Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A Day in Dun Laoghaire and it’s the Time of the Season for … gladioli

October 4, 2018

On our trip to Dublin, we went by train to the bonnie seaside town of Dun Laoghaire (good photos). It was only 20 minutes on The Dart train and it is a very pleasant trip down the coast to Dun Laoghaire (pronounded Dun Leery), passing the famous Lansdsdowne Road rugby and football stadium, and the seaside towns of Blackrock and Salthill and Monkstown.  Having arrived in Dun Laoghaire, we headed straight for the east pier which is 1.3K long and takes you out to the lighthouse. It’s a very enjoyable walk, with (photo below) the little yachts swaying gently in the swell as you make your way to the end. This is one of the town’s exercise spots as we passed, and were passed by, runners and speed walkers. There are also excellent views back to the town and out to sea when you reach the lighthouse, which still has some of the original military accommodation, such as the guard house on view.

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Dun Laoghaire East Pier and Lighthouse (Click on all photos to enlarge)

From the harbourside on the east pier, you look across to the west pier, which is almost as long. Looking back into town, one of the striking features is the relatively recent library building (photo below). As well as the library, there is a theatre, art gallery and cafe. The building is somewhat confusing for the first time visitor as it has several levels and different entrances/exits. Despite this it is a fine library, with much natural light and open spaces for study or relaxation. It is also an excellent addition to the architecture of the town, with the funnel like shapes on the top and the elegant use of glass at the end facing the sea.

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Library building from the harbourside in Dun Laoghaire.

While in the town, we visited the National Maritime Museum which is housed in an old church and this adds to its attractiveness. One of the museum’s most spectacular objects is the Baily Optic which is a huge light taken from the lighthouse in the seaside town of Howth. In the photo below, you can see how the light dominates that part of the museum, and how the natural light from the old church’s stained glass windows compliment the lighthouse optic.

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Baily Optic in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire

Looking across the museum (photo below), you can see a variety of collections which the building houses, including the Great Eastern ship, a section on submarines and a small section on The Titanic. We learned much about ships over the centuries as well as aspects of navigation, and also the social aspects of travel by sea.

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Collections in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire.

Dun Laoghaire is a busy town with a range of cafes, pubs and restaurants and there are a number of enjoyable walks in the town itself as well as by the sea.

People of a certain age reading the heading of this blog post will immediately recall the wonderful Zombies’ track Time of the Season on their iconic LP Odessey and Oracle (note the deliberate misspelling of Odyssey). Here it is for you to luxuriate in.

In my garden, just as most of the summer flowers are beginning to show signs of exhaustion, having bloomed vigorously for 3 months, the gladioli now come into their own and stand imperiously above the rest. My gladioli are the Burj Khalifa  of the flowers, towering over the others and they have been particularly tall and colourful this year. The first photo shows a purple example, the delicate folds of the flower protecting the scorpion-like stigma, the pollen holder. I also like the shadows on the sun-touched petals and the emerging flowers above.

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Purple gladiolus at the back of our house

The next photo is of a more showy gladiolus, vigorously projecting its multiple shades on to the viewer. This flower could be a filmstrip of the colourful dresses worn by the can-can dancers of the folies Bergere. The stigma are more pronounced here and resemble a bee’s antennae. The delicacy of the colours on this gladiolus make it very attractive to the eye.

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Flashy gladiolus

We recently had an extremely stormy day, with gusts reaching up to 60mph at times. During the day, there was a tremendous rainstorm and the wind temporarily eased. This prompted the appearance of a rainbow over the sea and Dunbar harbour, and I managed to catch the rainbow behind the gladioli, which we have staked up securely against the wind.

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Rainbow over the sea and Dunbar harbour

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Book of Kells exhibition and Two Dublin cathedrals

September 26, 2018

An aesthetic slant to the blog this week with a focus on design and architecture. On our recent trip to Dublin, we visited Trinity College Dublin to see the Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells has uncertain origins but it is thought to have been written around 800 CE by monks from Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland and Kells, a town in Ireland. The monks fled Iona after a Viking attack and settled in Kells. Where exactly parts of the manuscript – a bible – were written is uncertain. The Book of Kells is wonderfully illustrated and the exhibition contains blown up pages which are shown on the walls, as in the photo below. This page shows in detail saints, angels and demons interspersed with Celtic designs. This demonstrates the superb skills of the monks who completed these lavish and extremely time-consuming illustrations. In other pages, there are beautifully designed letters by one of the artists who was ” capable of ornament of such extraordinary fineness and delicacy, that his skills have been likened to those of a goldsmith”

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Page from the Book of Kells (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The exhibition also looks at the technical aspects of book production as in the photo below, showing that the manuscript was written and illustrated on vellum. In some cases, the treating the vellum could not have been a pleasant experience. Thus the preparation of the vellum as well as the composition of the book was laborious. As the Book of Kells was written in Latin and in the early 9th century, very few people would have been able to read it, apart from monks. These early religious works reflect their historical era i.e. the contents of the book were to be read to the mainly illiterate population, not read by them.

