The Magic of Orkney

If you want to add some real magic to your life, beg, borrow or steal your way to Orkney: a group of Islands nestling in the wild seas beyond the far north of Scotland, once home to ancient Picts and Vikings, and teeming still with a host of otherworldly creatures.
Low-lying and wind-driven, these seventy or so, almost treeless, islets are studded with burial mounds, ruined brochs and standing stones which have stood sentinel for thousand of years. Ragged cliffs line the west coast whilst the more sheltered bays to the east offer sandy beaches, often strewn with seaweed. On rocky skerries, families of selkies rest, safe for a time from the perils of the sea.
There is so much history here – from the ancient to the modern with the tragic remains of wrecks from both first and second wars in Scapa Flow, which served as a sanctuary of sorts in time of war. A ferry ride away is the dramatic Isle of Hoy with the highest cliffs and its unique wildlife. On a clear day, the wrecks are visible in the ocean below. Great for divers so I’m told!
The wide array of birdlife offers many delights as well, drawing in twitchers from around the world. This visit, I saw my first puffins at Castle Burrian on the Isle of Westray, a ferry ride away to the north. Where in the world could you sit for several hours alone on a cliff top watching puffins manically rise up from their nests and fly down in small groups to land on the blue-gray ocean swell, several hundred feet below.
Noisy seabirds fill the skies over these cliffs, whilst migratory birds enjoy the more peaceful inland lakes. I found a nesting swan on the side of Harray Loch within sight of ancient stones markers and a massive archeological dig. One of the joys of Orkney is being able to walk unhindered around statuesque individual stones as well as stone circles like the Ring of Brodgar – an awe inspiring sight which always takes my breath away no matter how many times I see it.
Other treats for me include a visit to Skaill Bay where a significant part of my story in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ takes place. I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay in the apartments at Skaill House several times and love the museum there. To wander at sunset around Skara Brae – a ruined neolithic community uncovered in a storm – is very special indeed.
Apart from many smaller villages, the main island of Orkney offers two substantial towns – Kirkwall, home to the glorious, red sandstone medieval St Magnus cathedral, and Stromness, a sturdy seafaring port whose deep harbour allowed vessels from the Hudson Bay Company to collect hardy Scots en route to a new life in the icy wastes of northern Canada.
Along their narrow lanes and ancient streets, both towns offer an intriguing glimpse into the lives of Orcadians who were once citizens of Norway. Scotland purchased control over Orkney as part of a regal dowry contract several hundred years ago but the Scandinavian flavour of these communities remain to this day.
Of course, there is so much more to Orkney than this post could possible do justice. There are heritage museums and glorious arts and crafts – and make sure you visit the Harray Potter for his coffee cups based on a neolithic design. Oh and some great whisky! I adore the peaty monsters from Islay, but Orkney’s Highland Park and Scapa are two of my all-time favourites!
If you want to know more, you can visit the Scottish National Trust and Historic Scotland sites and a wonderful website, orkneyjar.com to learn more about the culture, history and heritage of these extraordinary islands.

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Where are the Goblins Now?

Deep in a tangled forest lies a hidden treasure for history lovers. A few miles from the village of Gifford, the ruins of Yester Castle are almost lost, caught within a stranglehold of roots of great trees. Brambles clutch at the unwary who tread the faintly visible path down a gully into an old water course and up along a narrow spine of land. It would be easy to imagine a horde of goblins hiding in the woods, watching and waiting … but I get ahead of myself.
Yester Castle belonged to the Lords of Gifford (sometimes spelt Giffard, and mostly called Hugh or Hugo) an old Anglo-Norman family granted land in the glorious East Lothian area of southern Scotland around the time of David I in the 12th century. By my reckoning that makes them contemporaries of the early Bruces, the Lords of Annandale, ancestors of Robert the Bruce.
The earliest Lord Hugo was an influential baron and one of the hostages used to secure the release of King William the Lion, son of David I, who had been captured by the English.
By mid 13th century, stones were being quarried for Yester Castle and here is where the story gets interesting.
A much later Lord Gifford became a Regent of the kingdom of Scotland following the death of Alexander II. The latter’s son, another Alexander, was a minor and Lord Hugo became his Guardian. This Lord of Yester is reported to have been a necromancer and magician.
But where do the goblins fit into this story? Legend has it that this Hugo de Gifford sold his soul to the devil. This pact gave him access to an army of hobgoblins who built his underground chamber in record time.
Sir Walter Scott immortalised him in his tale, Marmion … a horn blew calling the king’s men to fight the Norse army which had sailed into Largs (around 1263); Lord Hugo, caught up in the shock of the moment, heard the horn in far off Yester and rushed from his dark chamber wearing his mantle, a cloak of white fox fur. A wizard’s pointy hat perched upon his head… a medieval Dumbledore!
Alexander III was actually present at Yester Castle some years later and it was from here that he wrote a letter to King Edward I. At that stage, relations between the Scottish and English kings were amicable – no doubt due to the kinship networks with intermarriage common between the families, but the Scots must have have experienced some ambivalence regards the English kings’ ambitious, little-concealed desire for sovereignty over Scotland.
But what is the truth of the matter? Why goblins and wizards?
Surprisingly, these claims didn’t seem to have worried King Alexander III. So was there some political or personal interest to be gained from his continued affiliation with his former guardian or were these claims merely dismissed as fanciful nonsense?
There were those in medieval times who practiced alchemy seeking the answer to the question of life and death and the hereafter, carrying out experiments – perhaps the earliest scientists of their time. Some sought to mix precious metals to make gold.
We can only ponder about the legend and express wonder that the site of Lord Hugo’s alleged preternatural activities still exists.
The tale of Goblin Hall or Goblin Ha’ spread far and wide. At one time a village which stood near the castle was moved further away by one of the subsequent lords. The peaceful village of Gifford remains on the ‘new’ site to this day. Perhaps it was more suitable ground for a growing community? Conspiracy theorists might suggest the Lords of Yester had a strong need for secrecy and privacy.
Even today, the Goblin Ha’ appears shrouded in mystery. And ghost sites on the internet often refer to it as being haunted.
On the day of my visit – thankfully with a knowledgeable local guide, I tried not to let my imagination run away with itself. My resolve crumbled with each slippery step down into the chamber. Having to bend over to enter through a low tunnel added another hazard; the narrow, confined entrance seemed in tune with the size of ‘its builders’. A stairway was evident beneath the main subterranean chamber. And if a goblin had leapt out from the shadows, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
Once my eyes adjusted to the gloom, the medieval vaulted ceiling took form and shape above me. Some say the chamber was a storeroom of sorts and perhaps this was the case for there seemed to be evidence of an upper floor. The dank smell of decay filled the air. Beyond a grated, low arch, on the opposite wall to the entrance tunnel, rotting leaves and debris filled what once must have been an exit. Perhaps it was from here that Lord Hugo had stumbled hearing the king’s call to arms …
What did surprise me was how eerie the forest felt and the tangle of limbs, roots and bushes seemed to repel unwanted visitors. Even the ravens nesting up in the ruined ramparts had something to say!
Yester Castle is a scheduled monument and did come up for sale a few years back. It is on private land but with Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ laws, you can wander unimpeded around the site – that’s if you can find it! Good luck!

