Here’s a Question…

What’s older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ireland?

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Set in the Boyne Valley in County Meath – close to the site of an important medieval battle, the formidable stone passage tomb of Newgrange presents a mystery.

Built by ancient Stone Age farmers, this monument has impressive dimensions. Its  circular mound is ringed by ninety seven kerbstones, engraved with Neolithic art.

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Within its centre, an internal passage leads into a stone chamber with three alcoves.

And it is at its core, that its meaning becomes clear…

For on the longest night of the year – the Winter Solstice to be precise, the morning sun illuminates this inner chamber through a portal cut into the stone cavern.

Was it an ancient temple – a repository of ceremonial, astrological or religious significance?

How was it constructed? The amount of time and labour involved suggests that the stone age people who built it, and the thirty five surrounding smaller mounds, must have lived and worked in a complex, well organized society where specialized groups were responsible for specific tasks…

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All these stones brought to this site. What a phenominal effort! And not to be outdone, the Victorians built even more structures close by.

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To visit Newgrange is a breath-taking experience for any traveller. But for those who enter the dark chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice, it must be a spiritual, life-enhancing event.

No doubt, many people would relish such an experience, and hundreds do arrive on the day just to stand in awe outside the imposing bulk but if you wish to participate in the inner chamber, there is a free annual lottery. From the many thousands who enter, only sixty are picked.

All of this would be wonderful, providing the weather gods cooperate and the sun shines.

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Ireland, a trip to Newgrange requires some planning for there is no direct public access. You can only attend via a two hour guided tour which begins at the Visitor Centre, and involves a walk over a nearby stream and a shuttle bus to the tomb.

But on our recent trip, we jagged a last minute booking for a tour, which took us into the inner chamber to recreate the Winter Solstice experience. You stand shoulder to shoulder in the dark for some minutes with a group of strangers, an eerie experience in itself, then a light from the portal streams into the cavern… a spark of the supernatural, a sense of rebirth within an ancient womb.

There’s a collective gasp, hands reach for the damp solidity and certainty of the cold stones behind us. Breath expelled, we tramp out through the narrow passage, ducking under the low lintel, to return to the murk of an Irish day and our lives, which seem a little ordinary by comparison

For me, it was a highlight…. a fanciful forging of a link back to the ancient ones – a gentle touch, perhaps even a comforting hand on the shoulder – a visceral shrinking of time… a memory which will not be forgotten.

And afterwards…well there’s the Visitor Centre with its delicious Irish specialties.






Perennial Perils and Pitfalls of the Weather

Whilst the US and Canada flounder under enormous layers of snow and temperatures drop to record levels, parts of the UK are on flood watch. In the southeast of Australia, the country surges towards yet another scorcher. Despite all our technology, the weather controls our lives. Today, we hear a lot about weather events – an unusual choice of language! Natural disasters in the making are tracked and those lucky enough to have access to this information and the necessary resources to get to safety are able to save themselves. For those who don’t have such access, it must be very much like medieval times.

You would only have known of a storm when the clouds brewed themselves into a dark mess and the skies boomed and crackled overhead; a storm surge – when it washed away your home, and you and your children with it. Excesses of the weather were perceived as a dark force, a punishment from a vengeful God. Many cultures feared the serpents beneath the seas as well which sucked down ships and their crews. So often, ships set sail beneath sunny skies only to be lost somewhere on their journey. But the seas were the highways of the time. So much of our current political and cultural heritage would not have occurred if captains and sailors had not taken their courage in their hands and boarded ships in good faith that they might make it to  journey’s end.

Winter must have been a fearful time – a dark time, a time for consuming carefully-hoarded supplies.

What must it have been like in the Great Famine of 1315-17? For two hundred years, the weather had been quite balmy – peppered with storms, of course, but these were not enough to deny the growth of crops and the supply of grain. Temperatures began to drop: only by a degree it is said, but that was enough. Then the rains came. The first year was disastrous. Harvests failed but most villagers could fall back on reserved stores. It was the second and third years which caused death and disaster. With increasing cold and continuous rain, floods followed and crops failed. People ate grain contaminated with mould. Some were affected by the fungal poison, Ergot, which brought on irrational behavior and reduced the capacity of immune systems to fight off illness

With heavy cloud cover, salt could not be produced by evaporation in the salt pans within the estuaries. Without salt, meat could not be preserved. When the oxen and other animals died of starvation and disease, the fields could not be ploughed. Without animals, the fields could not be manured reducing the fertility of the soil and viability of future crops.