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Information from the Book of Kells exhibition

You can see more of the illustrations from the exhibition in the video below.

The exhibition then leads visitors upstairs to the Long Room of Trinity College Library and an impressive sight it is. The first photo below shows the high ceiling, packed book stacks and busts of famous philosophers and scientists. This room houses the library’s rare book collection and we passed a nearby room where scholars wearing gloves were examining some of the old books.

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The Long Room in Trinity College Dublin library

The 2nd photo shows the high book shelves and one of the many ladders needed by the library staff to retrieve the books. The natural light coming through the window might be seen as a metaphor for the enlightening knowledge contained in the books. The library is one of the UK and Ireland’s legal deposit libraries and thus holds a copy of all books printed in the UK and Ireland. I’m proud to know that the library contains all of my academic books and my recent local history book.

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Bookshelves and ladder in Trinity College Dublin library

Following lunch in the excellent Fallon and Byrne food hall, we headed to see two cathedrals, which we assumed were Catholic (capital C). We then entered a world of semantics. Both cathedrals are Church of Ireland. A leaflet in Christ Church cathedral noted that while it was Catholic, it was not Roman Catholic i.e. it did not owe allegiance to the pope. Having established the present day status of both cathedrals – both of which were originally Roman Catholic before the reformation – we could admire the architecture and internal design.

St Patrick’s Cathedral has well-groomed gardens and lawns outside and there is an outstanding sculpture, The Liberty Bell shown below. There were many people enjoying the sunshine in the cathedral grounds on the day we visited.

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Liberty Bell outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

Inside the cathedral, there is a highly ornamental lectern made of brass, with a fierce-looking eagle at the top, seen below.

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Lectern in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

One of the most attractive features of Christ church Cathedral is the floor tiling  (scroll down to Medieval Floor Tiles). Some of the tiles are the original medieval ones laid in the 13th century, while most are 16th century reproductions, using  the same design. The circular patterns in the wide aisles are most impressive. The photos below show the flooring in front of the main altar and a close up view of one of the circular features.

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Flooring in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

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Intricate flooring in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

The visits to the exhibition and cathedrals were both a learning and an aesthetic experience. If you are in Dublin, go and see them.

The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

September 17, 2018

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

Prague Nights and the Food Programme on seeds

September 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Benjamin Black’s intriguing historical novel Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is the well-known pen name of award-winning Irish writer John Banville and in this novel, which could be described as crime fiction also, we get a mixture of the lyrical writing of Banville and the more playful writing of Black. The novel begins “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane” – a good crime novel starts with a body. Further on we read “Such stars there were! – like a hoard of jewels strewn across a dome of taut black silk” and this is more Banville than  Black. I got the impression that Black/Banville was having fun in creating the characters in this novel. Firstly , there is the protagonist Christian Stern, a by turns over-confident and fearful young man who comes to Prague in 1599 and finds a dead body in the street. Stern is fortunate that the emperor Rudolf II, whose dead mistress Stern has found, sees the new arrival as an omen for good and adopts Stern as his protégé. He also demands that Stern finds out how murdered the young woman. Secondly, there is the lascivious seductress Caterina  Sardo with whom Stern has a torrid affair. Stern quickly finds out the machinations of Rudolf’s court and discovers that he can trust no-one, including Sardo – a partly comic character. The city of Prague in winter is another character in the novel – this is really a novel with (no spoiler here) more than one murder, rather than a crime novel – and Black gives a detailed account of the abject poverty and  lush richness at both ends of the social spectrum. For those hoping for a fast-moving plot, this is not for you. The author’s plot is meandering but gets there in the end. What you remember is not so much whodunit but where it was done, who was involved and what will happen to Christian Stern, who at times has a seemingly precarious existence. Black/Banville is always worth reading for the quality of the prose and the laconic wit. Highly recommended.

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Benjamin Black’s engrossing historical novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

A recent Food Programme podcast caught my ears to good effect. The topic was seeds and the programme covered a range of different aspects of the grain which humans have used over the millennia for food and drink. The programme begins with an interview with Noel Kingsbury, the author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding who states that today’s “natural” foods which people increasing seek out, are in fact the results of “selective breeding and hybridisation over thousands of years”, although that does not make them less healthy than processed food. Another interviewee notes that legislation has meant that many varieties of seeds are now privately owned and that some “traditional” seed varieties are not covered and cannot be sold. One organisation trying to preserve seed varieties in the UK is the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organics in Ryton, Coventry and the work of the library, which encourages people to grow and swap unusual varieties of vegetables, is discussed in the programme. There are now a range of programmes across the world which seek to preserve seed varieties threatened with extinction and some of these programmes research the quality of wheat and barley seeds before giving them to farmers to grow. I found this a fascinating programme, so give it a go. This issue of the Food Programme coincides with harvest time here in East Lothian and it is a real pleasure to cycle around the countryside past fields where the farmers have left bales to stand and be admired. I think that it should be compulsory for farmers to do this, as an aesthetic contribution to the countryside, rather than removing the bales immediately. This year, I have noticed more square bales, such as these taken at St Abbs head recently.

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Square bales, farm buildings and sheep in the field at St Abbs Head

 

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Horses, trees, square bales and hills at St Abbs Head

Finally, a photo of round bales first featured here in 2014. This was a field of barley from which beer is made and in Dunbar we have our own Belhaven Brewery, the oldest in Scotland.

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Round bales in a North Belton Farm field, near Dunbar

Fredensborg Slot – the lake, the palace and the gardens

August 22, 2018

Our final destination on the trip to Denmark and Sweden was back in Denmark. We crossed on the ferry from Helsingborg (good photos) in Sweden to Helsingor in Denmark. Helsingor is famous for its Kronborg Castle (good photos) which is best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The photo below shows the castle as seen from the ferry.

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Approaching Kronborg Castle on the ferry to Helsingor (Click on all photos to enlarge)

Our destination was the pretty town of Fredensborg (good photos) which is mainly known for the Fredensborg Slot or Castle, of which more below. You can walk down – through an avenue of lime trees – to the shore of the huge Lake Esrum, the 2nd largest in Denmark, from the town and we enjoyed the views across the lake. We also drove to Nødebo on the other side of the lake. When we arrived, this family of mallard ducks was next to the walkway. They were undisturbed by our presence and posed for this photo.

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Mallard family at Lake Esrum

We went on a tour of Fredensborg Slot – slot being the Danish for castle or palace. As this is the Queen of Denmark’s residence for part of the year, it was referred to as a palace by  the guide. You are not allowed to photograph inside the palace. The guide gave us  a history of the palace and told us much about the present queen and her family. In doing so, he tended to ignore the many beautiful objects and furnishings inside the palace. The tour of the gardens was much more interesting, with an enthusiastic guide – a tall, sturdy, bearded young Dane who was passionate about horticulture. Previous to the tour, we walked around the lawns and trees of the palace grounds – you can do this for free. There is a very peaceful walk down an avenue of lime trees (picture below) and there was resonant birdsong all the way down towards the edge of the lake.

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A walk through the lime/linden trees at Fredensborg Slot

The paid tour took us into the private gardens and they were a delight to the eye. The first part of the gardens is the formal rose garden and looking down from the steep bank above the gardens, you can see (photo below) the immaculately manicured hedges in the small maze-like structure, as well as the numerous statues around this section.

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Formal gardens at Fredensborg Slot

The next section was the rose garden, with its impressive water lilies at the side of the roses. I took a wee video of this.

From there it was on to some small gardens – one for each season, so some were in full flower and others more subdued – and then to the huge vegetable and herb garden. At the entrance to the garden was this peach tree. I like the photo below as the exposed trunk takes your eye up the centre of the tree and then on to the dangling leaves, behind which the maturing peaches seem to lurk.

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Peach tree at Fredensborg Slot

The vegetable garden has a huge range of vegetables – potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbages, lettuce and beetroot – and each section was separated by a small hedge as in the photo below.

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Fredensborg Slot vegetable garden

When you walk through the middle of the vegetable garden, you are under a trellis of roses (photo below) and it really was a pleasure to walk under the roses, with neat boxed hedge on the border. Inside the hedge were wild strawberries which were heavily fruited. You can see more photos of the vegetable garden here.

