Blackness Castle is a rather grim, long and narrow castle. It stands at the tip of a small promontory on the south bank of the estuary of the River Forth. It protects the upper reaches of the Forth and the small port of Blackness, once the harbour for Linlithgow Palace, which is just over four miles inland. From some aspects the castle looks like a ship, and is sometimes referred to as the ship never sailed.
Blackness castle was built in the 1440s by Sir George Crichton, and was extended in subsequent centuries. At the time the Crichtons were a very powerful family, and close to King James II. When King James was a ten year old boy Crichton was the de facto ruler of Scotland. He organised the famous black dinner at Edinburgh Castle, when the 6th Earl of Douglas and his young brother were executed.
The Crichtons rose in royal esteem and patronage, but in due course their influence receded and the fickle King James II became increasingly demanding, and compelled the elderly and ailing George Crichton to assign his assets, including Blackness, to him. George’s son James naturally felt aggrieved and seized the castle, but after a two week siege and bombardment was compelled to surrender it to the king. Blackness became a royal castle, and was a major defensive site for the Forth Estuary.
The main entrance to the castle was originally on the east side, but in the 1530s King James V commissioned a major programme of work to improve the defences and the a defensive spur was built on the west side of the castle, which incorporated a new gate.
Blackness has “starred” in film and screen. It appeared as Fort William in Outlander, and is where the famous flogging scene of Jamie by Black Jack Randall took place.
It stood in for the Palace of Holyrood in the 2018 version of Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan as Mary. A strange choice, as it looks nothing like Holyrood, but then there were many inaccuracies in what I felt was a rather mediocre film.
I am pleased to announce the publication of may new book.
The great castles are a tangible link to the past, and have a story to tell. This book describes Historic Scotland’s five most visited lowland castles, Edinburgh, Stirling, Doune, St Andrews and Linlithgow. As well as providing an armchair tour of the castles the book describes their place in Scotland’s often turbulent and sometimes heroic history.
If you are considering visiting these great castles, or are just interested in Scotland’s history, this book has been written for you.
This is the third and final post relating to my one day visit to Orkney. There was just so much to see.
Next to St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, is the Earl’s Palace, now looked after by Historic Scotland. This is a large complex. The original building on the site was the Bishop’s Palace, some of which was built in the 12th century at the same time as the cathedral. The Bishop’s Palace seems to have fallen into disrepair for a time as the islands suffered famine and plague, but then been repaired and extended in the mid 16th century, when the islands were under Scottish control, and even received a visit from James V.
But the outstanding feature of the complex is the Earl’s Palace. This was added to the site in the first decade of the 17th century by Earl Patrick Stewart, or rather by forced labour working on the instructions of Stewart. Patrick Stewart’s father Robert was an illegitimate son of James V, and so was a half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots. The Stewarts were hated by the populace. They taxed the ordinary people excessively and used them as forced labour to build their palace and castles on the islands. But they overreached themselves, and in 1615 Patrick Stewart was arrested. His son tried to ferment a revolt against the crown. In the end the revolt was put down and father and son were executed in Edinburgh.
But the palace they built in Kirkwall was one of the best pieces of renaissance architecture in Scotland. With its corner turrets and oriel windows, it is a world away from the austere, defensive tower house that was the usual building design for noble’s houses only a few decades before. But it was built by heavily taxing the population and using their forced labour. Today it is ruined, but the magnificence of the building in its heyday is still obvious. The Earl’s Palace was a statement of comfort, beauty and status, built for the corrupt Stewart earls.
The Orkneys and Shetland, and the Earl’s Palace have a connection with the Douglas clan (my clan). In 1643 William Douglas, the 7th Earl of Morton, was granted the “regalities” (that is the rights and privileges due to the king) in Orkney and Zetland, as Shetland was known, by King Charles I. Morton was one of the King’s strongest supporters. He had sold his Dalkeith estate so he could advance £100,000, a massive sum at the time, to the king at the outbreak of the War of the Three Kingdoms (also known as the English Civil War). When Charles lost the war Morton retired to Kirkwall and died there in 1648 of natural causes. His son died the next year, and the 9th Earl inherited.
In 1652 Orkney was garrisoned by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops. They used the adjoining St Magnus Cathedral as a stables and the palace as a barracks.
But the palace fell into disuse. By 1705 it was a roofless ruin. But the magnificence of the building in its heyday is still obvious.
How Could we Have Made Better Use of Our Time on Orkney?
This is my third post describing what we saw in our one day on Orkney. Based on our experience the best way for a history nerd to make the best use of a day on Orkney would have been to hire a car. This is what we did on an earlier visit in 2015. Particularly if there are two or more in your party it will be cheaper than tours organised by your cruise liner, as well as giving you the freedom to take in a range of sites. Basically you could follow a circular route west of Kirkwall, taking in Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Gurness Broch complex, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness. That would be a full day as is. If time had allowed on returning to Kirkwall you could visit St Magnus Cathedral, the Earl’s Palace and the excellent museum opposite the cathedral.
However, rather than taking the above advice, arrange to stay in the Orkneys for a week! There is just so much history to see on the main island and other islands in the group. Even a week isn’t enough – make it a fortnight.
