23 December 2009

Back in the (other) Burgh

Nana and I arrived safely in Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon. We'll be back in Edinburgh on the 31st--that is, if we're not stranded in Paris! Until then, have a very Merry Christmas.

20 December 2009

Stirling: the Church of the Holy Rude, Argyll's Lodging, Mar's Wark, and more!

Earlier this week, Nana and I took a day trip to nearby Stirling, home of Stirling Castle (previous post). Stirling is more than just a castle, though, and the city's ample historical markers make the whole Old Town like an outdoor museum. In this post, we'll take a look at some of the Old Town's other sites.

Mar's Wark and the Erskine Church

Our first stop was Mar's Wark, a ruined 16th-century townhome built by one of the Earls of Mar, who were of the Erskine clan, making them Nana's distant distant relatives. The resemblance is uncanny.

The Earls of Mar were the keepers (stewards, basically) of Stirling Castle; this particular earl had also been the Regent of Scotland while James VI was growing up. He was a powerful dude.

The house itself would have been magnificent in its heyday. It had enormous windows with splendid views, ornate stone carvings (check out the mermaids below), and a prime location right between the Church of the Holy Rude and the castle.


Mar's Wark fell into disrepair after one of the later earls forfeited the home by supporting the Jacobites in 1715. The home was used as a barracks during the 1745 Jacobite Rising and suffered considerable damage during that conflict.

But 1715 wasn't the end of the Erskines in Stirling: in 1733, one Ebenezer Erskine, a radical Presbyterian, broke away from the Church of Scotland and established his own church just down the street from the Church of the Holy Rude. The original Erskine Church was replaced by a newer structure of the same name in 1825. Now, the building is a youth hostel.

Church of the Holy Rude

The Church of the Holy Rude has been Stirling's parish church for nearly 900 years. The name features the Scots version of the English "rood," referring to the cross. James VI was crowned here in 1567, making the Church of the Holy Rude one of only two still-operating churches in Britain that have been host to a coronation.

The Church is also the site of an impressive kirkyard, dating mostly from the 19th century. In the left background of the shot above, you can see the back of Mar's Wark.

Argyll's Lodging
Argyll's Lodging, literally a stone's throw away from Mar's Wark, is a well-preserved and partially restored 17th-century townhouse. The current building is the result of the 9th Earl of Argyll's expansion of an existing L-shaped tower house in the 1670s.

That tower house had belonged to William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, the man behind Scotland's first (failed) colonies in Nova Scotia, and also the progenitor of Nova Scotia's name, flag, and coat of arms. You can see a version of that coat of arms over the door below: the design features a Native American on the left and a mermaid on the right. This motif appears again a few other times throughout the house.


Argyll's renovations demonstrate the man's devotion to French design. For example, his house featured what it generally believed to be the first wooden staircase in Scotland. Argyll also made extensive use of the newfangled drop-leaf tables you see in the picture below.

Now, these days drop-leaf tables usually say "I live in a tiny apartment and I shop at Ikea." In Argyll's day, they said "The heck with this, let's dance!" You see, judicious application of drop-leaf technology could turn your average dining room into a dance hall in seconds flat.

Today, Argyll's Lodging is managed by Historic Scotland as part of the Stirling Castle property. One ticket lets you visit both sites.

Old Town Jail

If there's anything Victorians love more than anachronistic Gothic-style architecture, it's repressing people for their own good. So it's not surprising that the leaders of Victorian Stirling poured time and money into a new-model jail/insane asylum/poorhouse shaped vaguely like a medieval castle.

These days, the Old Town Jail is a kid-centered tourist attraction featuring dozens of historical re-enactors. It was closed for renovations during our visit, but the jail's grounds allow for a pleasant stroll.

Of course, even though we were only at the jail for ten minutes, Nana couldn't help running afoul of the law. 


18 December 2009

Stirling Castle

Yesterday, at your request, Nana and I took a day trip to nearby Stirling, one of several spots in central Scotland that can rightfully call itself the Gateway to the Highlands. In this post, we'll learn a bit about Stirling Castle; tomorrow, we'll show you the rest of the town.

Just like Edinburgh's own Castle Rock, the big volcanic hill at the center of Stirling has been occupied since prehistoric times. The hill not only provides excellent natural defenses, it also overlooks a medieval-era stone bridge that, until the opening of the Forth Rail Bridge in 1890, was the lowest crossing on the River Forth. The photo below, taken from the castle, shows the bridge in the foreground and a giant Victorian monument to William Wallace in the background. And yes, there's snow in them thar hills!

