26 November 2009

North Berwick: Dirleton Castle

Last Saturday, Nana and I took a day trip to North Berwick, a small seaside town at the eastern edge of the Firth of Forth. North Berwick is most famous for its seabirds, which like to congregate on nearby crags such as Bass Rock, and for two nearby castles, Dirleton and Tantallon.

After arriving in North Berwick and getting the scoop from the tourist information center (British tourist information centers--or "centres"--seem to be uniformly fantastic), we spent the morning walking along the beach to Dirleton.

The walk was very pretty, but turned out to be a bit more than we bargained for in more ways than one.

First, the weather turned wet on us--though not as wet as it would turn later in the day! Then, we were nearly thwarted by a swollen stream running over the beach into the water.

Seriously, this little stream fanned out into a delta about the size of a football field, and it took us a good 10 minutes to hop our way across all the little streams . . .

. . . before reaching the other side and seeing that there was a bridge up in the dunes, about thirty yards upstream. Oh, well!

After a little more than an hour, we reached Fidra, a small island made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson, about whom I happen to be writing a paper this term.

Fidra is famous on two counts: first, the imaginary map which Stevenson drew as his starting point for Treasure Island was based on the outline of Fidra; second, in Stevenson's novel Catriona, this spot is where the fugitive Jacobite Alan Breck escapes from Scotland and where, minutes later, David Balfour is kidnapped (again). Stevenson had good reason to be familiar with the island: he frequently visited the nearby beach at Yellowcraigs, which is where we had to ford that raging river, and his father Thomas designed and built the lighthouse there.

(Yes, the Stevenson family business was lighthouse engineering, and many of the islands that feature in Stevenson's fiction have some connection to his father's or his grandfather's lighthouses.)

Anyway, the beach trail to Dirleton turns inland at Fidra, where it meets up with the John Muir Way--yes, that John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and early environmentalist. (Muir was born in nearby Dunbar.) The John Muir Way is not to be confused with the slightly-more-spectacular John Muir Trail in the US.

(Note: NOT Scotland.)

The John Muir Way also passes some highly creepy trees.

Dirleton itself is little more than a few dozen houses clustered around the castle, which sits on a crag in the center of a manicured park.

Dirleton Castle is the main draw, and it's definitely worth the visit. Three different architectural eras are represented in its various renovations and additions--which date from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries--and enough of the castle is still structurally sound that you get a much better sense of the place when it was in use, and there are a lot of different rooms and passages to explore.

Pictured below, for example, is the upper-class prison. Lower-class prisoners were (no joke) simply thrown down a hole in the floor at left.

This next shot shows the distinctly Anglo-Norman shape of the castle's facade--those enormous round turrets are the giveaway.

Here I am on top the same turrets shown above.

On a side note: the 14th-century occupants were the Haliburtons, presumably a branch of those Halliburtons. That's the thing--you start digging too deep into anything in the US or Canada, and you're bound to find a bunch of Scots.

Next up: Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock!

24 November 2009

Robert Smail's Printing Works, Innerleithen

Wow, two posts in 24 hours! Don't get too used to it: we've got a bit of a backlog, so we're trying to catch up.

Anyway, last Wednesday Nana and I took a field trip with my book history program to Robert Smail's Printing Works, in Innerleithen, in the Borders.

Robert Smail's, a National Trust for Scotland property, is a working 19th-century print shop and stationery store that doubles as an industrial heritage museum. The property owns and operates an iron hand press and a variety of later-19th-century powered presses. They still do jobbing work--posters, tickets, brochures, etc--but most of their revenue these days comes from visitors like us.

Now, as a book history dork, I could go on for hours about all the details of how work got done in this kind of shop, but I'll spare you. (Though I'd be happy to elaborate if asked.)

The basic process is this:
  1. Arrange all the bits of type you want to show up on the page in a big rack called a forme--this is called "compositing."
  2. Stick the forme (or a copy of the forme called a stereotype) in the press.
  3. Insert paper; ink the stuff on the form; impress; lather, rinse, repeat as needed.
  4. Fold, cut, bind the finished product; clean and maintain the machine; put the type back where it belongs.
  5. Profit.

At Smail's, you can watch just about every step of the process except the fourth (you get to watch step five in the gift shop!). But you actually get to do step one in the compositor's room, where visitors compose their names (upside-down and backwards) and have them printed on a little keepsake bookmark.


The highlight of the tour: I got to use a special "ff" for my name!

That little thing I'm holding is called a "compositor's stick," or just plan "stick." You put the type line-by-line into the stick first before putting it into the forme.

The second highlight, though, was the machine room, where the heavy-duty stuff is kept. The machines still in use included a wacky pedal-powered clamshell press, an enormous old cylindrical poster-printer, and a blisteringly fast German windmill auto-feeder. None of which terms made any sense to me until I saw them in action! Alas, I forgot my memory card, so I only have this picture to share, which shows the pedal-powered clamshell in the lower-left and one of the older auto-feeders in the upper-left.

The machine room also included a paper guillotine that can easily cut through a stack of paper as thick as your arm in one swipe. Yikes.

In any case, the day was full of fun facts. It turns out that several English idioms come from printer's jargon: out of sorts, for example, means that one or more of the boxes (aka, "sorts") in your typecase is empty. Upper case and lower case, of course, come from the fact that capital letters were kept in the top half of the typecase, and when you're taking type off the form and sorting it back into the case, it's important to mind your p's and q's, as those letters are almost identical in most fonts.

On the whole, the trip made for a very fun day, and I'd definitely recommend a trip to a print shop if there's one near you. It's fascinating how easy it is to ignore how what we read is put together!

Lindisfarne Causeway

This is the last in a series of short posts about our trip to Lindisfarne, just across the border in England. You can find the other posts here and here.

For almost half of every day, the road above is under water.

That's because Lindisfarne is a tidal island, meaning that when the tide is low, the island is actually connected to the mainland. The causeway floods twice a day, so visitors and residents need to plan around the tide tables so as not to get stuck on the wrong side overnight--or, worse, on the causeway itself with the tide coming in.

So the tide is a pretty big deal on Lindisfarne. The tide tables are posted all over the island beneath signs like the ones below.


When motorists are stranded on the causeway with the tide coming in, they have to ditch their cars and swim/wade to one of the refuge boxes along the road, which are basically just sheds on top of big poles. There they wait for a helicopter to airlift them out.

Many of the local shops also had bulletin boards covered with newspaper clippings about recent rescues, usually described in a tone of mild disgust ("Look at these silly tourists driving up our council taxes"). In recent years, the local authorities have begun billing folks who are careless enough to get themselves stranded.

Though sometimes, apparently, it's not carelessness, as there is a certain set that likes racing the tide for fun.

It's also possible to walk across the tidal flats on the Pilgrim's Way, a marked path from the mainland to the Priory.

In any case, driving back at dusk just after the tide had retreated was a nice treat.