Friday, 23 June 2017

Solstice sunrise


As is my wont, I rose early on the morning of the summer solstice to see the sunrise. There isn't much true night at this time of year so, just after 4 a.m., I settled on the local hill overlooking the sea to watch the sun making its appearance on the longest day. After several days of clear skies, this one tended to be a bit overcast but I was treated to a display of the brilliant reds and oranges of a sort of false dawn which subsided to a pink band. 







It was an odd phenomenon. Was this the blue hour, l'heure bleu, when the sun is still below the horizon, a time beloved of photographers for its unusual light?



The sunrise, when it did occur, was almost a disappointment.


Having tipped my hat in salute, I returned home for an early breakfast being surprised as always by how many people are on the move even this early in the day...milk, bread and newspaper deliveries, shift workers and maybe some commuters hoping to beat the traffic and parking problems of the city.
The rest of the day was spent strimming the encroaching nettles at the beach hut and watching the terns fishing in the bay.


After my encounter with the Arctic terns on the Isle of May ( Blog 15/06/2017) I was happy to observe them at a distance. These are Sandwich terns...I think. They move so fast it's difficult to keep them in the lens view but from their size, their whiteness and their cries, I reckoned they were Sandwich terns.
They were diving for the fish like miniature gannets rather than skimming and dipping like their Arctic cousins. Arctic terns always remind me of children ducking for Hallowe'en apples in the way they fish. Do children still "dook for aipples" at Hallowe'en? Probably not.




As the sea swallows dived for fish, the true swallows swooped along the shore catching the sand flies. Two truly spectacular aerial acrobats and both long distance migrants. They come back each year to gladden our hearts and think nothing of it.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Isle of the seabirds


Continuing my enjoyment of islands in general and my nearest ones, those in the Firth of Forth, in particular, I took a trip out to the Isle of May.        (Blogs 6/9/2015, 1/5/2017)
The island is so far out in the mouth of the firth that it is part of Fife. The name probably means the Island of Seabirds - ma'a or maw is Scots for a gull. The word is Scandinavian in origin.
It certainly lived up to its eponym. Terns, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, eider duck, fulmars kittiwakes and herring gulls all nesting in their own environmental niche. The black-back gulls patrolled the island looking for prey. Woe betide any inattentive parent or nestling.


Arctic Tern

Terns are very aggressive when nesting. We were advised to hold something up as they attack the highest point of any intruder. Holding my sun-hat on an extended finger was a mistake as tern beaks are very sharp and my cloth- covered finger became the target for a pin-point assault. With their staccato machine-gun calls, it was like being strafed by a squadron of miniature fighter planes.
They also have another weapon. They can bomb you with excrement which is no fun if you are already hatless !
I suppose if you have flown halfway in a 50,000 mile round trip from the Antarctic to Scotland and back, you are entitled to get a bit grumpy with folk gawping at you.





The puffins are altogether more amiable and seem to enjoy posing for visitors with cameras. The Isle of May has the biggest single colony in the UK. They could be seen waddling about near their burrows, their beaks stuffed with small fish. They are the most lovable of birds with their massive parrot beaks and their sad-eyed clown faces.


Razorbill, Shag and Eider Duck


The island has been a place of sanctity since the seventh century when St Ethernan (Adrian), an obscure Irish bishop or possibly a Scot trained in Ireland, died there in 669 A.D.

He is often conflated with Adrian also called St Adrian, the abbot of the monastery killed by Vikings in 875 A.D.

St Adrian's Priory

The Benedictine monastery, endowed by David I in the 13th century, became a place of pilgrimage along the route of holy sites from St Andrews to Holy Island. Many of the topographical features have an ecclesiastical ring to their names - Alterstanes, Bishops Cove, Pilgrim's Haven, rocks called The Angel and The Pilgrim.

The Angel and The Pilgrim


Holy men expelled the demons and wild beasts from the island of the May and there made a place of prayer*

The abbey was built on the site of a massive prehistoric burial mound dating as far back as the Bronze Age which might explain the "demons" but what wild beasts could there be on the island? Seals perhaps?

