Sunday 29 November 2015

A Filthy Day

Rain lashing windowpanes, drumming on roofs.

A tap of the barometer, daily ritual.

Boots on.

A scouring, a howling, awakening.

A bare tree, wet black and bending.

The last leaves trembling. Small birds blown like scraps.

We march past puddles, the only pedestrians.

Glad to be out.

A great arc of seagulls, black against a torn sky.

Sheets of sleet.

Hard houses in rain-smudged rows.

The town illuminations, swaying in the storm.

Three o'clock and dark.

A bustle of scarves and coats in doorway.

Boiling kettle, steaming mugs.

Saturday 21 November 2015

In Praise of Lowland Hills

Lowland Hills. An oxymoron, surely? Yet the Lowlands are studded with wee hill ranges, from individual peaks such as Berwick Law or the Dumpling, to substantial massifs such as the 721m high Ochils, a dramatic escarpment rising above the flat plain of the Forth. And the best thing about them? For 80% of Scotland's population - including me - they are right there on the doorstep.

Whitewisp Hill in the Ochils and distant Lomond Hills:

I love hillwalking. But sometimes it just isn't practical to get away for a whole day. And the onset of winter brings fresh imperatives - short daylight, and a desire not to spend hours on the road in the dark. Well, there are plenty of leg-stretching options available within an hours' drive of home. What about a traverse up steep gorges onto the flat, sun-flooded plateau of the Ochils and a descent past a mediaeval castle?

In the Ochils:

A wander up the worn rhinoceros horn of Dumgoyne, round the rim of the vast, untrodden Corrie of Balglass, and down past the beautiful Spout of Ballagan in the Campsies?

Dumgoyne in the Campsies:

A trek past the Bonnet Stane in the Lomond Hills of Fife, followed by a high-level escarpment walk round three grassy peaks of volcanic origin?

Falkland from the Lomond Hills:

Or what about my nearest hills, the Pentlands? 13 minutes drive according to the AA Route planner.

In the Pentlands:

Thirteen minutes, and I am on my way up here.

Scald Law from Carnethy Hill:

Exercised, ruddy-cheeked with wind, skin flooded with Vitamin D, in good company if I'm lucky, a bit of perspective put on the world bustling about its business at our feet.

Caerketton from Allermuir Hill:

This is the view from Allermuir Hill, right on the outskirts of Edinburgh - so close to town in fact that you can get a city bus to Hillend at the hill's base.

Pentlands from Allermuir Hill:

The Lowland Hills. I can thoroughly recommend them.

Saturday 14 November 2015

The Battle of Largs

A battered sea-front, waves crashing on the shore. That was the scene this week when storm Abigail, the first of the winter, hit the Ayrshire coast. What wasn't seen this week was the largest Viking fleet ever assembled riding out the storm offshore. But under similar conditions, that was exactly the view in 1263. For how many people today know that the Clyde was once an international frontier between Scotland and Norway's empire?

Largs seafront, Cumbrae and Arran:

For decades, Scottish kings had been claiming the islands of the Clyde and Western coasts, territory belonging to the Norwegian king through conquest. Alexander II died in 1249 campaigning near Oban against forces loyal to Haakon IV. His successor Alexander III continued pressing the claim. Eventually the elderly Haakon had enough, and ordered a great fleet to be assembled. His own galley was trimmed with gold and the dragons head prow. At least 120 longships sailed from Bergen in July, gathering more men as they reached Scotland and reaffirming his rule from Shetland to Man.

On hearing of Haakon's progress, the Scottish king gathered his Norman knights in the pastoral fields of Ayrshire and waited, in view of the Norse islands of the Clyde. For despite Scottish consolidation on the Lowland side, the Clyde remained a Norwegian sea. Haakon sailed up the Clyde, and a stand-off began at Largs. Alexander couldn't take the battle to Haakon - the Norwegian king was unbeatable amongst the islands and at sea. Yet neither could Haakon engage - his Viking warriors would not have been able to withstand Alexander's heavily armoured, mounted knights on land. And so the two forces sat, paralysed, parleying.