At Stirling Bridge, William Wallace won a major victory over the English in 1297. Alas, Mel Gibson apparently decided the bridge wasn't important and cut it from the film. Robert the Bruce, who won an even more important battle at nearby Bannockburn in 1314, wasn't even that lucky: no one ever bothered to make a blockbuster movie out of his decisive victory over the English, although the very end of Braveheart does depict an unnamed cavalry charge generally supposed to represent the battle. Robert the Bruce then destroyed Stirling Castle to prevent it from falling back into English hands.

Below: historically accurate recreation of the destruction of Stirling Castle.

So why all the fighting? In addition to the aforementioned bridge, Stirling guards a narrow plain that is pretty much the shortest easy route between the Highlands and the Lowlands. As you may know, Highlanders and the Lowlanders never really got along and usually ended up fighting one another as often as they fought the English. But no matter who you were, if you wanted to control both the Highlands and the Lowlands, you needed to control Stirling. Take a look in the photos below: Highlands meet Lowlands in a 100-degree pan from the castle parking lot (sort of--there is one more Lowland-ish valley behind those hills).
Stirling Castle itself, as it stands today, is an interesting mixture of business and pleasure. Most of the central buildings date from the Stewart dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries; the outer defenses date from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the castle changed hands several times during the English Civil Wars and the Jacobite rebellions.

Business first: some of the outer fortifications, then the huge ammunition dump of the Back Bailey.


And pleasure: right around 1500, James IV sought to transform Stirling from a drab fortress into a stylish European palace. The centerpiece of James IV's Stirling Castle, the airy Great Hall, has recently undergone a controversial restoration, which saw the roof entirely replaced and the exterior repainted. Some have argued that this restoration destroys the historical value of the building, but I'm guessing those people are just grumpy because they didn't get to sit on these awesome replica thrones.

Here's an exterior shot of the Great Hall, looking all French:

The Royal Chapel has been given a similar update, and the restoration of the palace proper is underway. Eventually, it is likely the castle will look something like what it did in James IV's day. As they stand now, though, the restored buildings clash dramatically with the rest of the structure, most of which looks very much like the 18th-century fortress it is.

That's the palace proper in the foreground, with the Great Hall lurking over its shoulder. 

The restoration of Stirling Castle also raises an interesting question: why choose James IV's Stirling Castle? Why not the Stirling Castle of the English Civil Wars? Of the Jacobite Rebellions? Especially considering that some aspects of James IV's castle, such as its curtain wall and its enormous gatehouse, couldn't possibly be restored without tearing down the later structures built on those sites.

I wonder if the next step will be restoring the Royal Gardens, which have been reduced to little more than a very shapely bit of grass:

On the whole, Stirling Castle itself is worth a day trip from either Edinburgh or Glasgow--but there's even more to see in the town, as our next post will show.

12 December 2009

Book Early, Book Often: Justin and Nana Present Justin and Nana's Family and Friends Edinburgh Visit Package

Justin and Nana cordially invite you to apply for a whirlwind weekend of Edinburgh delights, via the Justin and Nana's Family and Friends Edinburgh Visit Package!

What manners of gaeity await? Why, hearken! (Note that all photographs on this page are courtesy of satisfied customer and sister/in-law Meghan G.)

First, invigorate yourself with a bracing hike up Arthur's Seat!

Visit the 15th century ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel in Holyrood Park...

... and take in spectacular views of sunny Scotland. (Note: neither views nor sunniness guaranteed.)

Tour the University of Edinburgh, and grab a pint in the Library Bar. Perhaps you'll even catch a glimpse of a kilt in uni tartan...

Then it's off to the bustling Royal Mile. See the lovely St. Giles's Cathedral

… and Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh's most famous landmark....

... and maybe even this guy!

Have your picture taken with a cannon with the same name as you!
(Note: Service only available to visitors named Meg)

Try Scotland's culinary delights, like haggis, neeps, and tatties, or a famous British pie.

Try Scotland's holiday beverages, like mulled mead and hot whisky! (Christmas visits only).

Also available: our special Harry Potter tour add-on! Could four-towered George Heriots' School be the inspiration for Hogwarts?

In atmospheric Greyfriar's Kirkyard, see how many Harry Potter surnames you can spot. Can you find the original grave of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?

Then proceed for a nice snack at The Elephant House, where you can try to guess which chair J.K. Rowling sat in to write her first international blockbuster....

… and see the Hotel Balmoral, where she wrote the last book.

Check out our stirring testimonials:
"scotland is legit." - satisfied client Meghan G.

There you have it, folks! Book early, book often!

11 December 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure!

The term papers are slain, and it's time for Nana and me to finally get out and make some use of our Historic Scotland memberships.

We have a week before Christmas and a week after New Year's, and while we've done some research into what's actually open this time of year, we still haven't been able to choose where to go! So I thought our loyal readers might have some suggestions.

