was planning my visit I had only thought about the house and had no idea of the vast layers of history that drape over this landscape.
Despite spending the better part of an afternoon at Kinneil, I left feeling overwhelmed due to being unprepared for the sheer amount of information available about the area. I wanted to know everything, but I didn’t know where to start.

The only negative sensual influence of the day was the inconsiderate way some of the Historic Scotland staff parked their cars right in front of the house they were supposed to be showcasing, essentially ruining wide angle shots for eager tourists who had travelled to see the Estate. If you are a tourism provider, this is common sense. Think of what the customer wants to see and don’t get in the way!
That said, I would highly recommend a visit to Kinneil Estate, which unlike the house is always open and also features great walking trails and countryside views. Add it to the long list of places I want to visit again.

**wee update** I have received some great correspondence from Historic Scotland who understood my photo-geek disppointment regarding the cars. I appreciate the gracious nature in which they took feedback and their desire to always be improving the visitor experience. Many thanks to Historic Scotland and the volunteers of Kinneil House for a great day. :)

24 Apr 2010

Two short sensual tips

With no time for a longer post today, I am going to indulge in two short updates.

First, for those who live outside the UK, there is a VisitScotland giveaway not to be missed. They have teamed up with Continental Airlines and are hosting a fabulous "win a Scottish Festival" dream trip to Scotland in August, including roundtrip flights and four nights accomodation. If you haven't entered already you can do so at this site. Deadline is May 17.

Next, a wee tip for chocolate lovers. If you are travelling through Linlithgow in West Lothian, stop in at the chocolate shop on the high street and ask for a Mary Stewart chocolate.

It is a lucious raspberry velvet cream covered in milk chocolate, moulded in the shape of a crown. Named after Mary, Queen of Scots, who was born in Linlithgow Palace, it has been dubbed "Linlithgow's Chocolate" and is the perfect small treat to enjoy while sitting next to the palace and looking out at the rolling green peel that leads down to the loch.

23 Apr 2010

Paisley's gothic wonder

Sometimes I come across a building that doesn’t seem to suit its name. A perfect example is the Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Often called the Baptist Cathedral of Europe, the church was opened in 1894 following its commission by Mr. Coats’ widow and children.

Mr. Coats, a businessman and much-loved member of the Paisley community, was so devoted to helping local societies and charities that when he died in 1883, 2000 people attended the public funeral.

Obviously, Thomas Coats was a wonderful man who deserves to be remembered for his outstanding contributions to society.

But the magic of this extravagant building lies with its architect, Hippolyte Blanc. That is the name that feels like it could be draped in red silk over the crown spire.
Known for his gothic revival style, Blanc’s work includes the Christ Church Episcopal and the Mayfield Free Church in Edinburgh, and the Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian, a psychiatric hospital that opened in the early 1900s and closed in 2004. In 2005 Bangour was used as a film set for the The Jacket staring Adrien Brody.

The Coats Memorial wasn’t open when I was there, so I walked around it in the slow falling rain, trying to take in the details of the spires and the eerily comic gargoyles that clamour above the front entrance.

Then there were the dragons, carved from the same warm stone as the church itself. I love these dragons - so small but somehow barely contained, like they could unfurl and spring to life at any time.

My favourites are those who are in the process of devouring their own wildly ornate tails.
This church has the kind of atmosphere that causes artists and film makers to go weak with longing. It is a ready-made platform for romantic, grotesque and grandiose stories.

This is why my mind wants to rename it after a woman. Church of our Lady Branwyn or something else that feels like it has been hauled from the sultry mire of the Scottish moors.

There are so many reasons to go back to Paisley for another visit, but high on my list is a chance to walk through the doors and into the deep belly of this stunning building.

Thank you, Hippolyte Blanc.

21 Apr 2010

Traquair Ales: A taste of history

One of the best things about eating and drinking in Scotland is how easy it is to stack pleasure onto a sensual experience by adding the often remarkable history behind it.

So in the spirit of layered pleasure, humour me and imagine you are drinking a beer. Not just a beer but an ale - dark with a cream coloured head. Still holding onto your glass, transport yourself back to the 1700s.

You are a worker on an estate that dates back to 1107, and the beverage you are holding, made using the fresh spring water that flows nearby, makes up a substantial part of your earnings.

Then in the 1800s, stand in the brewery as it falls silent. Dust gathers around all of the brewing equipment, including the massive oak vessels used to ferment the beer.

One hundred and fifty years go past, and the new owner of the estate is digging through the disused brewery, uncovering the oak tuns. He thinks about the fresh spring water that still flows through the property and an idea strikes like a match in his mind. Soon the ale is flowing again.

Fast forward to today. You are looking through a window into a small room where those same four unlined oaks vessels are still doing their job after all these years.
They are so precious that when they are not being used for brewing, they are kept wet with steam hoses. They are never allowed to dry out, because the wood would crack and warp, and if they are lost they cannot be replaced. The species of tree from which they were made - the memel oak- is no longer available.

