Sunday 17 February 2013

Mapa Szkocji

I enjoyed reading Hamish Brown's book about Scottish curiosities, The Oldest Post Office in the World. Many of them I had heard of already, such as the decorated bus shelter in Unst or the Elie Chain Walk. But then, in the chapter on the Borders, I was stopped in my tracks with something that blew me away. Something I had never ever heard of before, something the existence of which I had not even guessed at.

The map from Google Earth:

Ever since reading about this remarkable and almost completely unknown map I have been dying to see it for myself, and recently the opportunity arose.

You start in the grounds of the Barony Castle Hotel, in the village of Eddleston a few miles north of Peebles.

Barony Castle Hotel:

An intriguing sign directs you round the side of the hotel and onto a bridge over a little gorge, a waterwheel at one end.

This way please...

And then you get to the map!

Wigtonshire on the map:

What's this all about? During the Second World War, the Polish army in exile was based in the Borders, and Barony Castle was one of the army's headquarters, the base for General Stanisław Maczek. After the fall of Germany, Poland was overrun by the Soviet Union and Polish soldiers were not welcome home. Lacking a homeland, many Poles remained in Scotland, and Maczek and another Pole, Jan Tomasik (who had taken over the running of Barony Castle as a hotel) decided in 1975 to build a giant map of Scotland. And not just any map - this map had an exaggerated relief, coloured contours, piped rivers, and was surrounded by water.

Over the years the map has deteriorated, but plans are afoot to restore it to its former glory. You can get in touch with the campaign to rstore it at - or just go and visit it for yourself, sitting peacefully and almost unknown, in the grounds of Barony Castle, Pebblesshire.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Durham Cathedral

Some time in the 630s, a youth from Dunbar or the Lammermuirs was fostered at Melrose Abbey. One night, whilst out tending sheep, he dreamt of St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne Abbey. Aidan had died the same night. It was a sign. The boy, Cuthbert, entered monastic service at Melrose, eventually becoming prior in 661. Then, after the landmark Synod of Whitby, was persuaded to take charge of Lindisfarne Abbey (the main centre of Ionan practices in Northumberland) and enforce the newly agreed Roman practices.

Melrose Abbey:

He performed a number of miracles, before retiring to a hermetic life in 676, confining himself to his cell in the Farne Islands and giving audience only through an open window. He was buried at Lindisfarne, and when his coffin was reopened eleven years later his body was found undecayed. For this and other miracles, he became the most popular saint in Northumbria.

Lindisfarne Abbey:

In 793, Lindisfarne became the first place in Britain to be attacked by Vikings. The monks eventually took Cuthbert's remains and wandered around northern Britain to escape. Cuthbert's legend was popularised by the historian Bede, and Alfred of Wessex, towards the end of the 9th century, had a dream of Cuthbert before his final sucesses against the Danes. Henceforth, the House of Wessex made the veneration of Cuthbert official in the south of England as well as the north. The monks carting his remains around finally settled on an outcrop moated on three sides by a loop of the River Wear, and built a shrine over Cuthbert's body.

Durham Cathedral:

And that is how the church in Durham was founded. The present cathedral was founded a hundred years later on the same spot, in 1093, by Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.  Scots had taken Lothian and the Merse off Northumberland in 1018 and the eastern border became established on the Tweed, but it was another two hundred years before this was acknowledged in treaty. In between, this castle-cathedral complex in its superior defensive position formed a Norman bulwark against further Scottish invasion and attempts to move the border south to the Tees: Canmore himself was killed attacking Alnwick not long after attending the foundation of Durham Cathdral.

Modern Durham is a compact university town dedicated to polishing the education of the posher classes, the cathedral and castle (now a dormitory for Durham university) still dominating the centre. A winter wander around might remind you superficially of another old university town, St Andrews, though central Durham is smaller. But Durham has its own atmosphere. Japanese tourists thick on Palace Green outside the cathedral despite the season, building snowmen and taking pictures of each other. Well brought up teenagers in Durham University track suits having a snowball fight. The dark cobbled streets on a Saturday night, a floppy-haired young man unselfconsciously singing beautiful plainsong as he walks towards one of the many former churches in the part of town surrounding the cathedral. Down through a medieval gate to Prebends Bridge, snow falling in the sodium lights, the river dark with hidden ducks. And Sunday morning rowing practice from the haugh to the east of the town, young women in warm coats screaming rowing instructions to beefy lads in improbably thin boats, dozens of joggers, skeletal trees, and a distant view of figures on a slope, sledging, the cathedral towering distantly above all.