Wars don’t necessarily stop because of a few failed harvests or storms. Vital resources were diverted away for military purposes. Across northern England and Scotland, devastation was wrought by both sides on the people and land. In Ireland, the Scots sought to enlist the aid of the Irish in defeating the Anglo-Irish lords. Had there not been a famine, they might just have succeeded.  In Europe, the situation was even worse as industries failed and scarce food supplies were diverted by warring kingdoms.

More periods of famine occurred in the following decades until the Black Plague decimated the population. Much later in 1360, an English army was struck by a storm: men and horses were killed by huge hail stones. The warring parties accepted this as divine intervention and sought a peaceful resolution.

Now we have a greater understanding of the vagaries of the weather. It may not be divine judgement as such but certainly our actions as consumers have contributed to changes in weather patterns.

Thankfully, in this day and age, we are more likely to survive periods of intense weather.  I wish all those who are suffering in these current conditions, a safe return to normal life.

The Wonders of Languedoc

If, like me, you are fascinated by the Cathar heritage of this region, and the wine and the food, you might like to join me on a journey to the little-known village of Lastours. Above it, four ruined chateaux perch high on a rocky spur. Be guided by your adventurous heart and make the climb to where the chateaux are linked by a rocky path. Far below, lie deep ravines snaking along the surrounding river valleys; your only company, the eagles flying high above.

I had been visiting Carcassonne and, in my attempts to explore beyond the highly touristed spots, found my way to this quiet and secluded spot by the local bus.

Situated in the department of the Aude, the chateaux are listed as a historic monument, the four ruins constituted as a single entity.

 In the Middle Ages, the site with its nearby iron mines belonged to the Lords of Cabaret, who offered the members of the Cathar religion sanctuary. This group had been outlawed by the Roman Catholic church as heretical, earning them the cruel and bitter attentions of the zealous Inquisition and the ire of the military forces of the Albigensian Crusade. Seeking peace and safety, the Cathars fled to the mountainous regions of the Languedoc, hiding within the various chateaux in the region. But to no avail….

Stories abound of one crusade leader at the time – Simon de Montfort, a powerful northern lord with both French and English lands. He became frustrated by his inability to break the siege of the castles. One story recounts a tale of horror when some prisoners had their eyes gouged out: ears, noses and lips cut off. One prisoner with one eye was then sent up to the castles leading his brutalised comrades as a warning to those sheltering within the stone walls. Initially with their resolve strengthened, they resisted. One of the castles even had a huge internal cistern where water could be stored, but eventually the siege was successful and the Cathars fell to the sword.

There is much written about the Cathar religion and its tragic demise, and I would encourage you to learn more about this fascinating region and its courageous people.

A word of caution – Lastours is an exceedingly quiet village with few amenities, so take plenty of water and some snacks with you, and perhaps refrain from using the local convenience in the main street. Its faulty lock almost saw me miss the last bus back to Carcassonne.

 I’ll always be grateful to the workman who responded to my frantic calls for help.

Mille mercis, monsieur!

A little-known London Treasure

Some years back, I was wandering in the area around Convent Garden Market and Leicester Square when I came across an unusual French church. Built on the site of a former medieval church and with a foundation stone from Chartres cathedral, this functioning church had been built for the surrounding residents, many of whom were French. The reader can explore the story of these French emigres further, in a book ‘The History of the French in London’ by Debra Kelly and Martyn Cornick (2013).

Those who came to London from the16th century onwards sought sanctuary following periods of religious, social and economic upheaval in Europe, bringing with them artisan skills such as: silk weaving and textile manufacture; tailoring; lace-glove-and periwig making; clock making; book-binding and jewellery design which enriched London society beyond measure. Though many of these emigrants would have been protestant Huguenots escaping religious persecution, there was also a substantial Catholic community.

During the Blitz, the church was damaged and subsequently repaired to its current circular beauty. My interest was taken by the drawings hidden away in a side area, known as the Lady Chapel, by noted French artist, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) who created an extraordinary tableau of the Crucifixion, Annunciation and Assumption of Christ – a trio of frescoes done in the artist’s inimitable and intimate style – a sacred space to honour the citizens of France, especially following WW2, and to support London’s resident French community. It is also recognized by English Heritage as a Grade 2 listed building.

