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.

30 November 2009

Happy St. Andrew's Day! And, Flags!

Today is St. Andrew's Day, the national holiday of Scotland. St. Andrew's Day is celebrated on the Catholic feast day of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland (and Greece, Romania, Russia, and Constantinople).

St. Andrew's Day in its current form is relatively new, dating back to 2007, when the Scottish Parliament declared St. Andrew's Day a non-mandatory bank holiday. The three-day weekend has quickly bloomed into the commercial kickoff of the Christmas season.

Of course Edinburgh wasn't about to let an opportunity for another festival pass. So now, all the Christmas hoopla launches with fireworks the Thursday before St. Andrew's Day weekend and keeps rolling right through Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year's festival. The festivities include a carnival with rides, a German Christmas market, a Highland Christmas market, and various concerts, mostly centered on Prince's Street Gardens.

St. Andrew's Day weekend has an added bonus: all Historical Scotland attractions are open to the public free of charge.

However, St. Andrew's Day is not without its controversy: the resolution that established St. Andrew's Day as a bank holiday also required that all public buildings fly the Saltire, aka the Cross of St. Andrew, aka the Scottish national flag.Buildings with more than one flagpole are required to fly the Union Jack as well.
Hey--did you notice? The Union Jack is a combination of St. Andrew's Cross (Scotland), St. George's Cross (England), and St. Patrick's Cross (Ireland). Here's a diagram from Wikipedia.
Clockwise from top-left: St. Andrew's Cross (Scotland), St. George's Cross (England), St. Patrick's Cross (Ireland), Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland (after 1801), English-version Flag of Great Britain (1707-1801), unofficial Scottish version of the Flag of Great Britatin (1707-1801).

(On a side note--what about Wales?)

Anyway, the St. Andrew's Day flag controversy comes from the fact that all government and military buildings in Scotland are required by law to fly the Union Jack at all times, and only fly the Saltire if they have a second flagpole. This includes Edinburgh Castle (which is both a royal residence and a regimental headquarters), seen as a quintessential symbol of Scottishness, but cursed with only one flagpole.

The tin-foil hat says that's by design, so that the Union Jack flies from the highest point in Edinburgh throughout the year--and also from Holyrood Palace, overlooking the Scottish Parliament. Some have tried to take matters into their own hands by raising the Saltire at the Castle--none have succeeded. Instead, the Scots have had to content themselves with celebrating St. Andrew's Day as they celebrate their other national holiday: with haggis, neeps, tatties, and ceilidh dancing.

We're going to a ceilidh tonight, in fact. Stay tuned for pictures!