There is a tale - reminding me of tales of the true resting place of the Stone of Destiny - that Cuthbert's bones are not really interred under the shrine at Durham Cathedral, but that during Henry VIII's reformation his body was swapped with that of a dead monk and he was reinterred in a secret location, known only to 12 monks - who initiate another brother only as one of their number dies.

Friday 1 February 2013

Free Beer and Chancellors

Alistair Moffat is one of my favourite historians. He makes bold assertions that more technically correct historians avoid like the plague (such as being definite about the site of the 603 Battle of Degsastan), but this taste for painting a clear picture helps the novice understand something of the periods he writes about in books like Before Scotland, The Sea Kingdoms, The Faded Map, or The Scots: A Genetic Journey. When I heard he was to give a free public talk at Loretto School, Musselburgh, I arranged to get tickets.

On Edinburgh doors open days past I have had a nosey round Fettes, Heriots, the Signet Library and the amazing Phoebe Traquair Centre. My nosiness to look inside normally inaccessible buildings is established. So the opportunity to see Alastair Moffat *and* look inside Loretto - alma mater of two of the most hapless chancellors of the 20th century, Norman Lamont and Alastair Darling - was irresistible. What would Loretto look like?

Pinkie House, Loretto (source, wikipedia):

The school was smaller than I expected, more couthy somehow. Pinkie House is the tower house of a middling 16th century aristocrat, rather than the vast, Hogwartian pile of Fettes.

Inside, the painted gallery was more Crathes than Versaillies, the wooden ceiling warped with age. A more interesting diversion during classes than the polystyrene tiles in my own school's ceilings, but a homelier venue than one or two other Edinburgh private schools.

Painted Gallery (source, John Wood):

The school's motto is an interesting one - 'Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna'. It is Latin, apparently mistranslated from a Greek play by Euripides, and means 'Sparta's yours, adorn that'. In the play the lines were said by the king of Argos to his wee brother the king of Sparta, when the wee brother was interfering in Argosian affairs. It has been interperted as 'make the most of what you've got'. Interesting that the aforementioned chancellors got into trouble because they were trying to make the most of what they did not have - surplus public money.

And so to the lecture! Alistair Moffat stood up in the painted gallery, made some jokes about Gala RFC's front row, and launched into an informative and entertaining talk without notes - a compelling story with just the right amount of technical detail and plenty of human interest. He would make a good TV presenter if he ever gave up the day job.

Alistair Moffat:

Did you know that 4,000 years ago, there was a mass injection of continental male DNA into Britain, with only 3% of today's men descended from Britain's earlier inhabitants (but a far larger proportion of women, about 40%). I didn't. Alistair explained it as a mass slaughter of male hunter gatherers 4,000 years ago by organised farmers who then took the remaining women (and introduced sheep at the same time), a forgotten genocide, a spilling of blood brought to notice only through the dry application of modern science. Afterwards it occurred to me that farming arrived in Britain far earlier than 4,000 years ago, but by then we had left the lecture. If you are at all interested in geneaology though, I can recommend his company, Scotland's DNA, where for a spit in a test tube and a few pounds you can find out if your great great granddaddy was a Viking, Taureag, Niall Noígíallach or Ghengis Khan.

Which is where the free beer comes in. Shortly after the lecture, I recieved a message I have been looking forward to for a while. I had signed up via a marketing company to help a brewery do market research for new products, and this market research involved being given half pints of beer and being asked to rate them. Now free beer sounds good - hence this post's title - but the reality was even better, something I still can't get my head round. I was paid to drink beer - paid to do it. I never even knew such work existed. OK, it is was one-off - but being paid to drink beer must be right up there near the top of all time dream jobs!

Paid - for this!