Some of you may recall the walk that I took with Alan, my friend and fellow Georgian House volunteer, back in December. He very generously led me on a walk through The Royal Mile – the famous street that cuts through the city of Edinburgh – from the Castle down to Holyrood palace. During our walk, he shared with me tales of forgotten Edinburgh residents, catastrophic fires and years upon years of fascinating history.
A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I joined Alan for another walk, this time around Grassmarket which, locals will know, is a lively area of the city’s ‘old town’ that is full of pubs and cafes. We saw a lot on our walk, but instead of trying to cram everything into one post, I thought I’d focus instead on one of my favorite elements of the walk: our exploration of Greyfriars Kirkyard! (A ‘kirk’ is a Scottish word for church, by the way!)
If you’ve been to Edinburgh, then it’s very likely you’ve been to the Royal Mile. It’s right smack dab in the heart of the city and it’s where most tourists flock to, evidenced by the abundance of souvenir shops called things like ‘Thistle do nicely’. If I’m quite honest, it’s an area that many locals (myself included) tend to avoid, especially during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it’s full to the brim with actors in face paint or wigs or funny costumes asking you to please please please come see their show (I’ve been one of those actors too, by the way). All this to say: I don’t hang out on the Royal Mile too often.
But when my friend Alan, who I know from the Georgian House, offered to take me on a private historical tour through the ‘hidden’ aspects of the Royal Mile, I jumped at the chance. Turns out, there was a lot I didn’t know about this famous street.
Keeping historic houses in good condition isn’t always an easy job. And the folks at The Hill House in Helensburgh have had a particularly challenging time. This quirky and unique house – designed by the wildly creative Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1900 – has been threatened recently by water damage. You’ll know if you’ve been to Scotland, but it can get pretty wet here!! Water got into the walls of this beautiful house and was threatening its existence. So that led them to a drastic and very inventive solution to save the house.
Longtime readers will know that I often spend my weekends volunteering as a costumed historical guide at The Georgian House here in Edinburgh. It’s a beautifully restored 18th century townhouse, where you can visit and see what life was like for the family who owned the house, and their servants who kept it running, in the late 18th/early 19th century.
I’ve written posts inspired by several spots in the home already: including the bedroom, the parlor and the drawing room. BUT I don’t think I’ve done a post yet about the dining room, which is often a favorite of visitors when they come to tour the house. I was in there last weekend telling people all about dining and food in Georgian Edinburgh so I thought this would be the perfect time to spotlight the dining room on the blog.
Hello everyone! Long time no see. It’s been a while since I posted on this blog and there are a couple of reasons for that. After I got home from my writing residency in March up at Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve been full speed ahead with various things including: applying for and becoming a permanent UK resident (which involves studying for and passing a TEST about UK history, law and trivia, harder than it sounds…), teaching at the Scottish Universities International Summer School (SUISS) at Edinburgh Uni and also editing my NEW BOOK, a novella, which will be published with Speculative Books this autumn (more on that in a future post!). I also finished a draft of my first full-length poetry collection, about cosmic wormholes, and the first very rough draft of a science fiction novel. Whew! All of this is to say: I have missed you and I definitely wanted to work on this blog, but other things had to take priority.
I want to work on this blog more in general but – to be very frank with you – one of the reasons that I don’t is simply because it’s a hobby and I don’t earn anything from it. I write this blog for love and because I enjoy talking about these topics (history! books!!). But, sadly, I have considered stopping it altogether, as things have gotten busier since lockdown ended and other projects are always vying for my attention. Still, I had people asking me where the blog has gone and expressed that they loved reading it. SO I have set up a Ko-fi account here, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a place where readers can ‘tip’ writers for their work by ‘buying them a coffee’ 🙂 It’s a really easy, casual system. So if you’ve enjoyed this blog through the years, if it’s meant something to you, if you’ve learned something from it and want to keep it alive, please do consider ‘buying me a coffee’ on Ko-fi to show your support for it. It would mean a lot! You can also leave a message with your donation and please let me know what you enjoy about the blog (a favorite post maybe or what you’d like to see more of!). Thanks very much, friends!
And now back to our regular content! 🙂 Today’s post is about my visit to the Isle of May, a gorgeous and desolate island in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast. You can get a boat there from the quaint fishing village of Anstruther that takes about an hour. Although be forewarned that it’s a journey on open seas so the waves can be choppy! If you suffer from motion sickness, this may not be the adventure for you. Both me and my partner felt a little queasy when we arrived, although, on the plus side, it was seal season when we went in August and there were dozens, maybe a hundred, slick seals lounging around and playing on the rocks which we saw from the boat. (I didn’t get any pictures, they were too far away, but the wildlife is one of the best things about the island).