A carpet of sea campion


The oldest lighthouse in Britain, a coal burning flame called the Beacon was built on the island in 1635 and there is a light-house there to this day though now completely automatic.


The Beacon now undergoing conservation


Monks and pilgrims, royalty and commoners, fishermen and light-house keepers, soldiers and sailors have all lived on the island over the centuries from as far back as the Bronze Age and, in all that time, the puffins and the terns have returned to breed every year. It is somehow satisfying that apart from a few nosey folk like me, they have it all to themselves again.




The return trip included an approach to the Bass Rock, the largest breeding colony of the Northern Gannet in the world - 150,000 birds crammed on to its bare slopes, a truly amazing sight.

Leaving the Bass and the gannets


* Aberdeen Breviary 1510




Saturday, 3 June 2017

Macbeth Trail Part II





Loch Leven

 Before travelling north, I made a foray into Fife to get  a notion of the principal woman in the story of Macbeth
Lady Macbeth has had a bad press since Shakespeare envisioned her as a ruthless, ambitious woman giving support to her sometimes wavering husband.
In fact, Gruoch was as steely as her image and is one of the few woman of her time to have left an impression on history.
She was a royal princess in her own right, being the grand-daughter of a king.
Gruoch ingen Boite (c.1015–1054) was the daughter of Boite mac Cináeda, son of Cináed (Kenneth) III
Before 1032, Gruoch was married to Gille Coemgáin mac Maíl Brigti, who had killed Findlaích, Macbeth's father to take the title of Mormaer of Moray.
MacBethad mac Findlaích (Macbeth) avenged the death of his father by  killing Gille and his supporters in 1032 and assuming the title of Mormaer.
Gruoch had at least one son, Lulach mac Gille Coemgáin, by Gille. After the death of her husband, she married Macbeth and he adopted her son. This may seem strange to modern eyes but marriages were a matter of dynastic alliances in early medieval Alba.
 Lulach was destined to reign, albeit briefly, as King of Scots
The marriage probably infuriated Malcolm II who was trying to extinguish the tanist tradition and replace it with one of primogeniture in his own line.
The next year, one of her male relatives, probably her only brother, was murdered by Malcolm II as he maintained his hold on the throne by eliminating all who had claims to the throne under the old system of tanistry where the kingship alternated between different branches of the royal family.   Malcolm may also have killed Gruoch’s father, Boite, who was his rival for the crown.
 Grouch had no reason to be loyal to Malcolm or Duncan, his chosen successor.


She seems to have a special attachment to Fife, having lands there from her great-grandfather Duff who had ruled as king from 962 to 966 when succession still alternated between collateral royal lines. Her branch had become Thanes of Fife on their exclusion from the system. A system that collapsed with the accession of Duncan. 

St Serf's Isle on Loch Leven

 Her father Boite and she had made grants of land to the Culdee monastery on St Serf's isle in Loch Leven. Macbeth's name also appears on the ancient charters along with gifts of land in Kirkness and Bogie to the Culdees of Loch Leven.

The remains of the Augustinian chapel on St Serf's Isle

St Serf's Isle is now part of the RSPB reserve and landing on it  would disturb nesting birds. 


 Maiden castle is a motte,  an artificial hill, at one time topped by a wooden palisade. It stands in Kennoway in Fife.
The site is traditionally associated with "Macduff, Thane of Fife".

Maiden Castle, the Motte , now covered with trees


Hector Boece (1526) described it as surrounded by seven ramparts and ditches and as the place where for a long time lived the descendants of the "illustrious" Macduff
The Macduff of Shakespeare's play is an invention designed to please the new Stuart monarch, a dramatic means of contrasting his loyalty to Duncan against the perfidious treachery of Macbeth, the regicide.  It also provided a retelling of the Stewarts’ descent from the mythical Banquo.

