Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stirling Castle . . .

Just an hour's bus ride from Edinburgh, so we went for the day, a long day, past flat green fields, rolling hills, then up to Stirling proper, right up the hill to the Castle. The views from the top shimmered in autumn haze, as we wallowed in history, plugged in the audio guides and gave ourselves over to the stories of James IV, V and ever after. Historic Scotland has made immense progress in restoring Stirling Castle, its gardens, ramparts, castle walls and gates, the architecture itself (embellished with sculptures everywhere) a delight, shaped by medieval to Renaissance artistic tastes.

What drew me most, though, were the tapestries. When we visited the Cluny Museum in Paris (again for tapestries), the very famous Lady and the Unicorn series feature a lion and a unicorn on each side of each tapestry, yet little is said about them. They appear almost as if they were heraldic, for the lion and the unicorn appear on the royal coat of arms for the United Kingdom, in much the same pose as on these 16th Century tapestries. Yet the interpretation focuses on classical or religious symbolism, rather than political.
Here at Stirling Castle, the Great Hall, built in 1504, features facing lions and unicorns on the rooftop. Also here at the castle, we watched a team of weavers (with help from the Metropolitan Museum in New York) work on re-creating six tapestries celebrating the Hunt of the Unicorn. Four of the six have been completed and hang in the Chapel Royal. Their purpose: to refurbish the interior of the main palace, bringing it back to 16th Century splendor, when tapestries hung on every wall. These tapestries are exquisite, exact replicas with mille-fleur (thousand flower) backgrounds.

Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, Stirling Castle, Scotland

Of course, I would like some sort of romantic story behind the union of the lion and the unicorn, for example, James V in his pursuit and subsequent marriage to Madelaine of France, who tragically died of tuberculosis, his subsequent marriage to Marie de Guise. But the reality is more likely political, and the dates don't match . . . and the history is far grittier. Yet the mystery remains behind the tapestries, both sets.

It was a beautiful day, despite tired feet at the end of our walking tour. Here's a picture of Allen on the northern castle wall. Click on any picture to go to Webshots for a few more pictures of Stirling.
Allen on North Wall, Stirling Castle

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Scotland's creature comforts . . .

As we wind down the last week here in Edinburgh, I wanted to talk a little about some Scottish comforts -- those little surprises that challenge and delight. I'll start with the kitchen. I think the Scots are way ahead of us in conserving energy, for each outlet has its own on/off button. Beware the maker of tea who does not recognize the switch is turned off!

I did bake a pizza in the oven. Once. The symbols (no words, no numbers) look something like a fan, a shower and a death ray. Our poor little pizza had the combo fan and death ray. And good for the emergency eject button on the toaster, for after four weeks, I've still not been able to adjust the side panel for proper "brownness". I have mastered the art of catching toast and scones mid-air. Our kitchen looks out over a courtyard. Two trees full in autumn bloom have progressed from bright yellow to red and brown. As I cook, I can watch city pigeons draft on the wind.

We have sturdy doors for each room, holding the heat within and individual radiators, turned low, that automatically come on (or not) in each room. In the living room, we can watch the artificial glow of the wall fireplace (and heater if we master the remote). At night, we snuggle underneath a duvet, no double sheets as in the States. It's so easy to make the bed. Simply waft the comforter in the air and it falls into place. Bright colors, easy to change.

Have I saved the best for last? The bathroom. You may use two levels of flushes by pressing a dual button on the toilet. The greatest luxury has been the heated towel rack, looking rather like a shiny chrome waterfall. This heats the towel deliciously,and these racks are common throughout Scotland. 'Tis true. The water pressure does vary, but we have a bathtub for luxurious soaking of tired feet. And we are in a third floor apartment, up three big flights (no elevator), but the stairs circle around in a graceful arc. I almost can make it up the stairs now without huffing and puffing.

Today we walked down the hill, across the mound and through the edge of New Town, over to the Dean Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The first room we entered had us spellbound, dedicated as it was to Dada and Surrealism. My favorites, Cecil Collins and Jawlensky. On the way home we were treated to this sunset, looking back at the Scott Monument. Click on the image to go to webshots for other pics of Edinburgh. And may all your days end with beautiful sunsets. . .

Scott Monument

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wandering down the Royal Mile . . .

Sing to me of raspberry, little pots of fresh raspberry and cream, two light scones fresh from the oven, and tea. We sat in Clarinda's this afternoon, surrounded by fine china, lace tablecloths, tiny bouquets of dried roses and heather at each table. We were wearied from walking along cobbled streets in Auld Reekie, a nickname for Edinburgh, no longer so sooty, a medieval city well guarded by provosts and burghers, well preserved for tourists, like we two, sitting for a moment, hidden gardens in closes nearby, leaves turning now to red and gold.

Today we visited the Museum of Edinburgh, housed in Huntly House, several interconnected merchants' houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, just on the Royal Mile.

