Tuesday 31 December 2013

New Year Resolutions

It's that time of year again for retrospection and resolution. How was your 2013? How would you like 2014 to turn out? Away from the more personal things, I had always promised myself a few experiences by the time I turned forty. I've already had a seaplane flight, but have still to do the Cuillin Ridge in a single expedition. I have signed up for the Reykjavik marathon in the coming year though!

I enjoyed playing music for Julius Caesar in 2013, and in the coming year I'd like to write a musical... though putting one on might be a bit beyond a mere year's preparation!

I'm captain of a touch rugby team this year so hoping the season goes well, the team enjoys itself, performs well and nobody gets badly injured!

I'm not much of a traveller, but I've always wanted to visit Norway and the Faroes for the walking and incredible scenery. I suppose Iceland this year will be a good Nordic experience.

I've been collecting historical facts for the last few years, and this year of all years is a great time to publish a pocket-sized introduction to Scottish history - of course, every proper historian worth their salt will have the same idea. We will see what happens.

As for outdoor activities... I seem to do less and less these days which is a crying shame. My plan of walking the coast of Britain is probably a retirement dream, but there is no reason why I can't promise myself a few weekends away. Especially as I've realised with horror that my last Corbett was Morven, over two years ago - this must be rectified, I must do some Corbetts!

Whatever your hopes and fears for 2014 - I hope you stay healthy and have a good year!

Above Helensburgh, a snowier year:

Friday 20 December 2013

Sandend and Portsoy

We stayed the night at the campsite in Sandend, a highly attractive sandy bay on the Buchan coast. The morning was cold and clear, and we went for a walk. A 19th century fishing hamlet hunkers down against the west side of the bay, and there are tank traps and pill boxes hiding in the dunes. As one of the few easily accessible beaches along this rocky coast, sleepy Sandend could have been on the front line in the event of a German invasion from Norway in 1940s.


Surfers say this beach is 'like Cornwall without the crowds'. The fishing villages of the Buchan coast are slightly less picturesque than their West Country counterparts, but there are no traffic jams or parking charges here.

Sandend's defences:

Not far from Sandend is Findlater Castle. Like Fast Castle in Berwickshire, there is no longer much to see of the fortress clinging to its precipitous headland. The reconstruction below (© Andrew Spratt at Maybole.org) gives a better idea of what the castle would have looked like on its steep-sided little headland.

Findlater Castle: source: http://www.maybole.org

It isn't known exactly when it was built, but an idea of its age can be gained from the fact that it had already fallen into disrepair when it was rebuilt in 1260 on the orders of Alexander III to guard against Norweigan attack. It was abandoned in the 17th century, according to an apocryphal story, because a nurse accidentally dropped the infant Ogilvie heir out a window into the sea below.

Back at Sandend, a pleasant coastal path leads to the next village along the coast, Portsoy. We had the misfortune to visit the harbour just as an intense and uncommunicative gaggle of photographers from a camera club descended, putting me off taking photos myself!

Portsoy rocks:

The town was chartered in 1550, its harbour built in the 17th century by Jacobite Patrick Ogilvie of Boyne to ship out the local stone, a green serpentine which was sold under the name 'Portsoy Marble'. You can still buy it today from the shop on the harbour. Its most famous use was in the making of Versailles Palace.

Portsoy harbour:

Portsoy flourished on herring in the 19th century as did many Scottish fishing ports, but today it is a sleepy haven for pleasure boats, houses on steep north-facing slopes tumbling down to crowd around the small harbour. Each June it hosts the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival - definitely the time to visit!


Saturday 14 December 2013

Craigievar Castle

Ever since seeing it on a NTS Christmas card, I've wanted to visit Craigievar Castle. Although it has slightly less going for it as a visitor attraction than Fyvie, Brodie or Crathes castles, thanks to its fairytale appearance and influence on later, Victorian architects, it is the most famous tower house of them all.

To architectural historians like Charles McKean, Craigievar is the apogee of Scotland's indigenous tower house style, the mature, baroque flourishing of a basic defensive form. Unlike other tower houses such as Fyvie or Castle Fraser, it is untouched since the early 17th century, its purity of line uncomplicated by later construction.

