Thursday 24 October 2013

Spur of the Moment

I looked out of the office window at Salisbury Crags glowing in late afternoon sun. I wanted to be up there! But there was work to be done. Sod it. I took a document to finish at home and walked out the door.

Heart and legs pumping, slipping in my gripless office shoes, I was soon established on the path above the crags. I caught my breath. Holyrood Palace nestled in its park below. The sun fired the autumn leaves on the romantic, shaggy outline of Calton Hill.  The distant Lomonds bronze against a murky cloud over Fife, the Forth cobalt blue, the Ochils etched clear against the setting sun. Figures silhouetted on the Salisbury Crag skyline resolved themselves as I passed, youngsters singly and in pairs, perched on the cliff edge like nesting fulmars. The castle below their dangling feet. Students and tourists. Arthur's Seat wore a crown of tiny figures.

Thankful for my health, for my mobility, for the opportunity to see and experience this, I descended back into city life. What a place Holyrood Park is, what a privilege for Edinburgh to have a mountain in its midst! And what a joy to pluck a moment like this from a dull, routine day.

On Salisbury Crags:

Sunday 20 October 2013

Loch an Eilein and Inshriach Forest

Autumn colours:

Inshriach Forest in autumn. If you can't get up a hill, a walk round the forest makes a good alternative. Lots of trails, a nature reserve for capercaillie, wildcats, and other flora and fauna, an abundance of fungi and some beautiful forestry. We set off from Glen Feshie, intending to do a circuit round Loch Gamhna and Loch an Eilein, returning via Drake's bothy and and the Allt a' Mharcaidh. The autumn colours were beautiful, and we stopped at a clearing for lunch with a view of the Cairngorms.

Glen Feshie trees:

At this time of year, the forest has an incredible variety of mushrooms and toadstools. On the drive up, we had seen people by the roadside picking some. We're too cautious to do that. Which of these are edible, and which poisonous? My guess is that they are all bad news.

Inchriach Toadstools:

After a short stretch of muddy path Loch Gamhna appeared. Dragonflies sunned themselves on bleached white rocks, and bamboo rustled in the shallows. Here? At this time of year? There is something of the Chinese watercolour about Loch Gamhna.

Loch Gamhna:

Up till now we had seen nobody: but once on the circular path around Loch an Eilein, a stready trickle of people made their way round the well-made path.

Loch an Eilein's beautiful path:

At the art gallery / ice cream shop next to the car park - our point for turning round and going back - a sign says this is "Britain's Favouite Picnic Spot". Is it really, Rothiemurchus estate? I am not sure it is even Scotland's favourite picnic spot. Surely Princes St Gardens is more popular. But why nitpick? This is one of the best run estates in the country, and the path was being enjoyed by people of all levels of mobility, including someone in a motorised wheelchair. We ate an ice cream and watched people walking their dogs.

Loch an Eilein:

Loch an Eilein is famous for its ruined castle, on a tiny island just offshore. By the time we reached it, the sun had gone and a chill wind sprung up. I looked up at Cairngorm, cloud-free and still in sunshine. The hills are calling again. As the air chills and the nights grow shorter, I have a terrible urge to climb a white-fanged western giant and watch sunset from a snowy summit...

Loch an Eilein castle:

Friday 11 October 2013

King William of France

The Antique Theatre in Orange:

Somewhere - I don't remember where, perhaps Norman Davis' Europe: A History - I recall a map, with arrows pointing out of it from France towards the rest of Europe. The arrows denoted the migration of significant knights, nobles, or marriage partners to rule other parts of Europe. It was an impressive diagram, putting France at the centre of the web of international monarchy. Just a few examples:

  • the English monarchy and aristocracy was deposed in a hostile takeover in 1066 by William Duke of Normandy, and so effective was this that the oldest English noble families usually do not date their ancestry any further back than the Norman invasion. 
  • During the crusades, France provided the kings of Jerusalem. 
  • Norman adventurers did not just conquer England, but Sicily and Naples. 
  • The Stewart dynasty in Scotland can trace their French ancestry back to Dol in Brittany via Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland, whose father Alan was invited over by Henri I of England to help pacify the Welsh marches.
  • William of Orange's title stems from the lands of Orange, now in France... gained in a will in 1544 by the Dutch Nassau dynasty.

The evidence was gathering that France really was the cradle of European monarchy. But whilst researching for this post, I read that Denmark's 19th century king Christian 9 was nicknamed the 'father of Europe' due to his relations with the rest of the monarchies of Europe. I realised you could probably draw a map like the French one for many other countries, including Scotland (whose dynasties have provided kings and queens for Norway, England, Ireland, France, Burgundy and Bohemia, just off the top of my head).

The truth is they are all interrelated anyway. As royalty might say: we're a' Charlemagne's bairns.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Plus Beaux Villages de Ecosse

In France recently, I was struck by a scheme for picturesque villages known as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. To get into the scheme as a 'most beautiful' village, it is not enough merely to be picturesque: you need at least two protected national sites of historic or natural interest and a maximum population of 2,000.

Gordes, a plus beaux village de France:

It got me thinking - what villages in Scotland would comply with such a scheme? On first thoughts, Scotland is a land of thin pickings for picturesque villages. People come here for the glorious scenery, not the ugly built environment, which all-to-often seems to have been commissioned and designed by people who care nothing for the art of living.

Yet further contemplation reveals some places worthy of such a scheme. Culross, of course. The rest of the East Neuk villages like Pittenweem and St Monans. Falkland. Inveraray. Dunkeld. Pennan. (There are plenty other places with picturesque vistas of course, like Tobermory or Portree, but one street does not make a village.)

Culross, a plus beaux village d'Ecosse:

A scheme like this might concentrate the minds of residents and planners. Perhaps they would pay more attention to the beauty and human impact of demolitions and developments, in the hope of joining the scheme, or of not losing their place in it. Look at Edinburgh for example, whose historic centre has been maintained thanks to the efforts of the Cockburn Society. They might be tweedy pedants, telling you what colour you are allowed to have your front door, but the city council would have bulldozed a motorway through the New Town and over the Meadows in the 60s and 70s if the Cockburn Society had not fought them.

One of the 1960s plans for the Edinburgh's Inner Ring Road motorway:

On the other hand, a national beautiful village scheme would encourage the gentrification of villages. Like many of their French counterparts, they might become hollow communities full of second homes, as Plockton or Lochcarron already are today. Perhaps that is not what Scots want. Perhaps they prefer a certain degree of dereliction. In the words of a crofter on 1990s Gaelic comedy show Randan, whose croft full of rusting, wrecked machinery deterred an obnoxious pair of yuppie second home buyers:

"Aye, I knew that old car would come in useful some day!"