27 March 2010

Craigmillar Castle, Pt. 2

Two weekends ago, Nana and I strolled over to nearby Craigmillar Castle to have a look around.

Craigmillar Castle was built in several stages. The first stage is also the innermost: a typical medieval tower house dating from the late 14th century, one of many examples of the type that still survive today.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the tower house was expanded, more for comfort than for defense. The owners added two residential wings in the Renaissance style, a family chapel, and two sets of walls creating an inner and an outer courtyard. Today, the inner courtyard features two beautiful yew trees.

You can see from this shot how the residential areas of the castle are both lower and, architecturally, more ornate.

The castle is only three miles from Edinburgh Castle; Edinburgh Castle, Arthur's Seat, and Craigmillar Castle are all visible from one another, though Craigmillar kind of blends in with the surroundings, and of course Edinburgh isn't visible from Craigmillar if there's any kind of weather, which is pretty much all the time. (But not during our visit!)

Craigmillar's proximity to Edinburgh meant that Craigmillar had an important part to play in the Rough Wooing, a splendidly named sixteenth-century war between England and Scotland over who would marry the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. (The Rough Wooing was actually named centuries later by, you guessed it, Sir Walter Scott. Man, you just can't get away from that guy!)

In fact, Craigmillar would play an important role later in Mary's life, too. After the birth of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, Mary convalesced at Craigmillar, where she may or may not have hatched a plan to kill her husband, which involved both strangulation and an explosion!

Aside from its connection to Mary, Queen of Scots, Craigmillar Castle is also noteworthy for its remarkable standard of preservation. It's a fun place to explore, a tangle of unexpected passageways and curious rooms--and even curiouser visitors.

And, of course, Craigmillar has a prison, which means Nana was naturally thrown in jail.

Also--several latrines!

And, in the neighboring field, at least one Hieland Coo!

In short, Craigmillar gets our stamp of approval.

24 March 2010

Taking the mickey

"Taking the mickey," along with its less-polite variant "taking the piss," is a British expression meaning to tease or poke fun at. So let's take a moment to take the mickey out of some UK quirks.

1. Two-tap sinks

Back in ye olden tymes, sinks had hot taps and cold taps with separate pipes to each. It is no longer those times. If I can have wireless fiberoptic internet in my apartment, surely it is not too much to ask that I have one tap producing a usable-temperature water, instead of one that give me frostbite and one that gives me burns? My fingers are actually chapped and cracked from using these ridiculous (and omnipresent) sinks. There is even a Facebook group called "You are not an advanced country if you have separate water taps."And you know what? It's true.

2. Honey Cheerios

Not Honey Nut Cheerios, just Honey Cheerios. Why? I'm not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has to do with allergy packaging regulations (this is, after all, a country of nut-free schools - at least in the literal sense.) Made extra amusing by the fact that the Honey Cheerios URL above on the Nestle site still ends with "cheerios-honeynut.aspx." Further cereal fun fact: Frosted Mini Wheats are just Frosted Wheats here.

3. The word "revision"

The first time I heard this was in French class, when the French-born teacher kept talking about how we were surely all revising for exams. Revising? Surely he meant "reviewing." But no. "Revision" is the commonly accepted UK term for reviewing. (See, for instance, "Sleeping helps students revise")

I could handle this as a one-for-one switch. What I can't process is that "revision" also incorporates the U.S. meaning of "to rewrite or edit." So in my research yesterday, I came across the sentence, "The committee revised the rules," and I have no idea what happened. Did they review the rules? Did they rewrite the rules? There is no way to tell!

4. Listed buildings

I'm all about conservation as far as architecture goes, but the "listing" program in the UK can be a bit goofy. Begun after World War II, it was intended to offer government protection to buildings of architectural and historical interest but has become a monster. You can't for instance, replace energy-inefficient old windows in a listed building with double-glazing without special permission. And that's assuming you even had a vote in getting your building listed in the first place.