If you take the boat out (which is probably the only way to access the island) you are given a few hours to explore before needing to head back. Something about the tides means that the visiting windows are sadly pretty limited. We high-tailed it to the ruins of the old medieval monastery first, before checking out the Stevenson Lighthouse (did you know Robert Louis Sevenson’s family built lighthouses? Famously so! They were the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. Visits with his father to remote lighthouses are thought to have inspired his books Kidnapped and Treasure Island).
From this lighthouse, you could see an even older one, The Beacon, Scotland’s first lighthouse, built in 1636. You can’t go up The Beacon, but it’s visible from many places on the island.
Honestly the best thing to do on the island though was just to walk around and take in the awesome and desolate landscape. The wind is fierce out there and if you’re lucky you’ll be there during puffin season and can see all the puffins who make the island their home. Aside from them, it’s a home only for some scientific researchers, so when you visit it’s quite bare! There were no puffins when we went, but we saw their homes, burrows, in the ground on the sides of the path and you’re asked not to step on them, because the puffins return to the same home each year when they come back. So wouldn’t be nice for them to arrive back and have their house destroyed!
In addition to puffins, the island has played host to many different characters. It was the hiding place of a group of 300 Jacobites for eight days in 1715 (for more on the Jacobites, see my visit to Culloden). It was also a hotbed of smuggling in the 18th century, with all the wee coves and caves making it a good place to hide out. It was also home to a small fishing village in the 17th and early 18th century. And an 18th century innkeeper’s daughter even claims to have been attacked in a cave by kelpies, the legendary Scottish water horses.
We saw mostly seagulls on our trip, but I would definitely come back again (despite the queasy boat ride) to see more of the unique and dazzling landscape and explore more of the rugged, mysterious island.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts about 18th century history and historical fiction. Subscribe to the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month.
I was hesitant to write this month’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ because the town I wanted to write about, Cromarty, is something of a ‘secret’. By this I mean: it’s an off-the-beaten path stop for international tourists. I (selfishly) didn’t want to share it! However, it’s an absolute GEM of a town: which manages to encapsulate Scotland’s past in numerous ways – ancient myths, Georgian prosperity, industrial decline, and a heck of a lot in between. Not to mention the beautiful natural environment, including breathtaking walks and dramatic sea views everywhere you turn.
The town was recommended to me by one of the staff, Isobel, at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writing Centre, where I had been staying for their International Writers Residency during the month of March. My partner and a friend were coming to pick me up at the end of the residency and we wanted to go somewhere in the Highlands. I asked for a recommendation for a pretty small town, that had some history and opportunities for walking nearby. Cromarty fit the bill.
So, even though I’m reluctant to ‘share’ this special place with the wider world, this ‘Madeira Mondays’ blog series is all about celebrating history and especially 18th century history, so it would be kind of unfair of me not to! 🙂
Orkney is unlike any place I’ve ever visited before. It’s a wild, somewhat desolate island, with jaw-dropping views of windswept cliffs and rolling hills dotted in ancient stone circles. It’s a peaceful place that feels like it’s at the edge of the world, and where, if you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a giant or a fairy or some other type of mythical creature. While I didn’t see any of those, what I did get to see, on a recent trip there, was Skara Brae, the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. Over 5,000 years old!
I cannot believe that I lived in Glasgow for several years without ever visiting The Tenement House.
We decided to make the short (about 50 minutes) train ride over to Glasgow from Edinburgh to tour the house as part of my 30th birthday celebrations (slightly hungover from cocktails the night before!).
Described on The National Trust website as a ‘time capsule of life in early 20th century Glasgow’, this museum exceeding my expectations and made me (an 18th century lover) very, very jealous at how many wonderful, original items you could see there – including a jar of plum jam made in 1929! The house, located in the very cool Garnetthill area of Glasgow (also home to the Glasgow School of Art, numerous excellent coffeeshops, bars and pretty, residential streets). It was once owned by Miss Agnes Toward, who worked as a typist. She lived there from 1911 until 1965, and the house is full of the belongings of her and her mother. Agnes was a bit of a ‘hoarder’ and kept everything, which is to our benefit, since the house really feels like not only a snapshot of a time but also a quirky, personal archive. That makes the site very special. It’s one person’s home, filled with things they loved.
‘Who does not know its noble rock, rising, the monarch of the landscape…’ – James Johnson, 1834, on Stirling Castle
A few weeks ago my partner and I escaped Edinburgh for the first time in a long time, and we decided to take a jaunt to the nearby city of Stirling. Stirling was the medieval capital of Scotland and historically it was like a gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands. There’s an old saying that ‘He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland’. So it was a strategic site…the perfect place to build a castle! And Stirling Castle was our first stop on our visit there. A mighty fortress perched on a craggy hilltop which, I have to say, exceeded my expectations!
‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’
This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.
Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’