It was completed in 1626 by an Aberdeenshire merchant, William Forbes, who made his fortune in the Baltic. Craigievar thus stands as a tangible reminder of a wider and little-known part of Scottish history, the Baltic diaspora. It is estimated that 40,000 mainly Aberdonian Scots (5% of the Scottish population) emigrated to Poland alone late in the 16th and early in the 17th century, attracted by her uniquely tolerant religious laws. They went as artisans, merchants, and mercenaries. In Poland, serfs were tied to the land and the nobility disdained trade, thus providing opportunities to Germans, Jews and Scots.

And the other merchants disliked the Scots. As well as providing credit, these merchants and peddlars avoided paying tax, undercutting the competition (in Germany today, bargain goods are still advertised as “schottenpreis” – Scottish Price). Town guilds forced them to be based outside of town boundaries.  But the Scottish black marketeers operated unmolested, protected by their usefulness to the nobility as mercenaries. For Polish lords considered Scottish infantry better than the native serfs (Spytek Wawrzyniec Jordon, a Polish big cheese, reckoned 2,000 Scots were better by far than 6,000 Poles), and many Scots peddlers happily swapped packs for guns for the right price. By 1632, even Sweden controlled an army of 25,000 mercenary Scots, fighting in Eastern Germany for Gustavus Adolphus' short-lived Swedish empire. The reason this Baltic diaspora is so little known is because the Scots who stayed on integrated fairly quickly, often taking local names, becoming indistinguishable from the native population in a couple of generations.

But people at the time certainly knew about it. When the House of Commons in 1606 debated a possible union of Parliaments the Commons opposed the plan, saying (according to Puritan historian Arthur Wilson):
"If we admit them into our liberties, we shall be overrun with them, as cattle pent up by a slight hedg will spill over it into a better soyl ... witness the multiplicities of the Scots in Polonia." 
Or consider the words of The Rebel Scot, a poem written by royalist John Cleveland during the English Civil War:
Had Cain been a Scot, God would have changed his doom
Not forced him to wander, but confined him at home
And you thought this was going to be a post about the rolling Strathdon countryside, magnificent Jacobean interiors and intricate corbelling bursting exuberantly from a plain defensive base...

Sunday 1 December 2013

Sands of Forvie

I was curious to see Balmedie Estate, and the damage Donald Trump has caused with his new golf supercourse. (Not much to see apparently - from the beach side, at least.) But an Aberdeen-based friend recommended we head instead to Forvie, which he reckoned had the biggest sand dune in Europe (I always thought it was on the coastal side of the Gironde in France?). Balmedie is a lo-o-ong stretch of otherwise unremarkable beach between the estuaries of the Don and Ythan, but Forvie is something quite different: masses of dunes, a sand-engulfed village, loads of seals, and a clifftop walk to a pretty harbour. In the end we only had a couple of hours before dark - but Forvie exceeded expectations.

Forvie dunes:

Just across the Ythan from Newburgh, a car park and information board prepare you for your visit. A short walk through a dark forest leads to a sandy trail, the village of Newburgh opposite, seals watching just offshore in the estuary of the Ythan.

It took a surprisingly long time to traipse through the soft shoreline sands, and well before the tip of the dunes at Newburgh Bar we cut across the desert-like landscape, the sea briefly out of sight.

On the other side the North Sea appeared.

About a dozen boats sat just offshore Aberdeen harbour, waiting their turn to dock.

We walked up the deserted North Sea beach, now in shadow, disturbing a vast gathering of seagulls who had thought they had finally got the beach to themselves for the night. The sea took on an icy blue appearance as the eastern sky lit up with the coastal equivalent of Alpenglow.

I was intrigued to find a church, like St Enodoc's or St Pirin's Oratory in Cornwall, nearly buried in the dunes. Information boards around the site tell you more. In medieval times this was a village called Forvie, but by the 16th century it was frequently "oftimes ourcassin be violent blasts of sandis" and was eventually abandoned.

I loved being here - and next time will walk all the way to St Catherine's Dub. But darkness was falling, and it was time to head back via the now spooky avenue of trees, the crow-mobbed Knockhall Castle silhouetted in the dying light of the western sky.

Aberdeen from Forvie: