Archive for the ‘local history’ Category

Dirleton Castle and gardens

July 21, 2017

The attractive village of Dirleton (pr Dirril – ton) lies 15 miles (25K) along the coast from Dunbar. I’ve featured the village on the blog before – here. We’ve been to Dirleton many times and I’ve cycled through village but we had never been to the magnificent castle and exquisite gardens before. The castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. After you pay at the entrance, immediately on your left is a stone gazebo (1st photo), which houses a small museum and from which you get a very good view (2nd photo) of the gardens which stretch out around an extensive lawn.

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Gazebo at Dirleton Castle (Click to enlarge)

 

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Dirleton Castle gardens

There are hundreds of different plants in the gardens and there was a brilliant range of colour in the shrubs on the day we visited. Many of the shrubs had flowers which contrasted well with the green leaves, such as this feathery specimen, whose name I didn’t know, but should have noted as there are many signs in the garden denoting the plants. Our good friend Sandra enlightened me as to the name- Astilbe.

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Flowering Astilbe at Dirleton Castle Gardens

I also took some close up photos, firstly of a thistle, and with its purple, pineapple-like, studded  head and dancing arms, it has a look-at-me appearance to attract the bees.

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Thistle in Dirleton Castle Gardens

I managed to capture a close-up of a bee on a thistle, in the photo below. This bee, with its gossamer wings and delicate colours on its hairy body, must have stopped for a second to allow me to capture it so well. I was going to crop more of the background but I like the surreal look of the flower head, as if parts of it are trying to fly off or are whirling like a dervish.

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Bee on a flower in Dirleton Castle gardens

You can walk around the gardens many times and always see something different – a newly seen peachy rose or a startlingly purple poppy, of which there are many varieties in the garden, such as the one below. I noticed this on the way back from the castle and was struck by its dark purple interior, the yellow starfish centre and the curving pale purple of the petals, parts of which were white in the sunlight. The gardens are strikingly beautiful collectively and individually and form a wonderful start to the visit.

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Purple poppy at Dirleton Castle gardens

The castle itself is only partly visible from the village green but once you turn the corner at the end of the gardens, it looms into view above you. As a show of strength and power, and architectural skill, the castle cannot but impress. What first strikes you is the thickness of the walls, designed to keep out the enemy and keep in the heat. As the photo shows, the walls were about 6ft in width and, given that some were built in the 1200s, they are still in remarkably good condition. Working on castle walls in those days was often a perilous occupation, with little thought to health and safety.

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Stone walls at Dirleton Castle

For the aristocratic families which owned the castle over the centuries, the de Vaux, the Halyburtons, the Ruthvens and the Nisbets, this was mainly a place of refuge where they could rule the lands around them and impress their guests with the huge dining hall aka the Great Hall. The 1st photo below is of one of the guide boards at the castle shows an impression of the hall with its high, ornately beamed ceiling. The 2nd  photo shows the remains of the hall as seen today. When you stand in the hall, you get an idea of just how big this space was and how many people might be entertained. Less fortunate were those who worked as servants in the castle, with the searing heats of the kitchens below and the cold, cramped accommodation in winter.

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Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

 

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The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

There is much to see in this well preserved castle and there are many informative guides in the different rooms. The final photo shows the castle from the newly formed gardens which border the castle. The trees in the foreground are well established and you can see their height by the man captured in the far right corner. The castle imposes itself on the landscape above, another show-off, just like the thistle above. For another blogging cyclist’s view and photos of the castle and gardens, see here.

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Dirleton Castle from the west

Dunbar Battery redeveloped

June 22, 2017

Following the award of a grant of £700,000, Dunbar Harbour Trust has been instrumental in transforming part of the harbour site. The Battery has a long history, being built in 1781 as a fort to defend the existing Cromwell Harbour from attack by American privateers and also from a possible French invasion. In the 1870s, the Battery became an isolation hospital and at the start of the First World War, the hospital was taken over by the Red Cross and revamped. In the 1930s, it was the site of housing for a time but this was abandoned when the roof blew off. Until this year, the Battery has been an open space for visitors to look out from its walls out to sea or back to the south and the Lammermuir Hills. The Battery  (good photos) has now been transformed into an amphitheatre and coastal garden, with areas for public art. I took my trusty camera along to take a personal look. When you go through the stone arch, what first catches your eye is the wooden seating which is part of the new amphitheatre.

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Seating in the amphitheatre at the Dunbar Battery (click to enlarge)

On closer inspection, you see that on the lovely wooden steps, there are the names from the Shipping Forecast which can be heard on Radio 4. There’s an excellent video available on why people love the Shipping Forecast. The forecast has a lyrical quality to it, as many of the names could be from a poem – North Utsire, (pr Ootseeri) South Utsire, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger. As the Battery is next to the sea, this was an inspiring idea. The Shipping Forecast is also a poem by Seamus Heaney from his Glanmore Sonnets and you can hear Heaney reading the poem here  – a wonderful experience.

The public art on display at the moment is The Sea Cubes by Scottish artist Donald Urquhart.  In the photos below, you can see the steel cubes on display and a close up of one of the fossils engraved into the cubes. The cubes are attractive to look at and people of all ages can use their imagination to decide what they look like – ice cubes which have floated down from the North Pole or steel mirrors which have landed from space? They are a very peaceful sight. When you look closely at the intricate nature of the engraved fossils, you can see the complex structure of these fairly basic creatures. This one also reminded me of a map of an archipelago, with a thousand islands.

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Sea Cubes by Donald Urquhart at the Dunbar Battery

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Fossil engraving on a Sea Cube by Donald Urquhart

The Coastal Garden section is also very interesting and pleasant on the eye. The photo below shows the pebbles, the wooden blocks and the range of plants which can survive in the harsh seaside conditions. The plants include sea pinks (aka thrift), red valerian and Caradonna Meadow Sage. It will be interesting to see the plants develop and spread and bring more colour to the site in the future.

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Coastal garden at the Dunbar Battery

As you leave the Battery, you see Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle through the archway as in the photo below. I’ve featured Dunbar Harbour on this blog a few times and it is an ever-changing view, as the light differs or there are different boats in the harbour. The 1st photo shows the magnificent stone wall and arch which gives solidity to the entrance and frames the harbour very well. After you walk down the slope from the battery, you are on the harbour quayside and you are looking across the harbour to the castle, as in the 2nd photo below. This is the view on a calm summer evening at the harbour. In October, the small yachts are taken out for the winter as the winter tides turn the harbour into a turbulent rush of water.

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Dunbar Harbour and Dunbar Castle from the Battery.

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Dunbar harbour from near the Battery

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

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The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

Whales stranding and The Store

February 13, 2017

Just before I went to bed the other night, I got an email from my brother-in-law in New Zealand to tell me that there had been a huge stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This is of particular interest to me, as many of you will know, as I wrote a book about a mass stranding which took place at Thorntonloch, near my home town of Dunbar in 1950.

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My book on the whales at Thorntonloch

One of the things I noticed about the above email was that, when I clicked on the link I’d been sent, I saw that the news was only 20 minutes old – and it included video footage of the stranding. This got me thinking. If my brother-in-law Jim had been in New Zealand in 1950 and wanted to tell me about this mass stranding, how would he do it? His only option then would have been to write me a letter, which I would have received maybe a few weeks later, given that there would have been a very limited air mail service at that time. In my book, I analysed the social aspects of the stranding in 1950, including communications. In 1950, most people heard about the whales locally and most often by word of mouth. There was no television in Scotland then and of course, no internet.

When I was nearing completion of my book, I wanted to refer to recent strandings and did a search for that. Spookily, I found a report of a mass stranding which had happened four hours earlier – also at Farewell Spit and I included this photo from there in the book.

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Mass stranding at Farewell spit in 2015

At Thorntonloch, there is a lovely stretch of beach and it is a very peaceful place to go for a walk. Farewell Spit is next to Golden Bay – another beautiful spot – so it is ironic that these attractive and peaceful beaches were – and continue to be – the scenes of such dramatic carnage, as hundreds of whales died when they stranded as a group. There was some better news overnight, with reports that 200 whales had been re-floated at Farewell Spit after a third mass stranding in as many days.

On Tuesday evening, I’m giving another talk to Dunbar and District History Society (new website imminent), of which I am a committee member. I’ve been looking at the social history of Dunbar (where I’ve lived for 60% of my life) in the early 1950s. I started with the whales at Thorntonloch and went on to look at rationing, new council houses and entertainment. I’ve now moved on to shops and shopping. On Tuesday, I’ll be concentrating on The Store, which is what the Co-operative shops were called at that time in this part of Scotland, although not elsewhere. The talk will start with an overview of the SCWS (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society) which provided the hundreds of Co-op shops across Scotland with most of their goods to sell. The Co-op was the largest retail  organisation in the UK at that time, with over 40% of the non-independent trade.

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SCWS in 1950

This was a time before supermarkets had arrived in any numbers in the UK and the Co-op shops offered an attractive dividend to its customers, most of whom were shareholders – on a very small scale. It was also a time of rationing, so goods were restricted in availability, and of retail price maintenance i.e. prices of good were fixed, no matter where you bought them. The Co-op factory in Glasgow was a huge enterprise and the next two photos show some of the work done there.

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Women sew on buttons in the Shieldhall factory

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Women making rock in the Shieldhall factory

I’ll also be including interviews I did with local people who worked in The Store in the early 1950s. A very interesting interview I did was with Jimmy Combe, a very sprightly 84 year old, who began working for The Store as an apprentice grocer in 1947, aged 14. In the early 1950s, being a grocer was to be recognised as a skilled tradesman, like a plumber or joiner/carpenter. Jimmy went to night school in Edinburgh to do exams in a range of subjects, including bookkeeping and salesmanship, as well as subjects related to departments such as butchery, grocery and dry goods. An advert for such classes is shown below.

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Co-operative education in the 1950s

My talk will then look at the introduction of self-service in the mid to late 1950s. This move – accelerated by new technology and the end of rationing – in many ways deskilled the workforce and was the beginning of the end for the apprentice grocer. Before self-service, everyone was served individually, with all goods behind the counter.

 

Dirleton Kirk and the Dunbar Creel Loaders sculpture

November 7, 2016

A recent walk in the attractive village of Dirleton which is up the coast from Dunbar, took us around the village green, past the impressive Dirleton Castle (good photos) and on to the local church yard. In Scotland, a Presbyterian church is called  a kirk which originates from the Old Norse kirkja or the Old English cirice. The word kirk was used – I assume – after the Reformation to distinguish these Protestant churches from their Catholic counterparts, called chapels. When you turn the corner to see the kirk, it is the tower that first catches your eye. On the day we visited, the RNLI flag was flying. There’s an extensive graveyard with many old headstones, some of which tell the occupations of the people buried there. As with all churchyards, the people seen to be the most important – usually the wealthiest – in the area, got the biggest headstones. There are 3 books on the headstones available.

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Dirleton Kirk (click to enlarge)

One of the most attractive features for me in the kirkyard is the presence of well coiffured yew trees (see below) whose proper name is Taxus Baccata, probably derived from the Greek for bow and the Latin for berry. The yew trees have the look of green headstones and perhaps, if you knew where to look, there might be a secret inscription inside.

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Yew trees in Dirleton Kirkyard

As you walk from the kirk back to the village green, you get a superb view of the village trees, the wide open green and the castle walls in the background. This view (photo below) was greatly enhanced on our visit by the magnificent tree with its autumn finery on display and its random scattering of leaves the ground adding to the colourful scene. We’ve had very strong NW winds this weekend in East Lothian, so it’s likely that this tree will now be fairly bare, but the elegance of its structure and branches will remain.

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Dirleton village green in the autumn

We have a new sculpture here in Dunbar. The Creel Loaders (photos below) is the work of sculptor Gardner Molloy who has done a number of public sculptures in East Lothian. This work sits at the junction of Victoria Street (on right in photo below) and Castle Gate. This is very near the harbour and the sea can be seen in the middle left.

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The Creel Loaders by Gardner Molloy

Gardner Molloy writes “My carving style is vigorous, simple and strong and I relish the use of textural tool finishes to provide contrast. I feel that neat chisel marks enhance the finished surface”. The words “vigorous, simple and strong” could be applied to the Creel Loaders on first looking at this very impressive piece of sculpture, but there is a complexity to work that emerges on closer examination. The woman’s head, which reminded me of an Egyptian goddess, is delicately carved and there is a determined (and maybe resigned) look on the woman’s face.

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The Creel Loaders – detail of the woman’s head – by Gardner Molloy

The sculpture was built to remember the harbour women of Dunbar who put a wicker creel/basket on their backs and waited while two men loaded the creel with fish – herring in particular in the early 20th century. The women then walked many miles into the countryside along the Herring Road (good photos) to sell their fish. This was backbreaking work and a perilous journey in the winter. What is often forgotten is that the women not only carried the fish as far as Lauder (33 miles/54K away) but they also often bartered their fish for fresh vegetables, which were in short supply in the poor harbour area, and carried the vegetables back home. This may account for the determined and resigned look on the woman’s face.

Of course, there is more to this sculpture than a realistic representation of an historic event. In the photo below, you can see the elegant lines, flowing curves and intricate patterns in the bodies of the people (and the cat), in the woman’s headband and in the wicker creel. There is much to admire in this superb addition to Dunbar’s public art works and repeated visits will, I’m sure, reveal even more complexity in the work.

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The Creel Loaders – side view – by Gardner Molloy

Guardian article and the Quirke novels

August 8, 2016

I’ve been reading The Guardian newspaper for many, many years. I’ve had the occasional letter published but what I’d always wanted to do was to have an article in The Guardian. I’ve finally succeeded and although I was disappointed not to have the article in the printed edition, the online version may well get more readers nowadays. There’s a feature in the Guardian Magazine called That’s Me in the Picture which I see every weekend. I decided that one of the photos from my new book on the whales at Thorntonloch in 1950 would make a good feature, so I contacted The Guardian and sent them the picture below along with an interview I’d done with one of the people in the picture.

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Loading whales at Thorntonloch in May 1950

In the photo above, the boy standing on the left hand side of the lorry is Sandy Darling who was 11 years old at the time. The paper wanted more information, so I re-interviewed Sandy who has a vivid memory of the event. The article was accepted and was due to be printed but the editor with the final say decided that it could only go online. The article has now appeared. Unfortunately, it has been edited and not very well in places and I think it’s a more clumsy read than my original. Despite this, I’ve enjoyed seeing it and even more now as above my article is the latest picture which has The Beatles in it! The photo is interesting not only because of the whales but the way people are dressed. In 1950, people of all social classes dressed much more formally when they were in places where others would be gathering. If a similar event occurred today, people would be much more casually dressed.

I’m nearly finished reading A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black which is the pen name of the well-known literary author John Banville. The book, like others in this series e.g. the outstanding Christine Falls, features the pathologist Dr Quirke who gets involved in the cases of the bodies he analyses in his laboratory. Quirke is curious by nature and he becomes a sleuth almost by accident and sometimes to the annoyance of his colleague Inspector Hackett. The books are very well written and well plotted but these are crime novels which take you languidly from scene to scene and interesting character to interesting character. Quirke is middle-aged widower whom women find attractive and he is romantically involved in all the novels. This is not your usual crime novel although there are murders, there are elements of police and medical procedure and there is a mystery to be solved. The books are very well written and Quirke’s reflections on himself and others are often quite humorous. The novels are set in Dublin in the 1950s and reading the novels means you get a sense of the city at that time e.g. everyone smokes and often they smoke untipped cigarettes – which also appear of course, in the Sandy Darling photo above. I would highly recommend these novels – they are much more than crime novels – to everyone, and in particular people who tend to shy away from “crime” novels. Finally, do read John Banville’s “interview” with his alter ego Benjamin Black – very clever.