Largs town:

Haakon sent a diversionary force up Loch Long and down Loch Lomond to Dumbarton, burning and pillaging the surrounding countryside as they went. But Alexander stayed fast. For he knew that winter was coming, and the longer that negotiations continued, the better his chances of success. And so it proved.

On the night of 30 September, the first fierce storm of winter hit the coast. A number of Norwegian longships slipped their anchors and were beached at Largs. Local levies fell on them, beating them back, until they were reinforced by Haakon himself. The next day the main Scottish force arrived and forced the beached Norweigans to take to sea again. But the Norwegians countered, ending up in possession of the beach on the night of 2 October. Come morning they made an orderly withdrawl. Haakon headed out by Arran where he had more sea room in the storm, and was re-joined by his Loch Lomond party. But it was too late for any further battles. Vikings were strictly summer warriors, the winter seas too hazardous. Haakon withdrew to Orkney, where he died in December. In 1266, his successor Magnus VI signed a peace treaty with Alexander and sold the Hebrides and Isle of Man to the Scots king for a large quantity of silver.

The fighting at the Battle of Largs was desultory, and at the time it was seen as a minor engagement. But hindsight has given it greater prominence, as it proved to be the final battle between Viking and Scot. It led to the Hebrides finally coming into the orbit of the Scottish monarch after spending nearly four hundred years under the nominal control of Norway. And that is perhaps the final eye-opener in this story - that islands that are now considered so quintessentially Scottish, were once as Norwegian as roll-mop herring and trolls.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Paintings from the Italian Renaissance, a statue of Elvis with a neon halo, and a stuffed giraffe. A collection of grimacing masks, Dutch masters, and a Second World War fighter plane. Prehistoric carvings, a classical organ concert, and a good quality square meal. Meeting friends for the weekend, kids wandering about amused, and high Victorian architecture.

What do they have in common?

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum:

The answer is they are all exhibits in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

This museum and art gallery has a good claim on being Britain's most loved. Partly this is because of how the museum is funded and controlled. London has the vast British Museum, glory hole of the empire, and the UK's free, centrally funded galleries of traditional and modern art. Edinburgh has Scotland's nationally funded galleries, and the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers St that tells Scotland's story. But the Kelvingrove is run and funded entirely by Glasgow City Council. I think this makes the difference. Londoners and Edinburghers are proud of their cultural assets, but somehow they are only really keeping them for the benefit and edification of the whole nation. To a Glaswegian, the Kelvingrove is theirs. It even has its own urban legend.

Inside the Kelvingrove:

Every child from Glasgow and the surrounding area visits the Kelvingrove as part of their education. This cements affection at an early age. It is no stuffy museum, but a cornucopia of curios and artefacts. And there is one artefact that every Weegie child remembers. Having had a Kelvingrove childhood myself, I can tell you what it is. Salvador Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross.

Christ of St John of the Cross (© Glasgow Museums):

Today this painting hangs in its own special room, surrounded by interpretation boards. Back in 19-oatcake though, it hung at the end of a long corridor. The powerful perspective effect of the painting was enhanced by this previous setting. You know when you don't know anything about a subject, but you see a work of genius and you instantly just know it's something special? It could be a tone-deaf person hearing Johnny Cash's voice. It could be a someone with no interest in sport watching George Best dancing round the opposition like they aren't there. It could be a snotty-nosed child encountering this painting for the first time.

In the film The Monuments Men, the story climaxes with the recovery of Van Eyck's stolen Lamb of God. Had the film been set in Glasgow, it is clear to any lover of the Kelvingrove that Dali's Christ of St John of the Cross would be the stand in.

The River Kelvin:

After a visit to the gallery, the rain stopped and the sun came out. As I mentioned in a previous post, the area around the Kelvingrove makes a wonderful leafy autumn walk. Why not visit while the colours are still at their best?