Category Archives: Covenanters

Exploring old Edinburgh

I like history – but I’m every bit as intrigued by the way the past connects with the present as I am by historical events themselves. That’s probably why Sackcloth on Skin isn’t the straightforward historical novel which might have more chance of finding a publisher! But they say write about what interests you, and this absolutely fascinates me. How does the past influence and intersect with the present – in ideas, in stories, in objects, in buildings? Does it matter? What if we’re completely oblivious to the history of a place or an idea – does our lack of awareness make the past irrelevant, or does it still have significance? How many layers are there anyway?

Tempting to apply that politically, but that’s not the point of this post.

One of the great things about walking about Edinburgh is that those layers of the past are everywhere around you. A new project by St Andrews University is stripping back the layers and has created a reconstruction of Edinburgh in 1544. If you like this kind of thing it’s fantastic. You can walk up the Royal Mile and through closes which are still there today, or down the steep slope of the now-disappeared West Bow to the Grassmarket.  This trailer is just a taster for the app to be released in May.

Fast forward 150 years, and Dilys Rose’s newly published novel Unspeakable conjurs up just as vivid an experience of Edinburgh’s closes, taverns and lands, this time not eerily empty but full of clamour and stink, humour, struggle and tragedy. It’s the story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. I read it with some trepidation, because when you’ve just finished your first novel you really don’t want to discover that such a superb writer is about to publish something of similar period and theme! But I really enjoyed the book, and with a deep breath can say that Sackcloth on Skin occupies its own territory. Whether that territory ever finds its way into the wider world remains to be seen…

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© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

 

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Deeside discoveries – Migvie, Glen o’ Dee and Dunnottar

We spent most of last week exploring Deeside in the sunshine. There were various historical sites we planned to see, but it’s often the hidden places you come across unexpectedly which catch the imagination. Here are just a few…

Migvie Church

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We tracked down Migvie Churchyard in search of this Pictish symbol stone, which was well worth seeing. There was an interesting 17th-century graveslab nearby too. There was, we noted, no sign outside the church, but it’s always worth trying the door of a country church. What we found inside was utterly astonishing.

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The building was painted white, lit through beautiful coloured stained glass windows, and furnished and decorated with painting, stonework and woodwork which incorporated many Celtic and Pictish saints and symbols as well as verses from Scripture and other writers.

It turned out to be the work of local craftspeople, commissioned by Philip Astor (of the Astor family, and married to the writer Justine Picardie), who owns Tillypronie estate, as a memorial to his parents. I’m not sure how it is used, but it was a place of real beauty and peace, thought-provoking, and somewhere I could easily have spent far longer than we were able to.

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Glen o’ Dee Hospital

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A complete contrast, this one, but another unexpected discovery. I had come across the name of this former tuberculosis sanatorium during the course of some research, and when we saw the signpost we decided to take a quick look. I’m not sure what we expected to find, but my photos definitely don’t do this unusual building justice.

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You can see an image of how it looked originally here, and some photos of the abandoned interior here. Resting among the pine trees on the edge of Banchory, the sanatorium was built in 1899-1900, and modelled on the pioneering sanatorium built in Nordrach in Germany. It was originally known as Nordrach-on-Dee, and was intended to provide fresh air, treatment and research in the battle against the scourge of tuberculosis. As treatments changed and the disease became less common, the sanatorium was no longer needed. Since then the building has had a spell as a luxury hotel, and then was used once more as a sanatorium during the Second World War, before becoming a convalescent hospital. It finally closed in 1998. This stunning building is Grade A listed so can’t be demolished, but instead is crumbling slowly into total decay. Apparently it featured unsuccessfully in the 2003 TV series Restoration, but it’s a tragic loss of an unusual and fascinating building.

The Whigs’ Vault, Dunnottar Castle

This one was top of the list of places I wanted to visit. My ongoing, long term writing project touches tangentially on some of the Covenanters who spent six weeks imprisoned in horrendous conditions in a vault in this inaccessible castle. Dunnottar sits in a spectacular location on the cliffs, almost completely surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, and can only be accessed by a narrow path and steep steps.

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We had a prior engagement with some puffins at Fowlsheugh a little further south. We basked in sunshine as we walked along the cliff edge spotting razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and the elusive, wonderful puffins, then drove back up to Dunnottar. It was a perfect summer’s day.

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But this was the view when we reached Dunnottar, just five or ten minutes up the coast.

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A bit unfortunate for the poor people who were trying to celebrate a wedding on the cliffs overlooking the castle.

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The east coast haar remained stubbornly persistent throughout the rest of the afternoon, so we didn’t get the full effect of being surrounded by the sea – but in some ways the swirling mist added to the atmosphere. And nothing could remove the resonance of standing in the vault where over 150 Covenanters who had survived the walk from Edinburgh were imprisoned, with no sanitation and little food and water.

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In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Chris and Ewan spend a day at Dunnottar:

There the Covenanting folk had screamed and died while the gentry dined and danced in their lithe, warm halls, Chris stared at the places, sick and angry and sad for those folk she could never help now, that hatred of rulers and gentry a flame in her heart, John Guthrie’s hate. Her folk and his they had been, those whose names stand graved in tragedy.

Much to think about, much to work on.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Stirling

I spent today at Stirling Castle. On my own. Part proper work, part research, part sheer indulgence.

The proper work bit was to see the exhibition Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown before it closes next week. It’s fun to go along and watch people interacting with the displays.

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The staff were fantastic. The man who sold me my ticket told me about the special exhibition, about these documents which are ‘the oldest thing you’ll see today, older than any part of the castle’. The guide in the room was doing a brilliant job of making 700-year-old Latin texts sound interesting to a group of schoolchildren. The running totals on the ‘who would you vote for’ between Wallace and Bruce were up in the 600s, with a narrow lead for William Wallace. The exhibition was remarkably busy.

I was in Stirling Castle about twenty years ago on a Scottish History trip from St Andrews, and then again about ten years ago. But so much restoration work has been carried out on these magnificent Stewart buildings that it was well worth another visit. It’s fabulous to see the coloured reconstructions of the Stirling heads, and so much more. I love to think that many of these depict the men and women of James V’s court – it’s like having the pictures in Hello spread out across the ceiling!IMG_2108

I wandered down the hill to the Church of the Holy Rude, which I’m not sure I’ve ever visited before but I particularly wanted to see today – that was part of the ‘research’ bit.

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The infant King James VI was crowned here in 1567 when his mother Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate.

Behind the church is a graveyard which was partly laid out by the Victorians, and has some rather unexpected statues of figures from Scottish reformation history dotted around, including this truly bizarre monument to two famous Covenanting martyrs who were drowned in the Solway.

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There’s a small hill in the graveyard. Climb that hill and look around, and you really are in the heartland of Scotland’s history. The surrounding landscape has been fought over again and again – Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, Sauchieburn …..  The castle of the Stewart kings looms high, not just a strategic fortress but also a self-confident expression of dynastic power and artistic ambition. The medieval church has its own story to tell through the centuries, and then there are those figures of the Scottish reformation, interpreted through Victorian eyes. Whistlestop tour through the centuries!

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© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.