As anybody who lived in Morse or Stiles can tell you, what constitutes good architecture is not a fixed concept. Unfortunately, listing is fixed. Once a building gets listed, you're pretty much stuck with it. Hence the outrage at Edinburgh a few years back when the university tried to list Appleton Tower. In the 1960s, a bunch of Georgian buildings (beautiful 200-year-old town houses) were torn down to construct this:

(The building in the front is William Robertson - Billy Bobberson to its friends - and is also hideous, but for the moment let's focus on the one in the back).

In the early 2000s, Appleton received architectural and historical interest, but not perhaps the kind Historic Scotland likes: students nominated it for demolition. A prominent geneticist alumnus of Edinburgh University consider "the ugliness of Appleton Tower" one of the seven wonders of the world. For some blindingly obscure reason, Historic Scotland decided that this was the right time to try to list Appleton Tower, thereby inflicting it upon us for all time. It didn't succeed, but what the heck! There's always next year!

5. UK Keyboards

The US and the UK are no longer merely two countries divided by a common language. We are now two countries divided by an uncommon computer keyboard.

Yes, UK keyboards have a few sneaky modifications to the U.S. layout. I can understand switching it so that the single quote ('), rather than the double quote (") is the default key just beside your right pinky, as the single quote is the correct UK usage for speech. It's just a formatting convention. What I can't figure out is why you'd bring the @ symbol down from the numbers row to replace the double-quote. I hardly ever use the @ symbol. Do British people send more e-mails than American ones? Or do they merely have less-effective autocomplete in their mail programs (programmes)? It. drives me nuts that my left shift key is shortened by a full key width, replaced with a useless forward slash, and I don't even know what the letter ¬ means. It looks like the Korean letter for the sound @k@.

Dang it, that was supposed to be "k." Curse you, UK keyboards!!!!!

23 March 2010

Belated Malta History from the Bottom Up: Malta in the Middle

(This is part of a continuing series of posts on Malta's insanely dense and lengthy history, as told via the conceit of an archaeological excavation - from the bottom layer up. Previous posts can be found here: Part 1: Megaliths, Part 2: the Hypogeum and Catacombs, Part 3: Roman to Arab times, and Part 4: Knights of Malta)

Justin's computer is in its death throes, so we backed up all of our photos on my laptop. In the process, we became a bit disoriented (or disorientated, as they say in the UK, for some reason) and lost track of some of our pictures. We'll try to get various make-up posts done soon.

We last left Malta with the decline of the Knights of St. John. The Knights were forced out of Malta by Napoleon when he captured the island en route to Egypt in 1798-9. This out-forcing may have looked something like this:

Or not. Don't ask me; I wasn't there.

Subsequently, Malta became a naval base for the British, which it remained until it obtained independence in 1964. My personal Malta-related creepy-coincidence was its prominent role in the Lymond Chronicles book series. Justin's is the fact that the eldest son of Williamina Belsches, the woman he's researching for his dissertation, died at Malta in some military capacity (the death notice marks him as "Captain William Forbes" but we have yet to determine if it's navy or army. History is fun!)

English is consequently one of Malta's two official languages (the other is Maltese) and the cultural legacy of English rule is strong.

Malta is the only country to display another country's decoration on its national flag (image from Wikimedia Commons)

During the Second World War, Malta occupied a precarious but vital strategic position between Italy and German-occupied North Africa. Britain felt it had to retain Malta to have any operating strength in the Mediterranean, and also to prevent the morale catastrophe of losing another "fortress" island on top of the fall of Singapore. Clearly, it was equally important to the Axis that Malta break.

How bad were things on Malta during World War II?