Another church, situated in the south of France at Villefranche-sur-Mer (near Nice) also has similarly styled art work for those who might be interested or travelling in the area.

Cocteau worked in a unique manner, hidden away behind a screen – for protection from the popular press of the time and the public. During the eight days it took to complete the drawings on the curved walls of the chapel, he would immerse himself in his subject, speaking directly to the woman in the piece, either the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene… it is not clear, so Cocteaus’ mural holds an intriguing perspective which is open to interpretation for those of either traditional religious beliefs or heretical persuasion. In the end it is for the viewer to decide.

Something to note… if you look closely, you can see an unusual face – an unexpected observer added to the tableau which is believed to be Cocteau himself!

For myself, I was fascinated to find such an intriguing artistic treasure hidden away in an unassuming church with such a wealth of French and English history behind it.

The Wonders of Brittany Part 2

Though it is situated in the north west corner of France, Brittany offers a culture, unique unto itself. It also benefits from being surrounded by sea on three sides offering residents, and visitors alike, a mild temperate climate and a glorious coastline. For me, many of its wonders lie embedded within its unique culture, stunning landscape and layered history.

You might be surprised to learn that Brittany has a strong historical link to Scotland through the Stewart/Stuart kings.

During the reign of Henry 1 of England, there were ongoing wars between England and France. A request had been made for Henry and his army to come to the aid of the Breton Dukes to put down an uprising of their enemies. When Henry later returned to England, he recruited some of the loyal Breton nobles to act as mercenaries in return for generous land grants.

It was from a noble Breton family, primarily that of the Seneschal of Dol from NE Brittany, and his descendants, who went on to became hereditary Stewards of the Scottish kings. A later descendant founded Paisley Abbey in Scotland and the family’s name gradually morphed into Stewart. These Stewarts developed a considerable power base associated with their role in supporting Scottish royalty, and their tendency to marry strategically into the Scottish nobility consolidated their high status role.

In the twelfth century, a strategic marriage was brokered for a royal princess, sister of two Scottish kings, Malcolm (iv) and William 1; Princess Margaret became the wife of Conan (iv), Duke of Brittany. Subsequently, her second husband Humphrey de Bohun became a Constable of England, and progenitor of the ‘de Bohun’ family, whose members were active during the Wars of Independence between England and Scotland.

Here our story shifts to Duchess Margaret’s daughter, Constance, who played a key role in the intrafamilial tensions between Henry 11and his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine, and their sons. Henry arranged for Constance’s marriage to his fourth son, Geoffrey. When the latter was trampled to death in a tourney accident, Constance became sole ruler of Brittany. She was the mother of Arthur, named as heir to Henry’s throne. At the age of 16, Arthur disappeared in captivity. Though his fate was unknown, many believed King Richard, of Lionheart fame, had facilitated his murder – especially when Arthur’s sister, Eleanor, was similarly imprisoned to prevent her succession. Sometime later in 1241 she died during her imprisonment in England.

Later in Scotland, in the 14th century, King Robert the Bruce forged an even stronger alliance with the Stewart family, when a notable son, Sir Walter, married the king’s daughter, Princess Marjorie Bruce.

Their descendants went onto to found the Stuart dynasty which ruled Britain for many centuries.

The Breton links with Scotland were consolidated by other marital alliances when the daughters of the Scottish royal house were married to Breton Dukes. One such daughter was Isabella Stewart (born 1426) – the second daughter of King James 1 of Scotland and Joan Beaufort – who was married to Duke Francois 1, the good-hearted, of Brittany.

After her husband’s death, Isabella remained in Brittany despite her father’s attempts to marry her off to another royal suitor.  Royal women were frequently used as pawns to shore up alliances and wealthy connections between countries. Isabella died in Vannes, an important seat of political power, in 1494.

Vannes is an imposing walled city in southern Brittany. Its turreted walls, formal gardens and medieval buildings offer the visitor intriguing nooks and crannies to explore. With its range of shops, cafes and restaurants and delicious food, there is plenty to entice the visitor. And when you’ve exhausted these delights, not far away lie the extrordinary fields of standing stones at Carnac.

So many wonders! Perhaps I’ll see you there?

