Tomorrow, 21 June, is the anniversary of one of Britain’s greatest defeats in WW2, when after a brief battle Tobruk surrendered and 30,000 Allied prisoners were taken. Bert Martin was one of them, and spent the rest of the war in PoW camps in Italy and Germany. Bert kept detailed diaries, which are now held by the Second World War Experience Centre, https://war-experience.org/, a charity dedicated to recording and conserving the experiences of people in WW2. Bert’s diaries are now published on Amazon and iBooks, and a review is attached.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Earlier this year I visited Jedburgh, and the house Mary Queen of Scots is believed to have stayed in during a visit to Jedburgh in October 1566. The house is now a museum, dedicated to Mary.
I attach photos of what is now called Mary Queen of Scots House, and of the ruins of Jedburgh abbey. Jedburgh Abbey was burnt down by Henry VIII’s forces in 1523, and when partially rebuilt destroyed again in 1544 and 1545 during the “rough wooing”. The rough wooing was an attempt by Henry VIII to terrorise the Scots into agreeing to their infant queen Mary being married to Henry’s son Edward when she was of age (often in the 16th century 12 years old would be considered to be old enough for the bride).
Mary visited Jedburgh just 6 months after she had given birth to the future James VI/I, to preside over the 16th century equivalent of a circuit court. During her visit she learned that James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, had been hurt. Mary had been romantically linked with Bothwell. He had been involved in a skirmish with border reivers, and the injured Bothwell was taken to Hermitage Castle (see photo). When she heard of Bothwell’s injury, Mary made the 25 mile journey to Hermitage with a small party to see him.
After two hours with Bothwell, Mary rode back to Jedburgh. Perhaps she had pressing business in Jedburgh, or considered it inappropriate to spend the night in the castle. Having cycled between Jedburgh and Hermitage, I can confirm that this would have been a difficult and exposed journey across high and bleak moorland. On her return journey, although Mary was an expert horsewoman, her horse threw her. When back in Jedburgh she was ill with a fever that nearly killed her. During her long imprisonment in England, Mary is reported to have said that she wished she had died in Jedburgh.
Mary Queen of Scots House is near the centre of Jedburgh and has excellent displays on the tragic queen’s life.
To learn more about the fascinating history of the Borders area, “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” is available from Amazon.
Hermitage Castle stands grim, formidable and brooding, radiating power. Strangely it was also involved in one of Scotland’s most famous love affairs (covered in a future post). It is strategically sited twelve miles south of Hawick in the Hermitage Valley just off Liddesdale, covering one of the main routes into Scotland in medieval times. Liddesdale was the most lawless valley in the Borders, which really says something. Hermitage provided protection for anyone trying to police this dangerous place.
The U.K. has a horrible history series of books aimed at teaching history to children by focusing on the more gory aspects – a whole book could have been dedicated to Hermitage. The first castle, a simple motte and bailey castle, was built on the site in about 1240, and was involved in the Wars of Independence. In 1338, it was in the hands of an Englishman, Sir Ralph de Neville. It was attacked and taken for Scotland by Sir William Douglas.
It is not a picture-postcard castle; it was designed for war, and saw plenty of it. The castle as we see it now was started in the 1360s by Lord Dacre. However by 1370 the castle was back in the hands of Sir William Douglas, who remodelled it significantly from around 1370, when he was made Lord of Liddesdale. Dacre’s small stone castle was extended and four massive towers were added over the next decades, one in each corner.
A wooden fighting platform jutting out from the upper walls could be erected at Hermitage when needed. To allow the fighting platform to cross between the towers, an arch was built between the towers on the east and west sides. The openings along the top of the walls which could be mistaken for windows are in fact doors, so troops could enter the fighting platform. The row of square holes below the line of doors are to anchor supports for the platform.
Hermitage showing the doors to allow troops access to the
wooden fighting platform, and the arch carrying the fighting
platform between the towers.
As well as a moat, the castle was protected by the Hermitage water and a large area of marsh, making attack difficult. Once attackers had got though the marsh and over the moat, the main entrance was at one time at first floor level, reached by a wooden stairway. The wooden stairway would of course have been removed by the defenders when an attack was expected. However, assuming the attackers managed to get up to and through the wooden door, the defenders then had a pretty nasty trick up their sleeves. The attackers would see a portcullis before them. However, when they reached this portcullis the defenders would lower a second portcullis behind the attackers, trapping them in a “killing zone”, where they could be finished off by the usual defenders tools of boiling oil or arrows fired through murder holes.