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Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Poppies poem and Dunbar High Street in the 1950s

June 18, 2016

I’m working my way through this year’s Forward Book of Poetry and of course, as this is a selection of some of the best poems published in the UK and Ireland in 2014/15, there are many superb poems. I limit myself to reading 3 poems each day. Today, a poem leapt out and demanded that I read it three times and review it on this blog. The poem is Poppies in Translation by Sujata Bhatt and as the poppies are out in may garden, it’s topical. The poem starts “You tell us how in Romanian,/ the wild poppies growing everywhere/ are a living flame of love” (poet’s italics). The poet sees poppies as “a wildfire/by the roads” and in the countryside around here, you often see lines of poppies edging the road. “Wildfire” is apt description. The poem continues with the poet able to “simply feel/ the way their wild redness/ burns and reels” and she relates this to the fire of first love. Describing the poppies’ texture, the poet writes “I have seen crepe de chine, chiffon,/ how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” – an imaginative view of poppies apparently made of silk. Another striking image comes next “They could be Hindu brides,/ ripening in their red saris”. The poet goes on to argue that while in Romanian, poppies are seen as “a living flame of love”, in English the word “love” would not be used. Instead “In English, we say the poppies speak to us” and it is “their call that moves us”. This is an interesting interpretation, so the next time you see a vibrantly red poppy, is it calling to you or is it reminding you of first love – or something else? I’m an inveterate photographer of poppies especially the inside of the flower, what Bhatt calls “whorls of black filaments” and here are two examples. Inside the first one looks like a sea anemone and inside the 2nd one looks like a small tarantula.

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Poppy flower head

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Poppy flower head

I’m on a Facebook site called Lost Dunbar which deals with the history of my home town. I was always a reluctant Facebook member and I only use the site for my research i.e. I have turned down many requests to be friends, not because I don’t like the requestors but because I don’t have time to look at any more than the Lost Dunbar site. Recently, people have been posting pictures of Dunbar High Street in the 1950s and my local history research deals with the early 1950s period. The first photo below – click on photo to enlarge it – is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows shops that are no longer there such as Nelson’s the grocer’s (as it was always called). Secondly the cars on the street would now be vintage cars. The most interesting aspect of this photo is the appearance of the message bikes, the one on the bottom left is emerging probably from Lipton’s shop on the corner and has boxes on it. In Scotland, shopping is often referred to as going for the messages with messages meaning the good bought while shopping. Thus delivery bikes were called message bikes and those on the bikes were called message boys. I was a message boy for the Buttercup Dairy shop in the High Street when I was 12/13 years old.

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Dunbar High Street 1950s

In the second photo, what is most striking is the absence of cars on the High Street. Today, it is very difficult to park at any time on this same street. In the early 1950s, very few people owned a car in Britain – only 7% overall and in working class areas, this would have been much less. It may be hard for people today to understand but many people in the early 1950s had no expectation of travelling in a car, never mind owning one. Cars were very expensive and owned only by business or professional people or farmers in the Dunbar area. In my new book, there is a chapter on how people travelled in 1950 to see the whales stranded near Dunbar and one of the most interesting interviews I did was with a man who was 6 years old at the time and was taken to see the whales in the farmer’s car. He told me that going in the car – the farmer’s car! – was even more exciting than seeing the 147 whales on the beach, as they saw very few cars near the farm where his father worked.