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Rose trellis at Fredensborg Slot

This was an afternoon well spent and I would recommend Fredensborg as a place to visit when in Denmark.

Lincoln in the Bardot and the Danish National Art Gallery

August 9, 2018

All the winners of the Man Booker Prize come with lavish reviews from across the world. Most of the Booker winners which I have read have deserved much praise, but often I’ve found that some of the reviews are a little too praiseworthy. I have just finished George Saunders’ astonishing novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. This books deserves all the praise it can get. Having said that, there is a leap of the imagination to be done when reading this novel. Most of the science fiction and fantasy novels I have read have been disappointing, as I’m unwilling or unable to make this leap. Saunders’ novel – his first as he is globally recognised as a fine short story writer – begins with a ghost/spirit speaking from a place where bodies are stored and recounting how he died. The OED defines bardo as ” (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death”. So the story is set in a type of bardo, as Saunders does not define this space as being related to any specific religion.

The main story then emerges and it is a sad and often poignant account of the death of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. Willie is still in his sick-box, which is the termed used for coffin by the multitude of ghosts/spirits, who describe the place they are in and how macabre and often dangerous it can be. Lincoln, worn down by the civil war in which casualties are increasing dramatically, visit his dead son and there appears to be historical evidence of this, although we are not sure. Saunders appears to be quoting from books and articles about Lincoln, his son and his distraught wife, but there is no bibliography at the end of the book. This does not matter as the novel is convincingly and at times vivaciously written, and the reader is carried along. Just when you think Saunders is dwelling too long on one aspect of the story, he continues another part. The book also focuses on aspects of society at this time – the civil war, race issues and class differences – but never in a didactic way. It is at times a very funny book, with some bawdy exchanges, and there are aspects of the surreal as the ghosts/spirits try to survive attacks. The main memory of this book will be Lincoln and his son. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a compulsive novel. Go out and buy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo

Click on all photos to enlarge

On our visit to Copenhagen, we went to see the collections in the Danish National Art Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst). I have to admit to knowing nothing about Danish art, so the walk around the extensive gallery was a learning experience as well as an aesthetic one. The gallery is an impressive stone building and has recently added a beautiful extension at the back. The extension (photo below) is much more open to the light than the existing structure and has walkways leading to the new exhibition spaces.

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The Danish National Gallery’s extension

The gallery has a wide range of paintings and installations ranging  from the 13th to the 21st centuries. I was particularly attracted to the late 19th and early 20th century paintings and include a selection below. Firstly, a painting by Theodor Philipsen of Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm. The national gallery regard Philipsen as an innovator in his time, especially in relation to light and colour and state that he was Danish impressionist, focusing on his nation’s countryside. This is a dramatic painting when you see it and your eyes are drawn to the movement of the cattle, but especially to the effect of the light on cattle’s bodies and the shadows cast. The painter catches the variety of colours of the cattle and the brightness of the sky in the sunshine. Saltholm is an island in the Oresund (famous for its bridge), the strait between Denmark and Sweden.

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Long shadows. Cattle on the Isle of Saltholm by Theodor Philipsen

The second painting is by Laurits Andersen Ring and depicts a labourer working in the fields at harvest time. The painting is simply called Harvest and represents the hard work done by farm workers in the fields at this time. Again there is movement in the painting and your eye is drawn to the swirl of the hay as the man turns it into a stook. The metal tool is obviously designed for this purpose and we can see that the man has to be strong to wield such a tool. The sun on the uncut barley behind the worker turns part of the crop’s top white and the light shines directly on part of the emerging stook. The man’s clothes are ragged but there are many shades of blue in his top. As the gallery notes, this is a monumental painting and it takes centre stage on one of the gallery walls. I liked it for its boldness and vigour. It is harvest time around here at the moment, so this painting was very timely.

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Harvest by Laurits Andersen Ring

The final painting here attracted my attention because of its size, its colours, its characters and also because it resonates with my local environment in Dunbar. Michael Ancher’s painting The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes  is a large painting which dominates the room in which it is hung. The gallery notes that it has a photographic quality and like the Harvest painting above, this is an active scene. Your eyes are drawn up the line of men preparing to launch the lifeboat, but having to pull it through the dunes – not an easy task, even with the horses at the front. The men are talking and maybe discussing the rescue about to take place and the man on the far right is calling back – for more assistance? Launching and rowing a lifeboat in these times was a hazardous task for these volunteer fisherman, but Ancher portrays these ordinary men – heroes to some – as calm and purposeful. What adds to the potential danger is the snow on the dunes and we can just see the crashing winter waves above the dunes. We have a lifeboat here in Dunbar and some old photos show men hauling the non-mechanised boat over the beach.

