Dundrennan and Kirkcudbright

I haven’t posted for some time, because I have been working on a book on Mary Queen of Scots. Being a man, I can only focus on one project at a time. The book will be published in May, so I can now put some energy into my blog.

On 25 February, a bright but very cold, occasionally snowing day I drove down from Ayrshire, where I had been visiting my brother and his family, to the village of Dundrennan, to visit the abbey ruins and hopefully the small port where in May 1568 Mary Queen of Scots had left on her fateful journey to England, which resulted in 19 years of captivity and her eventual beheading.

 

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I visited the Abbey, which strictly speaking was shut for the winter, but I managed to get in. I have an annual pass for Historic Environment Scotland, so they didn’t loose any money. This was my fourth visit. But unfortunately wasn’t able to get to the abbey’s small port, about a mile and a half away from the Abbey. It is beyond an army firing range, and unfortunately on the day of my visit the range was in use and closed to the public. Next time I hope.

After visiting Dundrennan, I drove about 6 miles north west to the small town of Kirkcudbright. I really like Kirkcudbright, or the Artists’ Town, as it likes to be known. For several decades around 1900 some of Scotland’s best know artists based themselves in Kirkcudbright, including Edward Hornel, Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell. It is still an attractive place for creatives, with a number of galleries and attractive coffee shops etc. With its brightly coloured houses Kirkcudbright has a feeling of buoyancy and optimism that many small Scottish towns lack these days, suffering as they do from de-industrialisation as a result of globalisation.

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One of the problems with visiting in February is that many sites are shut. MacLellan Castle was, but I took a few more external photos in the snow and limited visibility  to add to my collection. There is substantial scaffolding, so it is obviously undergoing some remedial work.

 

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I visited the Stewartry Museum in the town, an impressive little museum for a town of only 3,400 people, with a very varied collection of exhibits, mostly gifted by local people over the last 150 years. Their collection of antique guns is the highlight in my view.

Then a trip to the Tolbooth, which along with the castle is one of the oldest buildings in the town. It was built in the 1600s. The Tolbooth is now an arts and culture centre, and when I was there there was an excellent exhibition of photographs from several of the local camera clubs.

I wandered round the town, and down to the harbour only 100 yards from MacLellan Castle. The harbour is both a working fishing harbour and a leisure harbour. As a condition of joining the EU four decades ago a disgraceful British government gave 60% of what was under international agreements UK fishing waters to other EU countries. There are arguments for and against Brexit, but one real positive is that after Brexit the UK will get back its full fishing territories. This will bring renewed prosperity to many of the Scottish fishing ports.

Tanpits Lane, presumably once a centre for leather tanning, is now an attractive lane bordered with attractive houses, It has a statue which includes a list of provosts (mayors) of Kirkcudbright from This is fascinating, because it is a good indication of the families that were the real powers in the town. The MacLellans clearly dominated for 150 years from 1466, but after that disappeared from the record. What happened I wonder?

 

I am sorry that some of the photos aren’t up to a high standard. But I am writing this on my ipad in a hotel in Dumfries, and don’t have the software available on my desktop at home.. My car broke down on the return journey to Hampshire, and I may be here for some time!  The UK is also experiencing its coldest March ever, so my journey south when my car is fixed could be interesting.

For more on Scottish hsistory, please see my book Exploring History is the Scottish Borders” available from Amazon.

Ian Douglas

 

 

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Visit to Glasgow

I visited Glasgow on 15 June 2016, travelling by train from my holiday apartment in Edinburgh.  It was a busy day.  Firstly I visited Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis.  The cathedral title is historic.  Originally a Catholic cathedral, at the Reformation it became a Church of Scotland church, and the Church of Scotland doesn’t have cathedrals.   It is the only Scottish mainland cathedral which was not seriously damaged by Protestant zealots at the Reformation – perhaps a comment on how much the citizens of Glasgow appreciated it.

 

 Glasgow Cathedral

In the afternoon I visited the Hunterian Museum in the very attractive precincts of Glasgow University, and the Kelvingrove Museum, both excellent.  At the Hunterian I was particularly impressed by the Antonine Wall exhibition, and Kelvingrove is a great museum with an enormous amount to offer.

But the highlight of the day’s tour was stumbling across a range of murals, on walls and gable ends of buildings, on the cathedral side of the city.   Some are four stories high.  I enquired at tourist information, and some are “official”, commissioned by the council, others are unofficial.  Some are of the highest quality, but unfortunately because of the Glasgow weather, I suspect they won’t last many years.  I hope someone is documenting them properly.