Then back to Kirkwall the islands’ capital, and a visit to St Magnus Cathedral.
The building of St Magnus Cathedral was started by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus. The Orkneyinga Saga tells the story of St Magnus.
The Saga reports that Magnus was a gentle and godly man, who was granted part of Orkney to rule, the rest being ruled by his cousin Hakon. They ruled together from 1105 to 1114, but after a time bad blood arose between the Hakon and the Magnus faction. War seemed inevitable. Hakon and Magnus agreed to meet on the Orkney island of Egilsay, ostensibly to negotiate a peace. Magnus brought two ships as agreed, but Hakon brought a small army and had the saintly Magnus executed. This at least avoided war.
Construction began on the cathedral in 1137, and the building was changed and enlarged over the next 300 years. Some of the masons involved in the original building are believed to have been responsible for the building of Durham Cathedral. The cathedral, in red sandstone with some embellishments in yellow sandstone, dominates Kirkwall.
Inside the cathedral is the tomb of John Rae. Rae should be better known. Rae was an Orkney man and a surgeon, who explored parts of northern Canada, and found the final portion of the Northwest Passage, named after him as Rae Straight. But it was to be one of his other discoveries that was to ensure that he was to remain in relative obscurity.
In 1849 the Franklin expedition, an expedition of 129 men under Sir John Franklin, had disappeared while trying to travel from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. Rae was involved in several attempts to find the Franklin expedition, or what had happened to them. In spite of the efforts of a number of search parties nothing had been discovered until Rae met some Inuit with various trinkets from the expedition, who told of Europeans resorting to cannibalism and dying of starvation and cold. I suspect that they had eaten people who had predeceased them, rather than murdering comrades to devour, but in reality we shall never know.
Discovering that a group of British heroes had resorted to cannibalism was not the way to endear yourself to the British ruling class – it rather undermined their image of British superiority. Therefore the ruling class, led on my Franklin’s widow, did what they could to write Rae out of history. So he did not get the recognition and honours he deserved for all his work in northern Canada, but he is still remembered in Orkney.
Opposite the cathedral is an excellent museum – I thoroughly recommend a visit.
This was to be one of the highlight of the holidays. Unfortunately the weather did not appreciate how much I was looking forward to the day. This was my third visit to Orkney, and on each occasion the weather has been bad – I have been unlucky.
The Orkney archipelago starts only 5 miles north of the Scottish mainland, but until 1483 was controlled by Norway. And so until the 17th century in Orkney and Shetland a variant of Old Norwegian, Norn, was widely spoken. Today modern Faroese is the most similar language. Norn died out from the 15th century onwards as more Scots moved to the islands, Scotland took increasing control, and the locals saw the benefit of speaking the language of the dominant society. But some residual knowledge of Norn survives in language academics, gleaned in the 19th century or from a few documented poems.
Orkney is a honeypot for history nerds. Historic Scotland (HS) has details of three hundred and eight sites in Scotland in its guidebook. Thirty-five of these are in the Orkneys, a concentration totally disproportionate to the small size of the islands. The Orkneys only consists of about 1.25% off the area of Scotland, but it has over 11% of Historic Scotland’s sites.
I suspect there are three reasons for the survival of so much history. Firstly the islands are practically treeless, but local sandstone is plentiful. The sandstone is easily broken along the grain when first quarried, but in time the surface oxidises and hardens. Therefore building was in stone rather than wood or turf, and therefore much more likely to survive than a wooden building.
Secondly, the islands seem to have been something of a religious centre. Archeologists are still investigating, but the islands seem to have been a magnet for religious worship. Why this occurred on this archipelago of islands we just don’t understand.
And finally we now think of the islands as remote, but in the past this was not so. Much of Scotland was densely forested. The rivers were untamed and not channeled, so the land was very boggy. So sea travel was the way to go. In the last millennium Orkney and Shetland were therefore on major trading and transport routes, particularly between Norway and the west of the U.K. and Ireland, and between Norway, the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. The Orkneys were also on the sea route between east and west Scotland. So the islands were a service station on a major transport artery.
Our ship docked outside the main port, Kirkwall. We were tendered off the ship to the pier, and took a shuttle bus from the pier to the bus station in the centre of Kirkwall. We then transferred to a local bus towards Stromness, the island’s second town, but alighted at the Maeshowe visitors’ centre. Maeshowe is a Neolithic burial mound. The Neolithic period (think stone age in common parlance) in Orkney ended about 1500 BC. In outward appearance Maeshowe is a large turf covered mound. The visitors’ centre runs a bus once an hour to the mound, and booking over the internet in busy periods is essential because of the small size of the central chamber in the mound.
The mound is entered via a narrow passage, about 7 metres (23ft) long and about 1 metre (3ft) high, to a central burial chamber. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the chamber. The burial objects are long since gone, removed by Norse tomb raiders if not earlier. The main chamber is almost 4 metres high, and could probably accommodate 25 people standing, a bit of a constraint for HS in busy periods. On three sides there are small chambers.