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Michael Ancher’s The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes

If you are in Copenhagen, the national gallery has paintings to suit all tastes and it is a very relaxed space in which to wander about and select what you want to see.

Bernard MacLaverty’s “Midwinter Break” and Scottish Birds’ photos

July 10, 2018

The literary output of the author Bernard MacLaverty stretches over many years and has always been of the highest quality. For MacLaverty fans, a 16 year wait for a new novel is a long time to wait but his new book Midwinter Break is certainly worth waiting for. It should be noted that MacLaverty has produced superb books of short stories in between the novels. This is a book that can be read and appreciated by readers of any age, but it will be particularly poignant to older – but definitely not old – readers in their 60s. The protagonists of the book are Stella and Gerry, who have been married for many years and are spending a weekend in Amsterdam in the winter. The couple live in Edinburgh but originate from Northern Ireland, where they lived during the Troubles. In a number of flashbacks, MacLaverty brilliantly presents key moments in their lives, such as  their early romance and Stella’s trauma and Gerry’s visits to the hospital. In Amsterdam, Stella is seeking solace in her life as she feels unaccomplished. She considers joining a group of women who share her religious faith, but this would mean leaving Gerry.

A key feature of the book is Gerry’s love of – and struggle with – alcohol. MacLaverty cleverly – and often humorously – shows how Gerry tries to hide his whisky drinking from Stella, but he also writes about how much pleasure Gerry gains from his first dram, then his second and then – what the hell? – his third. Of course, the hungover Gerry regrets his drinking, but not for long. There is a superbly written confrontation between Stella and Gerry about his drinking near the end of the novel. MacLaverty writes in detail about the couple’s daily habits and makes this intriguing to the reader. The novelist’s ear for conversation is sharp and the dialogue between the couple is utterly convincing.

MacLaverty also has his two protagonists referring to literature and Stella recalls Thomas Hardy’s poem on snow, following a storm in Amsterdam. The poem begins

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

The last line above is particularly observant – how snow takes away some of the noise we normally hear. It is one of the best novels I’ve read recently – buy it and you will not be disappointed.

Bernard MacLaverty’s new novel. (Click on all photos to enlarge)

 

In the latest edition of Scottish Birds, which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, the front cover (below) shows a high-flying and imperious-looking glaucous gull, taken by Iain Leach. It has the equally imperious Latin name of Larus Hyperboreus. I had to look up glaucous which means having a “dull, greyish-green or blue colour” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It is by no means a pretty bird but its magnificent wing span has a multi-patterned elegance.

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Glaucous gull on the front cover of Scottish Birds

On the back cover, an extraordinary photo of a raven (Corvus Corax), taken by Jim Smith. In the notes above the photo (see below), Smith writes that the raven flew down to pick up a piece of bread on the ground, but “It would then rise up higher in the thermals, before flipping on to his back and floating back down”. This appears to me like a raven having fun and laughing at the world, in a look-at-me pose. Note the sharpness of the beak and the feet, appropriate for this often aggressive carnivore. Who would have thought that you might see a raven doing the Fosbury Flop?

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Raven flying on its back by Jim Smith

A more gentle and much more colourful bird can be seen in the photo (see below) by Harry Scott, which featured in an article by R Craig and T Dougall on siskins in a small garden. The siskin (Carduelis Spinus) is a resident bird across the UK but particularly in Scotland. You can see a small flock feeding here. This is a very colourful little bird, with its range of blues and yellows across its body. As it clings to the feeder, its body is compact, with the wing and tail feathers neatly tucked in, but ready for flight at any second. The successive layers of feathers have an abstract look to them and resemble layers of stone that you see on beaches. You can hear more about the siskin and its call in this Tweet of the Day from Radio 4.