The Wonders Of Brittany (Part One)

In north western France, on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by sea, lies Brittany – a region with a most curious past. One of the wonders for me is Brittany’s little-known link to Scotland. But first, here’s a snapshot of the area’s history…

During the fifth and sixth centuries, Celtic settlers emigrated from Britain across the Channel, presumably to escape invaders from northern Europe. The settlers’ language was similar to that spoken in Wales and Cornwall.

By the ninth century, their culture was flourishing and intermarriage occurred between the royal houses of Brittany, England and Scotland. But we’ll explore more of this in a later blog.

Amidst a landscape of misty moors, lush forest and a rugged coastline, legends abound, offering a history rich with the folk lore of spirits and goblins.

Stemming from a Celtic Druidic heritage, the central forests hold a repository of medieval Arthurian tales. It was believed the ancient King Arthur of Britain ruled over the territories of Grande Bretagne (the England of today) and Petit Bretagne (Little Britain – todays’ Brittany). Deep within the Forest of Broceliande, Arthur and his knights experienced heroic adventures and early French bards spread their fame. What was Arthur’s fate? He is believed to be trapped in a cave at a megalithic site called Merlin’s tomb.

Going back even further, the standing stones of Carnac, numbering in their thousands, are an intriguing reminder of this unique period in time, especially since they are believed to predate the pyramids of Egypt

Though the site of these stones is now fenced from the public, don’t be put off by that. To view the extraordinary quantity of stones and their unique placement across three fields is a breathtaking experience which makes you wonder why, and how, this mysterious alignment came about. Located on the south coast of Brittany, the nearby rugged bays and inlets were rich with food, and industries such as fishing and oyster farming would have supported a large community and still flourish today. Though mysterious to our modern view, Carnac repesents a hugely spiritual dimension of life which is beyond our comprehension but worthy of our investigation.

For those seeking more information, the Museum of Pre-History is worth visiting for its displays of found objects.

This part of Brittany was once part of the Roman Empire until the centurions departed for Rome to stave off the pagan hordes whose arrival wrought the decline of powerful empire.

Over the centuries, many thousands of visitors have passed this way – Celtic adventurers, Roman soldiers, Scottish, French and English royalty, WW2 Nazi Germany invaders, and their armies. Many have sought to control this beautiful region with its riches but none have succeeded in wiping out Brittany’s unique culture.

One wonders what those visitors, in times of war and peace, made of the standing stones. Even today, for lovers of history, they continue to amaze and delight.

And the surrounding towns and villages offer todays’ visitors, medieval buildings aplenty to explore as well as the relaxing pleasures of the seaside with a multitude of cafes and restaurants serving up delectable seafood.

Till next time…

It’s been a while!

Covid-19 hit us in 2020, and here we are a year or so later still dealing with it. But to survive, we need to adapt, to adjust, to thrive. So, it’s time to get off the couch and start the cogs of the mind jogging over again; the break, such as it was, is over. It’s time to get back to work….

My first blog in 2021 is about one of my favourite places in Scotland, a small town roughly about 25 miles east of Edinburgh on the coast where the Firth of Forth greets the North Sea. North Berwick is a picturesque village, popular with golfers and sightseers and a place I’ve been fortunate to visit quite a few times. It’s easy to get there for a day trip – either by car or you can take the train from Edinburgh.

It is known as a centre of excellence for bird watching. At the Seabird Centre, you can view the inhabitants of a huge gannetry on the volcanic plug, Bass Rock. Behind the North Berwick community sits another impressive volcanic plug, a conical hill called North Berwick Law. A rich midden was found in the vicinity so I imagine the early hunter gathers who lived here harvested the resources of land and sea many thousands of years ago.

Fast forward to medieval times, and it is here that you find some of the Scottish nobility – families like the MacDuffs, the Lauders and the Stewarts held sway here at the early motte and bailey, and later castle, strategically built overlooking the sea. The village was well known for its ferry which served the many pilgrims enroute from the abbeys of Lindisfarne in Northumbria to St Andrews in Fife, site of the great cathedral and Scotttish ecclesiastical centre. The harbour was key to this movement. Now it is happily filled with pleasure craft.

My goodness it’s a pretty town and well worth visiting with its cafes and galleries and coastal walks. I love the history though for its links with Robert The Bruce and the lead up to the Battle of Bannockburn. Prior to this the castle was in the hands of the English – the earl of Pembroke and his army. But when Edward 11 escaped after the rout of his forces he rode post haste to Dunbar – the next harbour on, where he could be rescued by boat and transported to South Berwick, now known as Berwick upon Tweed. Hot on his heels rode Sir James Douglas. Somehow, Edward was able to escape. Pembroke and his forces departed North Berwick and rode to Dunbar in support.