I was taken by this stone panel once over the gate to Leith a port near Edinburgh. Carved in 1678, the panel shows wine being unloaded from a sailing vessel. Here in true medieval fashion, more than one event is shown at the same time. The ship is docked in the lower left; you can see a man folding the sails. Two wine porters (called stingmen) carry casks in the upper left. On the upper right of the panel, a young boy powers a crane using a sort of treadmill, helped by a man.

Everywhere we study the history, I can see how the Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland, but I also see how many suffered until governments acted to protect workers. In fact labor laws protecting children were the first to be passed. And I learned today that tea was decried as an unnecessary luxury for the lower classes, as it was more healthful (and cheaper) for them to stick to breakfasts of oatmeal porridge and milk.

Then, before we stopped for tea, we visited at The Scottish Poetry Library, tucked off the Royal Mile (turn right at the sign of the mermaid, another Starbucks). We sat quiet for a time at a small round table. Allen read Robbie Burns' “Holy Willie's Prayer” and me, I read poems from Gordon Mason's Catapult to Mars. Another lovely day.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

At the end of the day sometimes it hard to recognize how quickly the time passed by. And what did we do with these precious hours? Yesterday we walked for hours in the Royal Botanic Garden here in Edinburgh and we came away feeling somehow nurtured by this series of gardens, ten greenhouses (called glass houses here), one begun in 1670. I think their claim to fame is having the largest "glass house" in Britain, filled with towering palms.

For me, it was enough to simply walk through one humid zone after another, discovering a beautiful purple and yellow water lily, nearly stepping on a frog, or admiring the sway of Spanish moss, and, of course, the ferns. My pics are updated at Webshots, if you like.


Today we went to the National Museum of Scotland and managed somehow to complete another floor, balancing the camera with those silly audio wands. Yet even here I'm finding mermaids. It turns out that mermaids are one of several mythical creatures revered by the Picts and show up on various Scottish crests, namely that of the MacLarens.

We also saw The Maiden (a guillotine), grisly thumbscrews, Pictish crosses, and a few pieces from the lovely carved Lewis chessmen from the 12th Century.

Notice the richly detailed carved backs as well. The king and queen seem rather grim,though some have called their expressions comic.

If I were to give directions to our apartment here in Edinburgh, I would say walk down the Royal Mile, head in the direction of Holyrood Palace, and turn right at the sign of the mermaid. Ha, fooled you. There's a Starbucks on the corner.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Arthurs Seat

Yesterday we hiked over an hour to the top of Arthurs Seat, once a volcano, now a small park just by Holyrood Palace. My favorite part was the climb up steep rock stairs past Salisbury Craigs. We saved the steeper path for next time, built in 1820 by so-called radicals, but in reality, unemployed weavers.

At each step another vista opened up, till we reached the very top, 823 feet above sea level. We could see the mountains and the Great Glen in the distance, and the width of the Forth of Firth next to the city. It was a clear day, beautiful. Crows drafted around us ing in the wind at the heights. On the way down, we found the ruin of St. Anthony's chapel, a single stone wall, saw the wildness of the grassy moors. This morning I'm trashed and slow to get to work. But it was beautiful.
St Anthonys Chapel

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Holyrood Palace and Shackleton . . .

Yesterday we hiked down High Street to Holyrood Palace, and like good tourists, were awed everywhere by the history and beauty of this still active royal retreat. The history is a bit gruesome, Mary, Queen of Scotts, saw her dear attendant, Rizzio, hauled away and murdered (with over 50 knife thrusts) by her husband, Lord Darnley. The interpretation varies from personal to political, depending on the source. But Darnley comes off as someone who provoked arguments and used politics to bolster the Protestant cause against Catholic Mary. Her rooms faced the open courtyard and at the back, we could see the stone staircase where Darnley and his crew rushed in.

The furnishings throughout were historically a mix, some accurate to the 17th Century, and some refurbished as this is the Queen's current retreat when she comes to Scotland. We both tred gently on the uneven stone stairs. In the tenements, these very uneven stairs were made purposefully, so that intruders would stumble, A kind of built-in burglar alarm.

But most beautiful was the Abbey, started sometime in the late 12th Century, its roof long gone, but its Romanesque and Gothic arches still inspirational, to the Romantics in the 18th Century and to us today.

Then back down to the Queen's Gallery for a current exhibit, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography. We felt lucky to see this as the exhibit just opened October 2, featuring photographs by Herbert Ponting of the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole, with photographs from Frank Hurley taken during Ernest Shackleton's later expedition. All of Scott's men were lost; none of Shackleton's men died.

Ponting has the artist's eye; Hurley is more workmanlike, but his photographs did justice to those heroic men who suffered cold so severe their teeth shattered. We were unable to take photographs but the images remain. The picture at the right is by Herbert Ponting, taken from an ice cave and looking out at their ship later encased fully in ice and crushed, the Terra Nova, taken between 1910-1913.