Take another sip from that glass in your hand and try to tell me it’s just another beer.

Traquair Brewery will never be big. They will never take the world by storm and flood the market with rich, uniquely Scottish ale. Because if they took the leap into mass production they would have to change to the modern lined oak casks. This means the flavour would change. The brewery would change. And they have no intention of changing.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the brewery and sample all four of their bottled ales(their Stuart Ale is only available on tap from a handful of pubs around Scotland). 

I rarely drink alcohol and by no means do I possess the confidence to cover my opinions in gold leaf and call it Truth, but I will say this about these ales: they made my mouth very happy.

All the Traquair ales are considered winter ales because they are heavy and dark, with the Bear Ale being the palest option of the lot.

The Traquair House Ale, the variety that put the brewery back in business in the 1960s, is their most popular and widely available. Gus, The brewery’s shop manager, recommends balancing the fruity warmth of the house ale with an acidic cheese like an aged cheddar.

The Bear Ale was my least favourite, perhaps because the sting of the bitterness reminded me of what I dislike about lager. Overall I preferred the smooth flavours of the dark ales.

The most powerful flavour comes from the brewery’s newest offering, the Laird’s Liquor. Sip this to feel a little cloud of liquorice lingering on your palate.

My favourite was the Jacobite Ale, which pours like liquid midnight thanks to the darkly toasted malt. It is round and full and leaves a spicy tickle in the throat, due to the added twist of coriander. Gus recommends a curry with this one -anything with chillies.

It is best to drink these ales at room temperature, and by room temperature that doesn’t mean our often overly warm modern homes. Think of the cool comfort of a stone cottage in late spring and aim for that.

If you aren’t in Scotland and are salivating to try some of these ales, Traquair is available from some specialty shops around the UK, and does export to some parts of the USA, Canada and a few countries in Europe. If you are in the USA your best option is to check in with merchantduvin see if it is available in your state.

I have a full list of retailers and importers so if anyone wants to check whether Traquair ales are available in a specific area or country, email me or leave a comment.

When people think of Scotland they often think of whisky, and after this experience I wonder if these crafted Scottish ales aren’t getting unfairly left in the corner. My visit to Traquair was my first foray into Scottish ales and I hope to visit many more breweries in the future.

All that remains is to thank the folks at Traquair House for the use of the photos (only the highly unprofessional one below is mine). I didn’t think to take photos when I was sampling the ales at the shop. Then I forgot my camera at a follow-up tasting session with my slow food group later in the week. Nevermind.

Now then, hold out your glasses and I’ll pour.

The winner is...

My cold has woken me up early (sniff) so I've popped the last minute names into the hat, given the whole thing a swirl and voila! We have a winner.

The person who will be subjected to being my reading partner is Susan, an avid reader who is intrigued by the story of one of her ancestors from the 1800s who had 12 -count them - 12 children.

I only have the one copy to give away, but if anyone else has a copy of Magnus Magnusson's book and would like to email conversation as we commence this epic 700-page journey, the more the merrier.

Congratulations, Susan! Please email me your address and I shall post this tomb of history directly to your door. Thanks to everyone for joining in.

16 Apr 2010

Love Scottish history? Then you will love this giveaway.

“For three billion years Scotland was on a collision course with England.”

This is how Magnus Magnusson begins the first chapter in his book Scotland: Story of a Nation, a non-fiction whopper that outlines Scotland’s past from pre-historic times right up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1997.

I have had a copy of this book for about three years. Over and over I pick it up with great intentions to plough through to the end, picking up story ideas as I go. However like many good intentions in my life, some other shiny thing inevitably comes along and then I’m on to something else.

For weeks I have been struggling with what to do for a giveaway this month. This month marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and it is my own birthday in a couple of weeks so I wanted it to be special. I thought about re-doing the tablet feast, but changed my mind. I also skimmed through Cds, books and DVDs. Nothing seemed to fit.

But I thought: It’s my birthday. What do I want?

Then it came to me: what I want is a reading partner who will read this book with me. Someone who will open to page one at the same time as me and help keep me motivated until the end.

I make it sound like this book will be one of those dry, historic timeline slogs that we remember from our school days. It is nothing like that. Each chapter begins with a quote from Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather, another book that is on my lengthy “to read” list.

Magnusson himself was (sadly he passed away in 2007) a wonderful storyteller, able to take historical events and bring them to life. He added character to historical figures without straying from the known facts that bind them within Scotland’s past.

Yes, there are many other books on Scotland’s history, including Michael Lynch’s popular Scotland: A New History, and the new History of Scotland from BBC presenter Neil Oliver. However I am unable to move on to other works until I finish this bountiful offering.