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Siskin by Harry Scott

Historic photos of the harbour and flowering honeysuckle

May 31, 2018

Having substituted local history research for my previous academic research since I retired, I have been fascinated by some of the material which has been given to me – some of it by former school pals, some by a girlfriend from my teenage years, and some by people on the Lost Dunbar Facebook site, of which I am a member. I joined the site to get material for my research on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s. This is the only site to which I make a contribution, despite many requests from potential friends, some of whom are close relatives. I know that many people get joy from posting on Facebook, but it is not for me. One of my present roles is to maintain the website of Dunbar and District History Society. Interestingly, when I designed the site, with the help of a student from Dunbar Grammar School – my alma mater – I was told that websites were rather old-fashioned and that Facebook sites were much more popular – because of their interactivity. Given that the Lost Dunbar site already provides a local history forum for Dunbar in the form of photographs posted and commented on, there was no point in creating another one. What I have done, is post some photos on Lost Dunbar and directed people to see and read more on the History Society website. The site statistics show that this has been a success.

I recently posted two photographs of Dunbar Harbour (good photos) i.e. the main or Victoria Harbour, built in the 1830s. This succeeded the original Cromwell Harbour or Old Harbour as it became known. The first photo is of women – and a solitary man – gutting, basketing and barrelling a huge mound of herring. The photo is probably taken in the 1920s, when the herring fishing was at its peak on the east coast of Scotland. This was very hard work, with the women – both young and old – spending long hours gutting the fish. The smell must have been terrible and the work was done in all weathers. The women and girls who did this job are often affectionately – and rather patronisingly – called fisher lassies. Gutting the herring was done with very sharp knives and accidents were common. There was no health and safety restrictions in those days. In the photo, the women are mainly sitting on upturned baskets and the herring would be transferred from the baskets behind the women to the barrels you can see to the left. Packing a barrel was a skilled job as the fish had to be layered correctly. This must have been a socially off-putting task as, given the washing facilities available to these women in the 1920s, it must have been impossible to get rid of the smell of fish off their bodies. While the fisher lassies are celebrated in song (video), these women were clearly exploited, given the filthy conditions and the low wages.

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Gutting and barrelling herring at Dunbar Harbour (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The second photo was probably taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. It comes from a book entitled Views of Dunbar which was published by W Black of 126 High Street, Dunbar which is now the John Muir Birthplace. There is no date inside and no indication of where the photos originated. The photos in the book may have been based on a series of postcards of Dunbar, which were common in this period. It is certainly a fascinating scene and it was entitled The New Harbour, as the Victoria Harbour may well have still been called at the time. In the foreground, you can see the traveller/gypsy caravans. These were known as vardos and came in a range of designs. In the harbour, there is a boat with a funnel. Local experts tell me that this was not a fishing boat, as there are no letters or numbers on the boat. It is likely to be a trading vessel e.g. a tattie boat, carrying potatoes up and down the coast. Behind the boat, you can see the buildings of the Battery Hospital which was built in the 1860s as an isolation hospital for those with contagious diseases. The Battery has recently been transformed and I posted a feature on this here. You can see more historic photos of Dunbar harbour on the Dunbar and District History Society  Resources section for April and May 2018.

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Dunbar Harbour in the 1890s/1900s

May is the colourful month, with a succession of plants and bulbs producing brilliant displays. Just as the daffodils give way to the tulips, and the pansies and polyanthus start to lose their stature and beauty, the honeysuckle in my garden provides a startling new burst of colour. My honeysuckle  – proper name Lonicera – has profited from my extensive pruning last autumn and there are many more flowers this year than last. The name Lonicera was given to the honeysuckle in honour of the 16th century botanist Adam Lonicer. The name of the plant comes from the ability insects to suck honey from the plant i.e. the le at the end is a diminutive. Thus the bees do not suckle (as in breastfeeding in humans and animals) but take the pollen from the plant.

I took photos of the honeysuckle flowers on two consecutive days – one sunny, one rainy. The first photo shows the brilliant purple flower with its white extension – the female part of the flower – and the antenna which contain the honey/pollen of which the bees are so fond. What I particularly liked about this photo is the shadow of the flower below, which resembles a wheel-like contraption.

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Honeysuckle flower and its shadow

In the second photo, I managed to capture a bee feeding on the elongated white and yellow extension from the flower. The bee gives a magnificent display of gently stroking the very thin elements and hovering in the air.  Note also the shadows in this photo and the great range of colours on show.

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Bee feeding on a honeysuckle flower

Seeing the wings reminded me of Richard Thomson’s great song “Beeswing” – below.

 

The next two photos were taken the next day, after a short period of rain. In the first photo, the close-up of the flower captures the tiny droplets of water that have clung to the plant. On looking at it again, I though that it appeared to have been affected by frost – or dipped in some sugary substance.