The internal chamber of Maeshowe has a large number of runic inscriptions scratched on the stone walls, and the HS guide interpreted some of these for us. Runes were a form of writing, based on an alphabet of angular letter, particularly suited to carving on stone or wood. Runes were used by Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet was adopted. None of the inscriptions in the tomb are works of literary merit – they are more the work of 12th century Norse graffiti artists. However what is surprising is the level of literacy amongst the 12th century Norse. A wide range of ordinary people had left messages, showing they could read and write.
After Maeshowe, we walked to the Stones of Stenness. This was a henge, with twelve standing stones, although only four still survive. The structure is around 5000 years old, and the stones rise to about 16ft (5 metres) above ground. It was cold and wet, and we were on foot, so rather than continuing to the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar, another more complete henge which I had visited before, we took the local bus from Maeshowe to Stromness and visited the museum there.
Between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar archeologists have discovered a major prehistoric site. Traces were identified in a geophysical survey in 2002, but archeological excavations only started in 2004 in what is likely be one of the foremost Neolithic sites in Britain. Again there just wasn’t time to look at this – mainland Orkney, the archipelago’s main island, requires a week as a minimum to do it justice, not just a day. And there are a number of other islands in the archipelago.
Stromness is a busy small port today, and in the 19th century was a stopping off point for Hudson Bay Company ships travelling from London to Canada. They often recruited Orcadians as crew or to work for them, and so the Orkneys made a major contribution to the development of Canada.
At five years old Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France for her own safety, as English armies ravaged Scotland. Mary returned to Scotland to rule as queen aged eighteen in a royal fleet, and left only seven years later, exhausted and terrified, in a small fishing boat.
“Mary Queen of Scots: a Brief History” is a great introduction to the life of the young queen of Scots, who lived through a momentous time in Scotland’s history.
“Exploring Mary’s Scotland” is an expanded version of “Mary Queen of Scots – a Brief History”. As well as providing a more detailed biography of Mary, “Exploring Mary’s Scotland” also describes the main palaces, castles and sites in Scotland Mary is associated with. Is is partly a Queen of Scots travelogue and can be followed when touring Scotland, or from an armchair anywhere.
Available from all Amazon sites in paperback and Kindle format. 29,000 words and 33 original colour photographs.
“Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” tells the story of the of the English/Scottish borderland from the time of the Romans, through the Scottish wars of independence, the turbulent 16th century and Henry VIII’s “rough wooing”, up until the reopening of part of the Waverley Line by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.
Published by Ian Douglas
Available from all Amazon sites in paperback and Kindle format.
Bert Martin was captured at the battle of Tobruk. He managed to acquire notebooks to start writing a diary. Bert and his comrades were moved from camp to camp in Italy and Germany as the Nazis retreated. They finally gained their freedom outside Dresden as the war neared its end, and made their way through the chaos of a disintegrating Germany to the Allied lines.
Bert’s diary, and interviews he gave to the Imperial War Museum, were compiled and edited by his daughter Hazel Spencer to document the real experiences of a PoW in World War 2.
The cruise was on Cruise and Maritime’s ship Marco Polo. Marco Polo is now about 54 years old, and originally built in the Bismarck yard in East Germany. It takes about 800 passengers and has a crew of 380. This cruise started from Cardiff, but throughout the year the cruise starts from different ports in the UK.
Our first stop was the Scilly Isles, an archipelago of small islands about 30 miles south-west of Land’s End in Cornwall. The Scilly archipelago consists of about 50 islands and numerous rocks. The islands amount to only about 6 square miles in total, and only five of them are inhabited. The total population of the archipelago is about 2200, although this is increased by many tourists in the summer.
We landed at St Mary’s, the largest and main island, by tender from our ship. Our first objective was to walk around the Garrison. The Garrison is a peninsular on St Mary’s island, and was extensively fortified over many centuries to defend against the Dutch, French or Spanish, all seen as enemies in the past. Much of the work we see today was done in the 18th century, to counter the French threat. By then artillery was widely used of course, and therefore fortifications were not built high as in medieval times, but were built low and capable of absorbing cannon fire.
I didn’t measure the distance round the Garrison but the peninsula’s circumference was probably approaching 1 mile, with a low defensive wall beside the coastal path for all that distance and a number of old gun batteries placed along the wall. Star Castle, originally a small artillery fort and now a hotel, is in the centre of the peninsula.
World War II pill boxes were added to some of the gun batteries to defend against the most recent military threat to the islands. In WW2 the islands were home to a squadron of Hurricanes, and also to several seaplanes whose role was to rescue aircrew shot down in the English Channel.
After our walk around the Garrison, we explored Hugh Town, the Scilly’s main town with about half the population of the archipelago. We then took a short walk to former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s grave in the old town of St Mary, about one kilometre away. Wilson was from Yorkshire, but used to holiday in Isles of Scilly. I remember Wilson’s time as Prime minister. He had two terms of office, from 1964 to 1970, and 1974 to 1976. Whatever you think of his premiership he did keep us out of the Vietnam War, and therefore was a great deal better than the incompetent Blair (sorry to let politics intrude in this blog).
Unfortunately our time in the island was very limited, and we had to get back to the boat.