Category Archives: Scotland

On This Day – Edinburgh Castle and Lead Soldiers

While the current travel restrictions are in place I have no new stories to post so what I thought that I would do is to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

On 24th July 2015 I was in the Scottish Capital City of Edinburgh visiting the castle…

Edinburgh Castle

Even at ten o’clock there was a long queue at the ticket office, sensible people buy their tickets on line and get through quicker but I had failed in this instance to think ahead so I waited in line and shuffled ponderously towards the ticket office like a man with his shoe laces tied together.  I was cheered up however when I got there and noticed that I qualified for a 20% over 60s concession – there are some benefits to getting older but disappointingly the desk clerk didn’t ask me to prove it!

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Entrance Tickets – The Mary Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre

Jedburgh

I made my way to the house where Mary Queen of Scots lived for a month in 1566. She may or may not have stopped there of course, both England and Scotland are littered with houses that claim a royal visit but as I approached I got a feeling that this claim might just be genuine.

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Northumberland, Hadrian’s Wall and The Tree of The Year

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For our few days in the caravan at Whitley Bay we didn’t do a great deal that was different from our weekend there the previous year, this time we were entertaining family, but one thing that we did do was to visit Hadrian’s Wall.

Although a lot of people think that the Roman Emperor’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland it never has and never will because it runs a conveniently short distance between Wallsend near the River Tyne in Newcastle and the Solway Firth in Cumbria. When it came down to military expediency the Romans didn’t concern themselves too much about geography.  The wall is entirely within England and although it is close to Scotland in the west at its eastern end the wall is fully seventy miles south of the River Tweed.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, begun in AD 122 in the reign of the emperor Hadrian and was the northern limit of the Roman Empire, immediately north of which were the lands of the northern Ancient Britons, people so frightening that even the Romans wouldn’t take them on.

It was a very pleasant day for our visit and the sun was shining but I guess this would have been quite a bleak place two thousand years ago.  I imagine a legionnaire waiting for details of his posting and hoping to go Spain or France to the warm inviting beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and  bit of sunshine would have been bitterly disappointed to discover that he was going to the bitter cold north of England to help build a massive stone wall.

Clayton_painting

At a length of almost seventy-five miles long it is the largest remaining construction anywhere in the old Roman world and it was started and finished in just about six years which is an impressive rate of progress compared to how long it takes to get anything built these days.

Seventy-five miles sounds like a lot of wall but by way of comparison the Great Wall of China is over thirteen-thousand miles long, Donald Trump’s Mexico wall is approximately two-thousand miles and even in England Offa’s Dyke running between England and Wales was one hundred and fifty miles long stretching from the River Mersey in the North to the River Severn in the South.  The Maginot Line in France (a sort of underground wall) was nine hundred and fifty miles long but ultimately completely useless because the French didn’t get to finish it and in 1940 the German Panzer divisions simply went around it on their way to Paris.

The Romans were more clued up than the French it seems and the wall goes all the way from coast to coast.  They didn’t leave a gap at one end that the Barbarians could conveniently use to get past.

Hadrians Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was built almost completely of stone with a small castle every mile to act as a watchtower and a large garrison fort every five miles which was manned by a cohort of troops numbering as many as eight-hundred.  A cohort is considered to be the equivalent of a modern battalion.

It is possible to visit quite a lot of these old fortress sites and each one claims to be the biggest and the best but we chose Housesteads (maybe called Vercovicium in Roman times, no one really knows) simply because it is owned by the National Trust and being National Trust members we get to go visit for free, well, not really free but you know what I mean.

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I didn’t really know what to expect of the wall, when I was a boy I wondered why the Northern Barbarians didn’t just get some ladders and climb over it when no one was looking but here at Housesteads I got to appreciate the massive scale of the thing.  The wall was built on a natural hard granite rock escarpment called Whin Sill which rises dramatically and vertically out of the ground.  If this wasn’t enough, on the northern side the wall comprised a ditch, then the wall, a military road an earth rampart and then another ditch with adjoining mounds.  No Welcome Mats and if anyone was going to get over this wall it was going to take a lot more than a ladder let me tell you!

Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed, its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around, an extravagant expression of Roman military might and the border of the Empire.