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Honeysuckle flower head after the rain

The second photo shows both the flowers and the leaves with the raindrops still on them. I like the wide variety of shapes here, with the purple and white flowers appearing to be reaching out or displaying their wares to passing bees. I went out to the same spot and hour later and the plants were completely dry, having shed the water or absorbed it or let it evaporate in the late afternoon sunshine. We have not had the usual strong westerly winds this month, so the honeysuckle display goes on, with more flowers emerging fully each day, compensating for those which are past their prime and starting to wither. The poem The Wild Honeysuckle begins “Fair flower, that dost so comely grow” and I could not agree more.

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Rain splashed honeysuckle

Walk up the country and book podcasts

May 24, 2018

On a recent walk, we left the car at Wester Broomhouse, a farm at the top of a hill from which you can look back over the town of Dunbar. We then walked past Oswald Dean, scene of the first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 and on up towards the foot of Doon Hill, scene of the second Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Doon Hill is also famous for its Dark Age Settlement (good photos) which is worth visiting if you are near Dunbar. Unlike on New Year’s Day  (blog post) our walk did not take us to the summit of the hill, but we walked around the base of the hill and back to Spott Farm.

From the base of the hill, we looked down newly planted tattie (potato) fields. In the first photo below, you can see the elegant, flowing dreels (rows) of potatoes. In Scotland, if someone gets lost or takes a wrong turn or is looking in the wrong place, we might say that s/he is “up the wrong dreel”. I love seeing the smooth bare dreels, as in a short time, little green shaws will start to emerge, grow large and the field will be a mass of green. The brown dreels are like newly-formed and unpainted pottery, admirable in themselves. At the end of the field, you can see the group of houses known as The Doonery and one still has the large chimney, which would have formerly been part of the farm buildings here. When some farm machinery was steam-driven, chimneys were needed. To the right of and above The Doonery, before the sea, is my home town of Dunbar. To the above left, you can see Belhaven Bay (good photos) and the Bass Rock on the other side of the Firth of Forth.

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Looking towards Dunbar and Belhaven Bay from the foot of Doon Hill (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second photo below, you can see how the farmer has planted groups of tattie dreels side by side. I like the juxtaposition of the dreels going in different directions. I’m sure that there is a practical reason for the farmer doing this e.g. to increase the productivity of the field, but I like to impose some aesthetic quality on to the farmer and imagine that s/he might have seen the artistry in these patterns. The little hump that you can see in the middle/right of the photo, above the dreels and the green fields beyond, is North Berwick Law (good photos).

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Dreels in two directions

Later in our walk, we went through Spott Farm (good photos) which is a  very well maintained farm , with a beautiful clock below a turret on one of the buildings, as well as the magnificent Spott House, with the present façade done in the 1830s. We then went back down past the Doonery, and on the road towards Oswald Dean (known locally as Oasie Dean), we could firstly smell and then see the extensive clumps of wild garlic.

In the first photo below, you can see the emerging flowers which shoot up from the mass of green leaves on the wild garlic plants. Intriguingly, the photo also captures the shadows of the flowers on some of the leaves. Here is a joyous burst of brilliant white amongst the plethora of lush green leaves. The flowers have delicate white petals and thin stems, which are of a more delicate green than the leaves. If you look closely at the middle of the photo, you can see a spider – an industrious web maker seeking live prey which might venture into the garlic.

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Wild garlic leaves and flowers

The second photo is a close-up of the spider and the wild garlic flower. Look how the flower head seems to mimic the spider’s legs and how silk-like the nascent web is. When the garlic flowers are fully open, there are swathes of green and white lining the countryside road verges and that, along with the hawthorn bushes and trees breaking into white, transforms the previously dull road edges into rivers of dazzling white.

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Spider and wild garlic

While out on my bike, I listen to downloaded podcasts. I make sure that I can hear the traffic OK while I am listening. So far, my main podcast has been the BBC Radio 4’s Books and Authors. This is made up of two programmes – Open Book which features the mellifluous tones of Mariella Frostrup – and A Good Read which is presented by Harriet Gilbert. The programmes feature new books by a range of authors, as well as two guests discussing books which they recommend to others. More recently, I have been listening to interviews with authors on the The Guardian’s Books Podcast and soon I will be listening to an episode featuring the newly announced winner of the Man International Booker Prize Olga Tokarczuk. The 3rd book podcast certainly worth listening to is from The Free Library of Philadelphia and it features insightful interviews with contemporary authors such as Jesmyn Ward. Another podcast which I found recently is the Irish Times Books Podcast and I enjoyed the interview with Irish writer Adrian McKinty, who was talking about his new novel Rain Dogs which I will buy and read soon.