Over the next few hundred years the castle changed ownership a number of times until it either fell into disuse or was slighted. The Lauder family moved its power to Bass Rock when a castle was built there. Later, this was used as a prison for political prisoners, and then a quarry. Now it is the site of lighthouse. Visitors can take a boat trip over there to see it up close,

Another hugely interesting aspect of North Berwick’s history relates to the famous Witches’ Trials. During the reign of King James VI (son of Mary Queen of Scots), the king travelled to Denmark in 1589 by ship to collect his bride, Anne of Denmark. A severe storm caused him to turn back. With such an inbuilt hatred and obsession with witches, he blamed them for the storm. Prior to this he had written a book, exploring areas of witchcraft and demonic magic. Hundreds of people, mainly women were convicted and tortured to extract confessions; some were merely guilty of possessing red hair, birthmarks or even for being left handed; many of whom were subsequently executed by strangulation and being burnt at the stake. These executions often took place near the site of the medieval St Andrews Old Kirk.

But for the sightseer, its not all doom and gloom. There are lots of areas to explore with the ancient streetscapes and lovely old buildings. Families can have a relaxed, happy time entertaining their children and pets on the sandy beaches where dog walkers are welcomed, or learning something new about the local birdlife at the Seabird Centre. Festivals also take place here, often linked to broader Scottish festivals, allowing a rich cultural life for locals and visitors alike.

North Berwick is known for having a climate with more sun and less rain than the rest of Scotland, so you should certainly be able to enjoy a lovely day out in the summer, capped off by a glass of wine and a delicious fish supper in one of the atmospheric cafes.

I look forward to Covid travel restrictions being lessened, particularly here in Australia, enough at least to allow international travel; as well, with the hope offered by the vaccinations… then maybe – just maybe – we might be able to revisit our favourite places in beautiful Scotland. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

A Magical Time of Year

Christmas 2019 is now just a fond memory. But if, like me, you like shiny things then you are in for a treat. During a recent trip to Europe, we travelled by train from Frankfurt in Germany, to Salzburg and Vienna in Austria, and lastly to Budapest in Hungary…. to see the Christmas markets. These are bucket-list destinations and easily accessible, given how close the cities are to each other. There are so many markets available… some cities have twenty or more scattered around various plazas. We managed to take in just a few but some cover many acres, Surprisingly, each one was different. Be prepared to have all your senses working full time with the sights, sounds, aromas and tastes.

On this trip, we were in search, specifically, of snow and struck it lucky in Salzburg. Coming from years of excessive heat and drought in Australia, the sight of a very cute miniature snowman in a park; crisp, white snow settling on Christmas market stalls; and snow-dusted mountains seen in the distance from Salzburg castle, added so much to our experience.


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I had thought the crowds might be too great but they were manageable especially if you went late afternoon before revellers had hit the glühwein stalls and in time for an early dinner of tantalising street food. In winter time, it gets dark early. Usually by about 4pm, the twinkling lights beckon.IMG_0202 (2)

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You might be wondering how this topic fits into a medieval theme but these markets, and others like them, have an historical pedigree: some, going back to 1294 as in the case of Vienna. Medieval life was often dominated by death, disease, war and famine. Frequently, life was hard and short. People sought solace and structure in religion and aspects of the religious calendar were celebrated with gusto.

It is fascinating that countries in modern times are now in the throes of the Corona Virus and the threat of disease, as in medieval times, reminds us lives can be brutally cut short and lifestyles which we accept as a given may also change beyond recognition. Another serious threat has been terrorism which has seen events, where vulnerable crowds gather, cancelled.  I wonder how the years ahead will pan out and how lovely family festivals such as these will be affected. I am certain though, despite overt commercialism and these significant threats, the Christmas message of peace, love and hope will continue to resonate.


Now the festivals are a place where artisans sell their wares and food sellers work extra hard to summon up huge supplies of grilled sausages and meats, stews, traditional sweet treats such as stollen and gingerbread, and if you fancy rooster testicles (??) then you are in for a treat!

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We found the markets to be uplifting and fun, also great places to buy unique Christmas gifts.