Where would you like to see us go?

Glasgow: Scotland's largest city; Britain's third largest. Big and bustling (and modern) compared to quaint little Edinburgh, but with a history just as ancient. Notable for its industrial heritage, as the Clyde region was once shipbuilder to the world.

Stirling: An ancient stronghold city at the lowest crossing of the River Forth and one of Scotland's medieval capitals. The bridge over the Forth was the site of an important victory by William Wallace in 1297, and nearby Bannockburn was the site of the defeat of the English by Robert the Bruce in 1314. The castle figured in just about every major conflict in Scottish history in the last thousand years.

St. Andrews: Although not quite the birthplace of golf (the oldest course in the world is actually the Musselburgh Links, right outside Edinburgh), St. Andrews is most famous as the sport's spiritual capital. It was also a major religious center in the medieval era and is home to Scotland's oldest university.

: Skiing in Scotland, you say? Turns out they already have snow, or at least some ice, in the Cairngorms (my favorite gorms). And even if the weather doesn't cooperate, the Highlands offer some great winter photo ops.

The Borders: The Scottish Borders are home to a cluster of major medieval abbeys, as well as the home of Sir Walter Scott, who is widely seen as Scotland's greatest novelist. (You probably know him as the author of Waverley and Ivanhoe.) This is also where border collies come from!

Craigmillar Castle: One of several castles in the Edinburgh area with a connection to Mary, Queen of Scots. This is where Mary recovered after the birth of James I, and also where she did (or did not, depending on who you ask) plot to kill her husband, Lord Darnley.

Linlithgow Palace: Situated about halfway between Stirling and Edinburgh, Linlithgow was the home of most of the Stuart kings.

Dunfermline: Both the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie--and the site of the first of the world's many Carnegie Libraries--and the final resting place of Scotland's medieval royalty.

Most of these are within day-trip range of Edinburgh; we could probably hit 2-4. Any thoughts? E-mail me or post your votes in the comments. We'll make our first trip on Monday!

10 December 2009

Update: Seminar Paper Purgatory

Just so you know, we haven't fallen off the face of the earth--we're just finishing up our term papers. Expect a post about the St. Andrew's Day Ceilidh shortly!

04 December 2009

North Berwick: Tantallon Castle

Two weeks ago, Nana and I headed to North Berwick with the ISC. After a morning hike along the beach to Dirleton Castle (previous post), we caught a bus out to Tantallon Castle, at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, just opposite Bass Rock.

Tantallon Castle was home to a branch of the Douglas family called the "Red Douglases." Built in the 14th century, it is a pretty typical coastal castle, consisting of a large curtain wall (seen from the lip of the outer ditch to the south, below) across the inland side of a coastal promontory.

You can also see the castle's dovecote in the photo above, and Bass Rock in the background. (A dovecote is a pigeon coop. Pigeons were considered good eatin' back in the day.)

To get an idea of the layout of the castle, here's a rough plan, courtesy of Wikipedia (click to enlarge):

Tantallon is also typical of coastal castles in that it is situated to protect a natural harbor or haven--see also Lindisfarne Castle (previous post). The view below shows the small haven Tantallon was built to protect.

The castle isn't just remarkable for its location: Tantallon, like Dirleton, is also very well preserved. Most of the curtain wall and gatehouse are structurally sound, and views from the top of the wall like those below are well worth the six-story climb . . . though you'll notice that, by this point in the afternoon, the rain was starting to interfere with the photos!

This next shot of the gatehouse, taken from the top looking down, clearly shows where wooden floors would have separated the tower into six stories; note how the fireplaces are aligned to make use of the same chimney.

By the way--did you notice that Tantallon, like just about every other building on the eastern side of Scotland, is made of Old Red Sandstone?

A couple other oddities from our visit to Tantallon:

First, for reasons known only to him/herself and God, a biplane stunt pilot chose this rainy, blustery day to practice stalls over the castle. I couldn't get a shot of the plane against the clouds, but I could get a shot of Nana staring up into the sky, wondering what the heck that pilot was thinking.


Second, Bass Rock (shown below) deserves a bit of explanation--even though we weren't able to visit, as the island isn't open to tourists during the off-season.

Bass Rock, like Arthur's Seat and the Castle Rock in Edinburgh, as well as nearby North Berwick Law, is a remnant of an old volcano. Also, like Fidra, which I mentioned in our Dirleton post, Bass Rock has a Robert Louis Stevenson connection: it was here David Balfour was brought after being kidnapped for the second time.

Bass Rock is most famous today as a bird sanctuary, and bird watchers from all over Europe come to take a gander at its gannets (har har), as well as puffins, Eider ducks, cormorants, and various gulls.