Robin Hood Tree

So we visited the small museum, watched a short video presentation and then wandered around the site and the excavations and then walked the short distance to Sycamore Gap which is a point in the escarpment where glaciers in the Ice Age carved a path through the rock.  The place is significant because here grows a sycamore tree which is said to be the most photographed tree in England and was voted English Tree of the Year in 2016.

Oh, I just love the idea that a country that is England has a Tree of the Year competition.  It is astonishing that with such busy lives and so many distractions people actually take time out to vote in a Tree of the Year poll.  What next? A weed of the year perhaps.

There is more to this tree however.  It is also referred to as the Robin Hood Tree, not because it has anything to do with Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak but because a scene from the movie ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ was filmed there, the one where he first comes across the villain Guy of Gisborne.

Major Oak

The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest (above) was voted Tree of the Year in 2014.  The latest Tree of the Year (2017) is the Gilwell Oak in Epping Forest which has connections with the Boy Scouts and the founder of the movement Robert Baden-Powell.  He adopted the towering oak as a symbol for the growth of the scouting movement world-wide.

So, now we have been to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, The Maginot Line in France, The Great Wall of China, back to England and Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire and Epping Forest in Essex and once we were through with our visit to Housesteads we returned to the caravan in Whitley Bay.

Northumberland Seaside Painting

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Scottish Borders, Jedburgh and Mary Queen of Scots

Jedburgh Abbey

It took about half an hour to drive to Jedburgh and I liked it immediately, free parking and complimentary wifi – what a wonderful example to every other town in the UK who choose instead to fleece the casual visitor at every opportunity.

The weather was improving rapidly now and I went first to the Tourist Information Centre and arranged a speed sightseeing visit of the Abbey, Mary Queen of Scots House and the Castle Museum.

First the Abbey, an eleventh century Augustinian Church with much later additions in response to natural disasters and the consequences of border warfare, a magnificent soaring structure with both a bloody and peaceful history in almost equal measures.  Augustinians were priests who lived a secluded and contemplative life, but who went out into the countryside from their cloister to minister to the people and Jedburgh eventually possessed about twenty parish churches.

Jedburgh Abbey

Monastic life was mostly routine, boring probably, but the abbey’s location close to the border with England inevitably brought it into the conflict between the two countries that blighted the later Middle Ages. During the Wars of Independence in the fourteenth century, the canons had to evacuate the premises several times and watch the place being sacked and plundered. Further attacks in the 1400s were followed by major raids in the sixteenth century. These and the Protestant Reformation of 1560 led to Jedburgh’s demise as a monastic institution.

I liked the Abbey, so much so that my strict timetable was beginning to slip like fine sand through my fingers so I hurried through the final stages, skipped the visitor shop and made my way to the house where Mary Queen of Scots lived for a month in 1566.  She may or may not have stopped there of course, both England and Scotland are littered with houses that claim a royal visit but as I approached I got a feeling that this claim might just be genuine.

Mary Queen of Scots House Jedburgh

The day was getting better and better – free admission!  A house/museum on three levels that told the story of one of history’s tragic victims of circumstance, Mary Stuart, and in my opinion one that was well worth an admission charge so when I had finished I left a generous £5 donation.

The attendant at the museum told me that it was just a ten minute walk to the castle museum but what she didn’t tell me was that it was up a massive energy sapping hill so after just a few yards I gave up, went back to the car park to get the car and drove to the top instead.

Jedburgh Mary Queen of Scots

This was another free museum. Brilliant.  It wasn’t a real castle however because sometime during the wars of independence the Scots pulled it down and destroyed it so that invading English armies couldn’t use it anymore which was a solution that seemed a bit extreme to me.

Today the castle is a prison museum experience with a history of imprisonment and hopeless incarceration and an explanation of life in a Victorian correction establishment.  It was good, I liked it, but not as much as Mary Queen of Scots House so I only left a £2 donation this time.  Actually I was running out of coins.

Reluctantly I left Jedburgh, I would have liked to have played golf today but I wasn’t disappointed that I had been sightseeing instead.  I drove back to Galashiels but on the way stopped off at Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott.

To be honest I had imagined this to be a simple place, a crofters cottage and a small garden but it turned out to be a magnificent stately home with acres of grounds that would have taken far more time to look around than I had available today.  So I have been to Abbotsford House but I haven’t visited Abbotsford House and that will have to wait until the golfing holiday next year.