In the towns, streets are lit up and many stores remain open to entice meandering family groups. Everywhere, people are laughing and sharing, casually strolling along taking in the lights above and around them. Nearby in the commercial streets of Budapest, we saw these enterprising Christmas decorations reflecting local wares.




One of my favourite things is to visit covered market halls and the one in Budapest was exceptional. Christmas decorations light up the cavernous spaces above as you explore the food stalls below. Stall holders entice you try their local produce and a favourite memory was trying freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, just the thing to fight off winter sniffles.


This experience offered so many distinct memories to savour: the unique quality of these regional Christmas markets and the opportunity to experience a joyous European wonderland, and yes, lots of shiny things!

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Festival Time in Edinburgh

It’s a real treat to wander the streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival in August. Normally I would prefer a quieter time but the crowds and the casual street performances electrify the medieval atmosphere.  There’s so much to see and if you have the time to check out the well organised, full programme of comedy shows; you certainly won’t be disappointed.





I was fascinated by these amazing actors, who appeared to be suspended  in mid air.

But the playful nature of these characters changes as you wander up Castle Hill. On your right, you will find a poignant memorial to the Scottish witches who were murdered on this site. Now it is a bustling place during the day, and at night, the Tattoo works its magic on the crowded stands of temporary seating. For many people, the spectacular military and musical display of the Tattoo holds a ‘bucket list’ significance.



After being singled out for their healing or heretical differences, hundreds of generally innocent women, and men, were condemned to horrific deaths by strangulation, burning and drowning down in front of the castle – during a period when fear and persecution reigned supreme. This happened in many parts of the world but the anti-witch fervour seemed to take root, fueled no doubt by the written works of King James VI of Scotland who believed himself a victim of witchcraft.

So beneath all the light-hearted frivolity of the festival,  it pays to remember the dark past of this glorious city. For it is here, right before the great castle, you are literally walking  in the footsteps of the dead… and, I expect, the very angry dead!



Newbattle Abbey


DSC01344Not far from Edinburgh, there are ghouls and ghosties galore at an ancient Cistercian monastery. Now the ruins have been incorporated into an educational college, but there are reports of a Grey Lady and spectral monks wandering the grounds – 125 acres of parkland with swathes of ancient forest, the remains of a prehistoric settlement and a bridge thought to be of Roman origin.


In 2000, sewer workers discovered 135 medieval skeletons. Once the archaeologists had left, these were reburied. Perhaps one of those long-departed souls was the Grey Lady – thought to be the spirit of a young girl who was killed when she fell in love with one of the monks.

The Abbey had a long association with the kings and noble families of Scotland. King David 1st established the abbey, having brought Cistercian monks from France as part of his attempt to improve life with religious enrichment, economic development, hostelries to protect the traveller and infirmaries for the sick and dying. The royal association did not end with visits from Alexander 2nd and his Queen Consort, Marie de Coucy, who was subsequently buried there, and in 1296, King Edward 1st, Longshanks, visited as well.

Despite success at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce found the anticipated rewards and recognition of Scottish independence not forthcoming. There were still many opponents to his crown, and at a wider level, neither the Pope nor King Edward 2nd recognized him as king. In fact, the Holy Father had called for a truce between Scotland and England, hoping they would unite and support another crusade to the Holy Land, providing necessary funds and manpower. To offset these developments, Robert summoned a council of nobles to Newbattle Abbey. And it was here three letters were drafted – from the king, the church and the nobles respectively, to be sent to the Pope in Avignon. One of these documents, known famously as the Declaration of Arbroath, was subsequently formalized by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, and signed by a large number of barons: it upheld the legal and philosophical case for Scottish independence with an explanation of Scotland’s foundation and ancient past.

Another royal link came about through Robert the Bruce’s son – King David 2nd and Catherine Mortimer, his mistress who died a violent death, when an assassin stabbed her, probably at the behest of some dissatisfied nobles in the royal court. She is said to have been buried upright in one of the abbey’s walls.

Sometime during the 14th century, the abbey was attacked by English forces and burnt. It took some forty years to repair the damage.

Around 1520, the Abbey was de-established; and when one of the lay abbots, Mark Kerr, rejected Catholicism and became a Protestant, the abbey then passed into private hands, remaining with the Kerr family, the Earls of Lothian, for many generations.