Castle Macduff  from a later period

 Macbeth’s reputation was being besmirched by the Canmore dynasty long before the Bard as they too sought to prove the legitimacy of their line.
The Culdee monastery was replaced with Augustinian monks by David I who, with his Norman background, understood the need for hierarchy and structure in ecclesiastical as well as political circles.
 By that time the Gaelic-Celtic society of interlinked kinships and family loyalties had been replaced by feudalism.
Shakespeare did get one thing correct.  Queen Gruoch, his Lady Macbeth, was the equal of any of her male contemporaries in the dynastic struggles of the nascent Kingdom of Alba.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Macbeth Trail Part I


For my last big birthday, I was gifted a seat at The Globe to see Macbeth, the most quoted of all the plays and well up my personal hit list.
What a great day out in perfect weather.
Macbeth wasn't in my mind at all when I went exploring along the coast of Fife to the Wemyss caves to see the Pictish rock carvings but when I climbed up to Castle Macduff on the cliff above, the ruins stirred a thought or two.

Pictish rock art

Of course, this isn't the castle of Macduff who was "from his mother's womb, untimely ripped" thus allowing him to evade the restriction of the witches' prophecy and to kill Macbeth. This is a much later edifice but looking at the ruin from the opposite hill, I thought it would be a perfect place to stage an out-door production of the Scottish play with plenty of opportunity for " exits and entrances".

Macduff Castle
This rather tenuous link started me off on a trail to visit as many of the places associated with the real Macbeth as I could manage.
Shakespeare's Macbeth is nothing like the real historical figure and the play for all its magnificent drama was written to please the newly crowned James I, fresh down the road from Edinburgh where he had been Jamie the Saxth. (VI)
Where the Bard got the idea is unknown but he was an astute business man and, no doubt, had been reading up on Scottish history looking for material to dramatise for his acting company, the King's Men and their new royal patron.
Holinshed's Chronicles, his most likely source, drew heavily on the works of Boece and Leslie where the totally fictitious Banquo first makes an appearance, designed to give the Stewart dynasty an ancient lineage.
Buchanan, that Calvanist, scholar and tutor to the young King James VI drily noted "some of our writers relate a number of fables more adapted for theatrical representation than history".
How true these words would come to be.

Dunsinane hill on the left

Dunsinane Hill seemed a good place to begin though chronologically, it comes at the end of the story.
It has the best quotes.

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him

High Dunsinane

At just over 1000ft,it is quite a pleasant climb with great views over Strath Tay and Angus from the summit. The extensive ramparts of the Iron Age fort are still very obvious and it is quite possible that the real Macbeth did choose to make a stand here against Malcolm Canmore and his Northumbrian allies though it certainly was not the site of a royal palace.

Iron Age ramparts probably reinforced in Macbeth's time

Macbeth wasn't killed at Dunsinane in 1054. Though defeated at the Battle of the Seven Sleepers as it was called, he retreated to his power base in Moray and reigned for another three years. The losses inflicted on Malcolm and Siward, Earl of Northumbria, including the loss of Siward's son, were such that they were not able to secure their victory until 1058 with the death of Macbeth and later, that of Lulach, his adopted son who only reigned for seven months.

To Dunsinane, it is about 16 miles from Birnam - a long way to carry a tree! It may be that the army assembled under the cover of the trees to conceal their numbers or maybe they did carry branches as a sort of camouflage making it difficult for the defenders to assess their strength.
The great wood is no more.  One mighty tree remains that might just have been a seedling in Shakespeare 's day but nothing that reaches back to Macbeth. 


The ancient trees of Birnam

Much traduced by his later biographers and by W.S., he was, by the standards of his time, a good king, a better one than Duncan who was a poor general and had suffered defeats by the Vikings of Orkney and the Northumbrians. Macbeth was Duncan's cousin not his captain, he was Mormaer of Moray and had accompanied his grandfather to the court of the great Cnut to the exclusion of Duncan.  He had as much right to the throne in that era before primogeniture was established, both cousins being grandsons of Malcolm II.  Another cousin was Thorfinn the Mighty, the viking Earl of Orkney, ruler of the Northern and Western Isles and Caithness!
Macbeth defeated Duncan in battle and was installed as king, seated on the Stone of Destiny at Scone as had all his predecessors. He reigned for eleven years and was sufficiently secure in his kingship to go on a pilgrimage to Rome.


The Moot at Scone where the Kings of Alba were inaugurated, seated on the Stone of Destiny


I also discovered that the proper pronunciation is Dun-SIN-ane, with the stress on the second syllable as in Dunfermline or Dunvegan. Shakespeare changed it to make his verse scan in iambic pentameter.