Abbotsford House Scotland

Scottish Borders, Galashiels, Walter Scott and William Wallace

Neidpath Castle Peebles Scotland

Every year thirty or so members of my golf club go for a week away golfing in Scotland and after three years on the reserve list I finally got an invite.

Unfortunately the week prior to departure I entertained my three grandchildren and one of them left me a parting gift of a very heavy cold so when I set off one Sunday morning I was sniffing and sneezing and relying on cold relief capsules to help me through the journey north.

Actually I think it was probably ‘man flu’ and  I digress here for a moment to explain that this is a condition that this is a strain of flu so powerful and so deadly that it can only be matched by the Bubonic Plague.  It is an incurable virus, which has adapted to only effect the “XY” gene found in men. The virus attacks the immune system ten thousand times more seriously than an average flu and causes excruciating pain and discomfort for the victim.

For all of the week I felt awful but I played golf for four days but on Friday I woke to grey skies and persistent rain so on account of the fact that I was due to go on holiday to Wales a couple of days later and I didn’t want to get worse and spoil that I decided against putting on the leaking waterproofs and dragging myself around the fifth course of the week and thought that I might do a little bit of sightseeing instead.

I was staying in the town of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders  which is so far south in Scotland that it is even nearer the equator than the town of Berwick-on-Tweed, the furthest town north in England but what a wonderfully scenic and historic part of the country.

This is Walter Scott country where the great man of Scottish literature chose to live and receive his literary inspiration and the land of William Wallace and the marcher lands that separated England from Scotland and was the scene of much medieval warfare and fighting.

Galashiels Raid Stane Englishman's Syke

And so it was in Galashiels where I came across memorial called “The Raid Stane” the site of an incident in 1337 when a raiding party of English soldiers were picking wild plums close to the town and and were caught by angry Scots who came across them by chance and slaughtered them all.  It seems that they were picking and eating sour fruit and they were so unwell that they were unable to fight back.

Today the town’s coat of arms shows two foxes reaching up to eat plums from a tree, and the motto is Sour Plums pronounced in Scots as soor plooms.  Every year in June there is an event in the town called the Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering which celebrates the event and by all accounts if you are English you really don’t want to be in town that particular night.

Angry Scots

I spent a half an hour or so in the granite town of Galashiels and with the rain getting heavier returned to the car and with the stubborn grey skies refusing to clear away planned a route south towards the town of Jedburgh and followed a route through sweeping hills, purple with heather and decorated with the ragged stumps of the ruins of castles and derelict lookout towers, testimony to its turbulent history.

I passed through the town of Melrose with its ruined Abbey which is said to be the secret  burial site of the heart of Robert the Bruce but I didn’t stop there because I calculated that I only had time for one ruined abbey and that was going to be Jedburgh.

I did however make detour into a valley of the River Tweed and stopped for a while at Scott’s view which is a place where allegedly he liked to stop by and reflect on life.  I am not disputing this but it this rather remote place is about ten miles or so from where he lived so in days before automobiles this would not be something that the average person, or even the great Sir Walter Scott, would be able to do on impulse.  It was a nice view all the same and apparently his funeral cortege stopped off here for a short while on his way to his burial spot in the grounds of nearby Dryburgh Abbey.

One of my favourite Scott stories is how he saved the Scottish bank note.  In 1826 there was a proposal to abandon Scottish notes and adopt the English notes instead.  Under the pseudonym Malachi Malagrowther Scott campaigned hard against the proposal and was eventually successful.  In recognition of this a picture of Scott even today appears on every Bank of Scotland note.

Walter Scott bank note

Instead of visiting the Abbey I sought out a massive stone statue of William Wallace standing solitary and magnificent in half armour and kilt, a massive claymore hanging menacingly from his belt and leaning on a giant sword fully fifteen feet tall.

Thanks to the hopelessly historically inaccurate Mel Gibson film ‘Braveheart’, quite possibly the most aggressively Anglophobe and historically inaccurate film ever made, William Wallace remains a burning symbol of Scottish nationalism but the truth is that his fame is based on one lucky victory against the English and a conveniently overlooked string of subsequent defeats.

I thought he looked rather sad and forlorn stuck out here abandoned on a ridge overlooking the river wondering what might have been and with nothing to detain me here for more than a few minutes I swiftly moved on towards my intended destination.

William Wallace