An interesting story refers to another of the Kerr family: the second earl of Lothian, Robert Kerr, who was said to have consulted witches and magicians.  Apparently overcome by his accrual of great debts, he barred himself in one of the chambers, and stabbed himself several times, before slitting his own throat. This unhappy chap, along with some of the famous Douglas family, were buried in the grounds.

Eventually the abbey ruins were incorporated into the Kerr family home. In the 1930s, it was gifted to the nation – an educational training facility for the disadvantaged – and was also registered as a Scheduled Monument.

Today, the house holds treasured items such as the baptismal font of Mary Queen of Scots and the grand entrance retains one of Scotland’s only water-powered organs but it is the original abbey which ignites my imagination.


For the monks of Newbattle were granted the right to mine coal nearby, which possibly makes them the first formal coal miners in Scotland. They also had numerous granges where sheep were reared, and a lucrative income obtained from local saltpans. Road building and the development of ports to export wool, hides, timber and salt would have fallen within their mandate.

The abbey offered a guest complex for visitors, lodging for the abbot, and a substantial infirmary with a medicinal and kitchen garden. Around the monastery, a small village would have housed lay personnel, as well as all the shepherds, masons, wrights and artisan builders who contributed to the upkeep of the abbey.

Because it was used for royal councils, there would be an expectation of finery, ample good food and wine, with appropriate security. In its heyday, Newbattle Abbey was a wealthy and influential institution.

Today, Newbattle Abbey remains a purposeful environment offering facilities for educational purposes such as conferences as well as community events.

Some years back, we attended a concert there by The Battlefield Band. This raging Celtic group of fiddlers and bagpipers certainly would have woken any slumbering ghost and ghoulies. Down in the shadowy vaulted under croft during the interval, volunteers served warming soup from tureens.

Even now, I recall that strange tingling sense that we were not alone.





One of My Favourite Inns

Today we’re in the pretty village of South Queensferry which has ancient royal connections. Back in the eleventh century, it provided a ferry service at the request of Queen Margaret Canmore to transport the faithful to her chapel at Dunfermline. Many of the early medieval Scottish kings and their royal parties would have made the crossing from this point in all weathers.


Nestling beneath a famous Scottish landmark – the Forth Railway bridge, Hawes Inn has played its part assisting the travelling public since its inception as a coaching inn. In 1886, one of its renowned guests, Robert Louis Stevenson, is reported to have begun writing his novel, “Kidnapped”, and the inn features in the story’s plot.

Sir Walter Scott also found inspiration and possibly libation, there.


Nowadays, visitors can still enjoy the views across the Forth whilst partaking of the traditional fare. Relaxing beside the fire in the dining room, we have enjoyed the roasts and sumptuous fish pies on offer here.




As a small waterside village, South Queensferry has many features notwithstanding its accessibility to Edinburgh and various points north, as well as the stone buildings lining its main thoroughfare. These reflect its ancient heritage as well as its unique history.


Archaeologists discovered the remains of a previous dwelling, lived in some 10,000 years ago. From the food samples, they believed it was only used on a temporary basis so perhaps a Mesolithic holiday home to fit in with changing seasons.

On the High St, one building was owned by a sea captain. After he was lost at sea, his maid was accused of paying a beggar woman to cast a spell leading to his ultimate demise.  Both women were subsequently burned as witches.DSC02023

In more current times, ferries take tourists out, past the seals, to Inchcolm Island with its ghostly ruined monastery. Some of these visitors might also come for the festivals and to witness the strange annual procession of the Burry Man. With perhaps a nod to Pagan times, his outfit, complete with eyeholes, consists of the hooked fruits of the burdock plant attached to completely cover his bodily undergarments. It’s such a treat to see his mysterious figure, complete with  a sash and a cute floral hat. On our last visit, his two attendants led him along the High St, offering him, from time to time, whisky supped through a straw. Excited children followed collecting money for a local charity.

But some of the sadder residents lie in the local cemetery where a large number of Royal Navy graves lie, holding the casualties from the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Perhaps if you were to visit South Queensferry on New Year’s Day, you might be surprised to see folks tentatively jumping into the freezing Forth as part of the ‘Loony Dook’. Originally designed as a hangover cure, it has become a great favourite with tourists and residents alike and is another way to raise much-needed money for charity.


I’m sure you’ll agree this tiny village offers so much. With the characterful Hawes Inn, its cafes and old pubs set beside the gently lapping waters of the Forth and the imposing bulk of the railway bridge, it would make a great base for your next visit to Scotland.