I only scratched the surface of what there is to see.  Glasgow has certainly got its act together and improved since I was a boy and lived nearby.  Unfortunately the weather hasn’t improved, and the regular rain certainly limited my photography.

A very busy day.  I even managed to fit in lunch with my son Tim who is working in Glasgow at the moment.

Isle of May

 

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We visited the Isle of May on 13 June.  The Isle is at the entry to the Firth of Forth (the estuary of the River Forth) in Scotland.  It is a bird sanctuary, about a five mile (8 km), boat trip from Anstruther in Fife. In the spring there are about 46000 pairs of breading puffins, and in the winter ma

Greenknowe Tower and the Snowdrops

Greenknowe Tower with Snowdrops

I was robbed!  Two weeks ago in England I paid £5 to see some snowdrops.  Today (1 March) in Scotland I saw a beautiful field of snowdrops in front of Greenknowe Tower for nothing.

Greenknowe Tower is an L-plan tower and is near the village of Gordon in the Borders.  It is as old tower of the Seton family, although since it doesn’t have a roof or windows I don’t think they live there anymore. It is looked after by Historic Scotland.

Greenknowe was built in about 1581.  It was built for defence by gun, and has many gun ports to provide the defenders with an excellent field of fire all round the tower.  It also like many Scottish tower-houses has an iron yett.  The yett is an iron grill like a portcullis, but while a portcullis is raised and lowered vertically, a yett opens like a door.

Greenknowe Tower yett

Greenknowe’s yett, with the Seton crest and build date on the lintel above it.

 

Sweetheart Abbey’s Lost Prayer Book

As someone who is fascinated by the history of the Scottish Borders, it was great to read yesterday that a small 700 year old treasure, a prayer book, of one of the great Scottish Abbeys, Sweetheart Abbey, had been returned to Scotland and was now being held in the National Library of Scotland. This had been lost for 300 years. Rather than just blog a summary, I have published the National Library of Scotland’s full press release below.   

Sweetheart Abbey's Prayer Book

                                                    National Library of Scotland Press Release

Sweetheart Abbey Breviary arrives at the Library

Historic monastic manuscript is major acquisition for National Library of Scotland

A monastic treasure written in Scotland 700 years ago has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

The early 14th century Breviary, from Sweetheart Abbey near Dumfries, is the Library’s most important medieval manuscript acquisition for 30 years. It is an extremely rare example of a medieval religious manuscript which was both written and used in Scotland.

Unlike many remaining Scottish liturgical manuscripts, which exist as fragments only, the Sweetheart Breviary is an entire volume in a remarkably good condition. It consists of 200 vellum leaves, and contains the text for many of the monastic prayers used each year in medieval Scotland.

Sweetheart Abbey was the last Cistercian monastery to be established in Scotland. It was founded in 1273 by Dervorgilla de Balliol, mother of the Scottish king John Balliol, in memory of her husband John de Balliol. On her death in 1290, she was laid to rest next to her husband’s embalmed heart and the abbey was named in her memory. The Breviary was written between 1300 and 1350.

The first leaf of the manuscript bears a large inscription in a medieval hand: ‘Liber sanctae Mariae de dulci corde [a book of St. Mary of Sweetheart]’. Only four other manuscripts survive from the library of this abbey, bearing similar inscriptions, but none of these volumes was apparently written in Scotland.

The Breviary is remarkably compact and, although comparatively modest in decoration, is a very attractive volume. It includes a calendar, featuring a number of Scottish saints, which further confirms its strong Scottish connections. The Cistercian elements in the liturgy are also in keeping with its origins and use at Sweetheart Abbey.

Its whereabouts were unknown for some 300 years until it recently came on the open market in an auction in Vienna. Prior to that, the last known trace was in 1715, when it was described in the printed library catalogue of the English antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

‘We are delighted to have made this significant addition to the national collection. It is a rare survival that will shed new light on our collective past,’ said National Librarian Dr John Scally.

The National Library of Scotland acknowledges the generous assistance of, and contributions from, The Friends of the National Libraries, The Soutar Trust, The National Library of Scotland Foundation, and the B H Breslauer Foundation in the purchase of this manuscript, and for their prompt decision-making in making these contributions.