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A final podcast but not related to books is Death in Ice Valley. This is a fascinating series of podcasts – I have only listened to the first two so far – about the mysterious death of a woman who was found in a remote valley near Bergen in the 1970s. The two reporters look back on the evidence and slowly provide more clues as to who the woman might be and how (or whether) she was murdered. I am hooked, so another episode tomorrow as I tackle some steepish hills on my bike.

 

 

Trip to New Lanark: Textiles exhibition and the Falls of Clyde

April 23, 2018

In Dunbar, it was a day when you could hardly see more than 10 metres ahead of you, as a thick haar had descended over the town. We decided to go on a trip, hoping to get away from the gloom. Unfortunately, as we went past the Pentland Hills on our road west, we hit even thicker fog, which lasted until we were near the town of Biggar (good photos – no fog). We were on our way to the village of New Lanark, the key feature of which is the huge mill complex developed by Robert Owen in the early 19th century into what he regarded as a “model community”. We will revisit the mills later in the year to do the tour but our visit this time was to see an excellent exhibition entitled “Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol” (good video).

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New Lanark textiles exhibition (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The exhibition provides the visitor with over 200 items, covering the period 1910 to 1976, so there is a lot to take in as you walk round. It’s one of these exhibitions that I think you need to find what catches your eye, as spending some time  on each exhibit would be both very time-consuming and visually overwhelming. There are of course many very famous names here such as Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso but many other artists are featured also. What follows is a small selection of wearable textiles and textile furnishings which were also in the exhibition.

The first item is a headscarf designed by the British artist Graham Sutherland. The card next to the textile notes that this was included in a V&A exhibition in 1946 entitled Britain Can Make It. I liked the interconnectedness of the abstract painting and your eye is drawn down the lines to a myriad of shapes. It reminded me of what a medical scientist might see under a microscope when looking at cells that have gone haywire inside someone’s blood.

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Headscarf by Graham Sutherland

The second headscarf is “Ballerine” by Salvador Dali. I am not normally a fan of Dali’s work but I did like the whirling motion of the ballerina figure and the spinning tops/ballerina figures that are on either side and below. This is a very colourful scarf and the background to the ballerina gives an impression of musical notation and perhaps debris being blown in a strong wind. Today, this headscarf would be more likely to be worn as a neck scarf. In the 1950s, it was fashionable for women to wear head scarves.

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Headscarf by Salvador Dali

The final item I chose for the blog – from the many photos I took – is Crystalline Image by the British painter Alan Reynolds. The information beside this piece of furnishing textile reads “Jacquard-woven cotton and rayon. Edinburgh Weavers, Carlisle 1961”. You can see an interesting video on Jacquard weaving here. The repeated camouflage image was intriguing and it reminded me of a building in Federation Square in Melbourne and you can see images of this building – very controversial when it was built – here. I also liked the road-like lines on which the abstract – yet tent-like – figures sit. This was a brilliant exhibition which is touring the country, so get to see it if you can.

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Crystalline Image by Alan Reynolds

The mills taken over by Robert Owen were built next to, and driven by the River Clyde and the Falls of Clyde (good photos) flow beside the mill complex. There is a very pleasant walk up the side of the Falls and we did part of it. There is a fascination in rushing water, as in the photo below which is taken from the side of one of the mills. It is a combination of the power of the water which cuts a swathe through the surrounding – and static – trees, the noise of the water and the repetition, as if the same water is being pumped back round the corner, only to appear again.

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Falls of Clyde

On the walk itself, you look down on to the falls and get a much closer look at the rapids, as in the photo below. The branches on the trees overlooking the river are just coming into bud. It will be very scenic in the autumn, with the trees in their full colour, so we plan to return then.

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The Falls of Clyde

Looking back on to the river and the mill complex in the photo below, you can see that it was dull and misty in New Lanark as elsewhere, but also how the river diverts ( or may have been diverted?) towards the mills. Near one of the mills in the photo is a large wheel which was driven by the water and produced the energy to enable the mills to work and produce the textiles.

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Falls of Clyde and New Lanark mills