So, what do you think? Any takers? Keep in mind that for all its wonders, it is a hefty read at nearly 700 pages.
The rules for this giveaway:

-You must love to read
-You must be interested in history and Scottish history in particular
-You must be prepared to be my reading partner, emailing back an fourth occasionally to swap feedback about the book and encouragement if one of us (probably me) is lagging behind.
-I would like your permission to post your reactions/thoughts about the book on this blog.

Now that you know the rules here’s how to enter:

To put you hand up to win this book, please leave a comment about your favourite story or character in Scottish history, being sure that your comment links back to your blog. You can also enter by emailing me at scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com and including “Magnus Magnusson rocks my world” in the subject line.

I’m away until Tuesday, although not to Paris because the lovely volcanic ash cloud has seen to it that my holiday with my friend is cancelled. My beloved has offered to be my holiday partner instead, although we don’t have any plans yet.

The deadline to get your name in the hat will be Tuesday 20 April. I will draw the name on Wednesday and post the name of the winner.

Thank you, good people of clan blog.

*This giveaway has now finished. Congratulations Susan, who is the lucky winner of the book**

14 Apr 2010

Leading you by the nose to Traquair

There is something important you need to remember when you visit Traquair House. It is this:

You can reset your nose by sniffing your skin.

I only learned this fact yesterday. Had I known it before stepping over the threshold of Britain’s oldest continuously occupied house, it would have saved me from wandering in and out of the rooms like an addict looking for another hit.

It is widely known that Traquair was used as a hunting lodge for kings and queens, and later as a safe haven for Catholic priests during the days of the Jacobite uprising.

The house is also recognized as a valuable piece of Scottish history, for its collections of artefacts and in the way the Traquair Brewery has sought to revive the traditional ale making techniques that were used there in the 1600s.
What is not widely known is that Traquair House smells amazing. Indeed, it is the best smelling house I have ever visited.

Every room seems to tell the nose a different story, from the cool stone scent that wraps around you when you enter the long hall to the vaulted cellars, to the stewed incense-like aroma of oil paint, wooden beams, and the ghosts of fires that once burned in the grate, which hovers in the high drawing room in the same way dust appears to be trapped in sunbeams.

Also, whoever among the staff thought to put the enormous vase of lilies in the lower drawing room that is attached to the dining room, ought to be given a raise.
The entrance for these rooms is off the courtyard at ground level. Imagine the transference of fragrance stepping from outside, where the sun is warming the stones and the spring flowers and grass are pushing sweetness into the air, and into these slightly cooler rooms, which are blooming with the collective smell of oil paint, wood polish, and the syrupy whiff of aging fabrics. Overtop of all of this, float the siren song of lilies. It was, in a word, divine.
I had to walk out, take a turn around the courtyard and go back in again, just so I could feel my body go slightly limp with the pleasure of it.

If I had known about resetting my nose I would have simply sniffed my arm occasionally and stayed in the room for half an hour, despite the fact that the poor girl acting as the room’s guide would have thought I was a loony. Even loonies must have their pleasures, thank you.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside house but the folks at Traquair have forwarded me some images. There is just one I want to share, of the main library.
From this photo I think all book lovers can imagine what it smells like. Sweet old leather and the dust that has still managed to creep between the tightly pressed pages. I can’t be the only one with a desire to open a few of them up and let their aromatic secrets fill the room.

Several of the rooms include recordings made by the current owner. In a gentle voice perfect for storytelling, the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stuart, takes visitors through the history of the items and interesting anecdotes from her family’s past.
My favourite stories include a visit from Mary Queen of Scots with her infant son, who would become King James IV. The cradle where he slept is at the foot of the bed in what is known as The King’s Room.

The other story that grips me is about the secret stairway used by Catholic priests and Jacobite refugees, prior to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The false backing of the cupboard has been opened to reveal the steep stairs behind, making it easy to imagine someone trying to silently sneak away while his room was being searched.

The one room that I expected to hold a heavy scent of history was the Catholic chapel, however it was as if those aromas had been scrubbed away. I later learned that this is because the chapel is above the brewery. The incredible beer that they brew here will be getting its own post.

It was too late in the day to get a decent photo of the huge maze at the back of the house, so I will introduce you to the resident goat instead. Everyone, this is George. George - everyone.
One last thing about the house. These are the Bear Gates, which have been shut since 1744, when the fifth earl of Traquair closed them following a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Earl swore they would not be reopened until a Stuart king took the British throne. The grass has grown over the gate near the bottom, and everyone visiting the house continues to use the “temporary” access.
This house is magnificent. It is only open during the summer season, starting from Easter. During the off season it is still lived in by Lady Catherine and her family.

We will be sampling Traquair Ale in a forthcoming post. And if you don’t fancy a visit to this house already, I promise it will make you change your mind.

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