I will not fear death and bane

Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane*


... and so it must remain!


*Act V Scene III

The next step must be north to Moray.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

An afternoon in the Grassmarket





Re-reading my way through Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels is a self appointed task and with their heavy prose, an excellent soporific. No sleeping tablets required.
Having said that, they are grand tales of Scottish history even with the archaic and probably contrived speech of the "common" folk which was no doubt to give them authenticity but makes them a wee bit inaccessible to the modern reader.
After I was asked to do a background piece on Tales of the Covenant for the revival of Wilson's "Tales of the Border",
 I read Old Mortality with its story of Covenanting times for some background colour and then carried on with The Black Dwarf, a failed Jacobite uprising and so to Heart of Midlothian with the Porteous Riots in Edinburgh and Rob Roy, the famous outlaw hero.
Coming down from Arthur's Seat (Blog 18/05/2017) with Scott fresh in my mind, I spent the rest of the day in the Grassmarket where the public executions of criminals and religious dissenters took place and features greatly in Scottish history and literature.
One of Rob Roy's sons was executed there on what was somewhat questionable evidence.
Many Covenanters died here and the site of the old gallows is now a memorial to them.


 Captain Porteous, a significant character in the first chapters of Heart of Midlothian, was the officer commanding the City Guard.  The Guard were universally disliked. They were mainly  Highlanders, armed with Lochaber axes, a fearsome weapon but were generally elderly  and less than competent. They were lampooned mercilessly by Robert Fergusson, the poet of Auld Reekie. 

Fergusson's statue outside the Canongate Kirk

At the execution of two men, Wilson and Robertson, Wilson had managed to impede three of the four guards while his companion Robertson knocked down the fourth and escaped.
The Edinburgh mob was always volatile and after Wilson was executed, they attacked the guard.  Captain Porteous ordered his men to fire on the crowd. Several were killed and the impetuous captain was tried for unlawful killing and sentenced to hang.  Queen Caroline in London granted a reprieve whereupon the incensed mob stormed the Tolbooth, seized Porteous and hanged him from a dyer's pole in the Grassmarket.   Not for the first, nor the last time, did the Scottish public resent interference from London in their affairs.
Executions were well attended and, if you owned a house or a "land" with a good view, then  there was money to be made...

"and to think what a weary walk they hae gien us", answered Mrs Howden with a  groan; "and sic a comfortable window I had gotten, within a penny-stane cast o' the scaffold – I could hear every word the minister said – and to pay twalpennies for my stand and a' for naething" *
 (The lady was extremely disgruntled at the reprieve of Captain Porteous)

A grand view of proceedings!


The  West Bow curves up from the Grassmarket to the Castle and at its foot is the old Bow Foot Well establish in1674 with water from a reservoir on the Castle mount to supply the townsfolk.

The Bow Head Well

It was up the West Bow that lived the notorious Major Weir and his sister. He had served with distinction as a Covenanter soldier being an original signatory to the document and was renowned for his strict Presbyterianism and preaching. On his sick bed, he and later, his sister, confessed to necromancy, incest and witchcraft. They were both executed. The confession may have been the deranged ramblings of dementia and religious mania and the sister's corroboration, an example of folie a deux in a submissive partner. Indeed, the provost, at first, did not believe them but as they persisted in their guilt then their fate was sealed.
Major Weir along with the more renowned, Deacon Brodie may have been an inspiration for RLS's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


The only witchcraft on the West Bow now is aimed at the customer

 The houses on the south side of the Grassmarket that had originally been the property of the Knights Templar and then the Knights of St John had iron crosses fixed to them.
Such a cross can still be seen in Old St Paul's Church. It would have been the last thing seen by a condemned man...or woman.


 Half Hangit Maggie escaped the gibbet.  In 1742, she was accused of concealing her pregnancy and being delivered of a premature child which presumably died. She was sentenced to be hanged! Apparently, she revived in her coffin as it was trundled away and lived another forty years.
 A fascinating place is the Grassmarket.

* The Heart of Midlothian