Source Wikipedia (Commons). An excellent book of this exhibit, The Heart of the Great Alone, will be available from Amazon after October 27.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

1909 to 2009, 100 years of women's suffrage . . .

Today's photo shows the beginning of a celebration in honor of women's suffrage in Edinburgh. Hundreds of women (and their supporters) in turn of the century costume marched this afternoon through Old Town Edinburgh, many wearing purple, and many carrying banners and placards, beginning with: "A gude cause makes a strong arm."

Even the statue of staid Scottish philospher David Hume wore a purple scarf in honor of the day.
What an outpouring of people marching down High Street, drum bands and accordian bands intermingled with a good thirty minutes of groups passing by. What a spectacle. What an achievement, to bring the vote to women. My favorite: "Remember your ancestors worked for you. Vote!"

Thursday, October 08, 2009

About sea unicorns . . .

We're exploring the Royal Mile these days, walking down from Edinburgh Castle,all two blocks down to St. Giles Cathedral, a stunning Episcopal Church, once Catholic, transformed to a Presbyterian church under the leadership of John Knox in the 16th Century. Our docent told us that Knox had the stained glass windows removed, replacing them with plain glass. By the 19th and 20th Century, these stained glass windows have been replaced and dazzle the eye in every direction. Wikipedia has excellent pictures of the inside of this cathedral.

What took my eye? This small, maybe two feet wooden carved square, kind of a crest, propped up against a side stone wall, flanked by two unicorns with curious fish-tails, creatures I've never seen anywhere before. The docent on duty identified the crest as a traders' or burghers' crest. She told us that the city on the right of the shield was Edinburgh, and the ship at the base of the shield sailed under the flags of Scotland. We also identified weights and measures (another indicator of a merchant crest), and Allen read the Latin as "by land and by sea". Note: You can click on the picture for a larger image.

I couldn't wait to get home to the computer to try to find out more about this crest that had a Latin quote and the date 1681. Check out this link to the Merchant Company of Edinburgh for a list of what each part of this coat of arms means. Those creatures are sea unicorns. Interestingly, the internet search turned up a real sea creature, the tusked shark, the Narwhal, which reminds me of an excellent book, The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. Pam, that's another one for your book club.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

We're back . . .

It's early morning, Broadband is up and running, and that means we're back online -- SKYPE works, I can upload pictures once again, and access e-mail easily! Trust me, T-mobile is ina drawer. Ah, but now it's time to work, so here's a quick view out my window of the Writer's Museum, just across the courtyard here. We're looking at a building from 1622. Allen's taken over travel planning again (Thank G--), yesterday we walked through Edinburgh Castle again and spent several hours in the library. All is well. PS He likes Haggis.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Internet . . . Argh!

We're happily in Edinburgh, but the last week I've been fighting with Internet access issues and T-mobile. Suffice it to say I'm now the owner of a T-mobile "dongle" (something like a thumb drive that lets me access internet, derivation of the term unknown). But, using the dongle is a little like using dial-up once you're used to broadband, and the silly thing only works in the morning and afternoon. I can't upload pictures and I can't use SKYPE. Sorry for the rant. But at least T-mobile recognizes that I'm over 18 now, so I can edit my blog. And we should have a better internet connection after October 12, when we switch to another apartment here in Edinburgh.

Suffice it to say that Edinburgh is beautiful. These old buildings are amazing. Right now, our 4th floor apartment looks over a close (an enclosed courtyard), with buildings dating from 1622, complete with turrets and towers. We step out of our door, and protected by stone griffins, out onto Lawnmarket Street into the heart of Old Town, near Edinburgh Castle, the streets lined with stone buildings from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Maybe only book lovers would appreciate this: We are two blocks from two major libraries. Scotland is a most generous country. We have been given library cards in each city, including Edinburgh, and the research material for my writing project is excellent. Right now I'm reading W. J. Reader's Life in Victorian England.

Yesterday we hiked over to Newtown (about a mile away) and spent 3 hours exploring the National Trust of Scotland's restored Georgian House (18th Century), four floors. A family of 4 lived here in absolute luxury, supported by 8-10 servants.

For the first time I can literally see the distinction of class in this beautifully restored house, the upper class cossetted, with every luxury, art, books, lots of food and drink, spacious living in light-filled rooms, exquisite furniture; the servants crammed in the basement, some sleeping on the flagstone floor, others 6 to a room, yet all grateful to have employment. No romanticism here. If I believed in previous lives, I would most likely be living in the basement. No wonder the middle class in the 18th and 19th Centuries believed so strongly in self-improvement, while the upper classes had a laisse-faire view, let it be attitude.

For some pics of the Georgian House, go here:

It's early here, morning, time to go to work. May your day go well!