 

Scottish Brochs

Dun Carloway Broch

The remains of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs have always fascinated me. Brochs are tall (up to 15 meters/50 feet) round towers, with an outer double-skinned, dry-stone wall.  The double skinned walls are bonded together by rows of slabs, which often form stairs between the inner and outer walls, and provide access to upper floors.  The following photograph shows the inner stairs in the Dun Carloway broch.  These would have been dark and dingy.

Dun Carloway broch - between the walls

Between the dry-stone walls of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs are unique to Scotland – 571 sites for these strange and quite sophisticated buildings have been identified in Scotland, although some people believe that the number of brochs is less than that, and some sites attributed to brochs are the remains of simpler buildings.   Archaeological research has shown that the main building period was from 100 BC to 100 AD.

In some of the surviving ruined brochs traces of timber has been found, supporting the idea that they had timber floors.  It is likely that the ground floor was used for key livestock, and the upper floors for residential accommodation.  Some brochs stand alone on the landscape, others are surrounded by the remains of settlements. Some are within defensive earthworks.

Brochs were common in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and in Caithness in the far north of the mainland.  There were a number in the south of Scotland, including a cluster in Galloway, and several in Lothian and the Borders, although only scant remains exist of these southern brochs today.

The reason for building brochs is much disputed by researchers.  It seems clear that defence was the driver to build many.  Another reason for building brochs would have been as high status homes for local magnates.

Tall buildings with a very small door and no windows would have been very difficult to attack. In fact in 1153, long after brochs had fallen into disuse by the local population, the Viking Orkney Sagas record that the Mousa broch was used for protection by a Viking party that had abducted the mother of Earl Harald of Orkney.  They managed to hold out for a winter against the Earl and his troops.

The fact that such complex building were being built contradicts the view that Scotland 2000 years ago was an unsophisticated place. It also shows that the economy was sophisticated enough to support teams of broch “architects” and “master builders” who travelled between sites and communities.  These structures are too complicated to be designed and built by local people without the involvement of specialists, although local communities would no doubt have provided the labor.

In the summer of 2014 I was lucky enough travel by boat to several of Scotland’s islands and the Faroes, a group of islands half way between Scotland and Iceland.  This should have allowed me to see two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, and therefore the world, as brochs are unique to Scotland.

Dun Carloway broch is on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and Mousa, the best preserved broch, is on a small island off the main Shetland island.  Unfortunately the weather was too bad for the ship to land in Shetland (Scottish summers!), but I did manage to spend some time at Dun Carloway.  Although much ruined now, with some of the stone robbed and used by local farmers, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this 2000 year old building facing the Atlantic on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.  It must have been built by a sophisticated, organised people, not the uncivilised barbarians Roman writers lead us to believe lived north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Text and photographs copyright Ian Douglas 2016.

MacDonalds and France

Happy New Year!

I am a Douglas, but my wife is a Macdonald, so I am interested in Macdonald as well as Douglas history.

I was in Paris recently, to visit the Douglas tombs in the Église St Germain Des Prés.  I also took the opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles.  Totally by chance in Versailles I came across a picture of E J J A MacDonald, Duke of Taranto which I thought I should share (sorry, the photograph was taken at an angle.  The area was roped off, so I could not take it straight on).

The following was news to me, although I am sure it won’t be news to some readers, who know much more about Clan Donald history than I do.  A google search about EJJA MacDonald led to Wikipedia, where he has his own page. Even more information is available on the BBC website at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/highlands_and_islands/6766507.stm

In the briefest summary Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexander MacDonald was born in Sedan, France in 1765.  His father, Neil MacEachen, later MacDonald, was from a Jacobite family from Howbeg in South Uist, and a cousin of Flora MacDonald.   MacEachan\MacDonald was a tutor to the children of the chief of Clanranald.  He was involved in the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and escaped to France with Bonnie Prince Charlie.  There the BBC suggests that he changed his name from MacEachan to MacDonald because the French found MacEachan too difficult to pronounce.

In 1785 his son Jacques MacDonald joined the Irish legion, and eventually, because he was in love with the daughter of an enthusiastic revolutionary, joined the French revolutionary army.  He was involved in a great deal of fighting, and in 1799 was invited to lead a coup d’état to topple the French government.  He refused, and as a result Napoleon led the coup d’état.  Had MacDonald accepted, he might have become Emperor MacDonald of France!  However, he was promoted to Marshal of France by Napoleon in 1809.

Well, I am not aware a Douglas has ever been made a Marshal of France!

Best wishes

Ian Douglas   MacDonald Marshal of France