Malta was raided over 3,000 times. And it wasn't tremendously well-defended, either: at one point in April at the height of the bombing, Malta had precisely one plane to fly against the Luftwaffe - which was better than another time in April, when it had none. (The word "gutsy" doesn't even begin to describe the pilot of that one plane). The Maltese controllers were reduced to telegraphing fake signals in the hopes that the Luftwaffe would listen in and think defenders were scrambling. Consequently, the German bombers generally got through, and "
[f]rom 1 January to 24 July 1942 there was only one 24-hour period when no bombs fell on Malta." Some Maltese actually turned to the old Roman catacombs as air-raid shelters, which must have felt a bit ghoulish but was probably rather effective. Malta's Opera House, destroyed in April of 1942, remains a ruin to this day:

Here are some additional stats from Merlins Over Malta:

In a 24 hour period on 20-21st March 1942 295 tons of bombs fell on Ta’Qali airfield making it the most bombed allied airfield ever.

6,728 tons of bombs to fell on Malta in April, 36 times the amount to fall on Coventry. ...

In March and April 1942 more bombs were dropped on Malta than fell on London during the entire Blitz.

There were 154 days of continuous raids in comparison to London’s 57.
Tough cookies, those Maltese.

To acknowledge this tough-cookiehood and to boost morale, King George awarded the entire civilian population of the island with the George Cross, second only to the Victoria Cross in British honors. And the George Cross, a little silver plus-sign engraved with the words "For Gallantry," now appears in the upper-left-hand corner of the national flag of Malta.

Brief break for a Kleenex.

Okay, where were we?

Right. So. Little silver plus-signs are great for morale but unfortunately won't keep your civilian population clothed and fed or your air force in the air. Malta needed concrete help. That was Operation Pedestal, a massive relief fleet braving air bombing, ocean mines, and U-boats to get food and fuel to Malta. The critical ship in this convoy was the world's largest fuel tanker, called - did I mention the creepy coincidences already? - the S.S. Ohio. A great narrative can be found here, which I will seek to condense.

Heavily targeted by German and Italian bombers and suffering severe losses, the convoy struggled through to Malta. The Ohio was battered and bombed until, a mere forty-five miles from the harbor, she went dead in the water. Quick-thinking and courageous seamen physically tied her to two escorting destroyers. With the help of Maltese harbor tugs and the protection of shore batteries, the Ohio made it into the Grand Harbour - on, in another coincidence for the heavily-Catholic Malta, the feast day of St. Marija. Story has it that she was greeted by cheering crowds, which burst into a spontaneous chorus of Rule Britannia.

May I offer my own personal cheer for the ship that saved Malta?

OH!!!!!! IO!!!!!!!!!

21 March 2010

Craigmillar Castle Pt. 1 - Take a Hike

Justin and I went out to Craigmillar Castle last weekend, thus proving that it's worth buying the multipass (in this case, a Historic Scotland membership) because then you'll be darned if you don't get your money's worth out of it. Justin told me we could walk out to the castle. It was close, he said. It'd be a nice day for a stroll, he said. It was one and a half hours, he didn't say.

Perhaps this is why he chose to dress in camouflage for the occasion:

In all fairness, the first forty-five minutes was a lovely, level walk around Arthur's Seat. Scotland may not be full of bright tropical colors, but there is a surprising diversity of earth tones. Count how many shades of green and brown you find in that picture. There's something quite beautiful about it, in a subtle and rugged way.

The path we followed used to be the old Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, nicknamed the "Innocent Railway" because... well, depends on who you ask. The Gazetteer for Scotland says it's because of the railway's excellent safety record. The sign on site says it's because it still used horses (also an alternative explanation given by the Gazetteer). Yes, that's right, a horse-drawn train. I suppose the coal-shovelers had slightly different duties here.

The original function of the railway was to bring coal into Edinburgh for urban consumption, but passenger soon latched onto it as a good deal. With the horse-drawn pace, there was no need for formal stations. Passengers could choose to disembark anywhere along the route. The railway also offers a contender for the position of oldest railway tunnel in Britain, but not in the part we walked.

Some sections are still in use, adapted and incorporated into other railway lines, but the section on the way to Craigmillar was decommissioned in 1968 and turned into the present walking/bicycling path.

With, of course, the odd train (and the emphasis here is on "odd"):

Chooga chooga chooga chooga chooga chooga chooga chooga...


What do you mean, I'm not five years old anymore?