High Street Dunbar 1950s

High Street Dunbar 1950s

Hailes Castle and municipal tulips

May 26, 2016

A visit last week from friends whom we met in Australia many years ago. I worked with my former colleague, now Professor Anne Lloyd of the University of Boras (pr Boroos) at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, where her husband Jim Zantiotis works as an educational psychologist in local schools. We took Anne and Jim to nearby Hailes Castle (good photos) to give them a flavour of historic East Lothian. The castle is not as well-known as other castles in the county such as Tantallon Castle (many photos) and nestles in a dip in a narrow country road, where I often go cycling. Depending on the time of year, you can have the place to yourself. We went on a Sunday morning and a few people followed us in. At first, the castle looks restricted in size as you enter the gate and cross the wee, gurgling burn but when you get to the entrance, you see that the castle extends greatly to your left and right. You can see a possible reconstruction of the castle here.

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Stonework at the entrance to Hailes Castle

There is a wide range and age of stonework in the castle which was originally built in the 13th century, and as you can see from the photo above,  the more modern finished red sandstone sits beside the original rough stonework used to build the castle. The castle has a long history and the Hepburn family, one of the greatest landowners in Scotland, occupied the castle for long periods and there is speculation that Mary Queen of Scots may have stayed there briefly. As you walk around the castle, you come across the pit prison (photo) which went into a deep dungeon and you get the feeling that if you were put down there, you might never see the light of day again. One of the main parts of the living quarters of the castle was later turned into a doocot (photo). The castle sits by the river Tyne and if you walk round the back of the castle – see photos below – you get a peaceful feeling and a great view up to the castle walls and along the river. If you are visiting East Lothian, put this castle on your list – just don’t tell anyone.

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North wall of Hailes Castle.

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View along the River Tyne from Hailes Castle.

I wasn’t going to put any more photos of tulips on the blog this year, in case readers might get tulip fatigue but taking our friends to North Berwick Gardens we came across 2 vibrant displays which the local municipal gardeners had planted. The combination of the tulips and wallflower was not too harsh, despite the bright colours – see photos below. I took a close up of one of the tulip heads and it could be an example of Japanese art.

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Tulips and wallflowers in North Berwick gardens

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Tulips and wallflowers in North Berwick gardens

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Stunning tulip head in North Berwick

 

My new book

May 20, 2016

This post is all about my new book entitled STRANDED: The Whales at Thorntonloch in 1950. The Stories of the People who were there. A couple of years ago, I started an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, with a view to interviewing people about shops and shopping in that era. Once I did some initial reading around the early 1950s, I realised that there were other topics I could pursue, and these included rationing (which ended in 1954) and the building of new council houses (where I was brought up) between 1949 and 1953. I was chatting with Gordon Easingwood, the chair of Dunbar and District History Society when he said “Oh 1950? That was the year of the whales”. I’d never heard of anything to do with whales in 1950, so I pursued the topic and found that 147 pilot whales had been stranded at Thorntonloch Beach on 13th May 1950. There were a fair number of press reports, some with photos but I wanted to create a more personal take on the event, so I asked around the town and found people who had been to see the whales. From the initial interviews, I formed a set of questions to ask. I did an article for the local paper and I was contacted by about 20 people from around East Lothian, Edinburgh and other counties, as well as people who now live abroad but saw the whales. There’s an excellent Facebook site called Lost Dunbar and again, I got a good response from that. People offered to be interviewed but also sent me photos of the whales. Very few people had cameras in 1950 but some photos have survived e.g. one man sent me 3 photos he’d found in his flat when he moved in.

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My new book front cover

The book has been sponsored by Community Windpower who gave me a generous grant to allow publication of the book. All profits from the book go to the History Society and not to me. The book was superbly edited by Emma Westwater of Source Design and contains many photos of the whales but also of the cranes used to remove the whales, contemporary cars, buses and bicycles. The first chapter examines press reports of the event and this is followed by chapters on how people got to Thorntonloch in 1950, what they saw when they got there, how people felt and behaved, and a final chapter on why whales strand and what might happened today if a similar stranding happened. The heart of the book is the series of oral history interviews I conducted – face to face, on Skype and via Skype phone – with people who contacted me and others who were recommended by the initial contacts.

My good friend and old school pal Nigel helped me to design a website for the book. My input was text and Nigel did all the techie stuff and what a great job he’s done. Check the website out here as it allows you to buy a book online via PayPal or credit card. I want to use social media to publicise the book, so if you have a Facebook page or you Tweet, please put details of my book on your page and encourage all your friends to do likewise.

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

I had some interesting research to do for this book. For example, I bought the photo above from The Herald and Times Group and on the back of the original photo was the photographer’s writing “Myrtle Cornwallace and Dorothy Scully from Edinburgh”. I assumed that Myrtle’s real name was Cornwallis and I looked up the name in the Edinburgh phone book and found one Cornwallis. I spoke to someone who confirmed that there was a Myrtle Cornwallis,  who now lived in Dunning, Perthshire (good photos) but of course, could not give me her phone number. I looked up Dunning and found Dunning Parish Historical Society and then I found that a Myrtle Potter had written an article for the site. I contacted the site manager and he put me in touch with Myrtle Potter, now in her 80s but with a very clear memory, so her interview added greatly to the book. In research, persistence pays.

I’ve had excellent feedback from many people about the book and although I wrote 11 books as an academic, this was like having my first book published again – that was in 1978!

Community bakery and Dunbar High Street

April 24, 2016

This week’s blog is very parochial and does not stray beyond my home town of Dunbar. I’ve mentioned our local Community Bakery before on the blog but yesterday I thought I’d go in, take a few photos and write a bit more about it. The bakery was opened a few years ago after an enthusiastic committee received a number of grants to set up a new baker’s shop. The grants were added to by local people buying a share in the bakery. The philosophy of the bakery is to be a profitable business but to reinvest profits into the bakery itself, as well as trying to give jobs to young people who are unemployed. The bakery is thus owned by the local community, as the sign shows:

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Dunbar Community Bakery sign above the entrance to the shop

The produce is of a very high standard with none of the mass-produced bread available in supermarkets. We buy the 70% wholemeal bread which is tasty and wholesome, as well as the softer, but equally tasty oats and buttermilk loaf, which goes very well with homemade soup. There’s a range of specialist cakes also, as well as rolls, ciabatta, pies and quiche. Here’s what the inside of this very friendly, efficient and welcoming bakery looks like.

 

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Cakes and loaves at Dunbar Community Bakery

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Oats and buttermilk loaves for sale in Dunbar Community Bakery

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Dunbar Community Bakery shop window

Dunbar has a long history  with the remains of a house dating back to 8300 BCE having been discovered just outside the town. It has an impressive High Street which is said to have been wide enough for a regiment of soldiers to march along. In rural Australia, many towns have wide high streets but these were built to take large flocks of sheep not soldiers. Coolamon is a very good example of this. The high street in Dunbar is dominated by the Town House which was built in the late 16th century. It has the oldest council chamber in Scotland. Part of the building was originally a jail which over the centuries was reputed to house local drunks, debtors and people accused of witchcraft. It’s an impressive sight as shown below.

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Dunbar Town House

Outside the Town House is a statue of a young John Muir, arguably Dunbar’s most famous son. John Muir was a famous conservationist who went to the USA from Dunbar when he was 14 years old. He is probably most famous as being the founder of Yosemite National Park in California. He was “discovered” in Dunbar in the 1970s and there is now a John Muir House in the town. Much has been written about Muir’s achievements. Some of this is openly hagiographical and, from this local historian’s perspective, there is a lack of critical analysis in relation to John Muir, outstanding as his achievements clearly were. The statue is shown below.

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Statue of the young John Muir in Dunbar High Street