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What happened at Cambuskenneth Abbey?

On the eve of 23rd June 1314, David Strathbogie, earl of Atholl, thundered into the grounds of Cambuskenneth Abbey in a surprise attack on the supply depot of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. The disaffected knight, fighting on the side of the English, left behind a trail of destruction and a knight, Sir William Airth, lay dead. It was an unexpected blow to the Bruce forces, facing up to King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, but fortunately not insurmountable.
After the defeat of the English, Robert adjourned to the abbey, mourning the death of the earl of Gloucester, one of his kinsmen.
What must the abbey have looked like after Bannockburn? The clerics would have had many wounded, shattered men to attend to and support, midst the great wealth and booty left behind by the retreating English king and his army.
These thoughts and more were in my mind on the day of my visit to the abbey which lies close to both Stirling Castle and the Bannockburn.
The abbey’s history began around 1140 in the time of King David I. Since then, many illustrious kings including Edward I have prayed at the altar of this Augustinian monastery.
King Robert held a much later parliament there as well to confirm the succession of his infant son, David II. Its proximity to Stirling Castle made it a strategic, central place to gather and gave it great prominence, similar in relationship to that of Holyrood Abbey and Edinburgh Castle.
Given its historical significance, it is surprising that so little remains but the Reformation wrought much if its worst destruction.
Apart from a wonderfully evocative, 13th century campanile tower, home now to a flighty flock of doves and pigeons, little remains but an arched doorway, perhaps part of the original edifice, and the knee-high stone outlines of the church with its extensive range of outbuildings.
Nearby on the peaceful banks of the Forth River, a surprising number of gulls rested on the tidal sand-flats and I wondered how the river might have changed. Quite likely, small boats drew up here delivering cargo, taking away wool and grain to markets elsewhere.
Within the church grounds lies the grave of a much later king, James III, who was murdered before the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. His queen, Margaret of Denmark, lies beside him in a tomb which was constructed by order of Queen Victoria. Compared to those who lie in pomp and gilded glory in Westminster Abbey, it is a surprisingly humble monument for one of Britain’s royal families.
The abbey is under the care of Historic Scotland and is free to enter.

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King Robert the Bruce Heritage Centre

Last month whilst in Scotland, I was very fortunate to be able to visit the King Robert the Bruce Heritage Centre in Renton, West Dunbartonshire and meet with members of the Strathleven Artizans. Their quest, as I understand it, is to educate people about Robert the Bruce and to promote the links between Scotland’s hero king and the village of Renton. If you would like to know more about this fascinating group and their projects, please visit their website – strathlevenartizans.com. The group has the sincere patronage of Andrew Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, chief of the international Bruce family.
After a warm welcome from some of the members, I was treated to a vigorous display of sword fighting and was shown a replica of the king’s sword. There was much discussion about one of the group’s projects: the carving of the king’s throne as depicted on a royal seal, using a mix of timber from across Scotland, including a piece of ancient oak. This tree grew on the Strathleven Estate, and was known locally as the Bruce Oak. It was one of the largest and oldest oak trees in Scotland until falling in 2005 after a fire. I am now the proud owner of a carved acorn from this tree, a gift from Duncan Thomson, the chairman of the group, who was also kind enough to show me around the area.
I was intrigued to learn that King Robert had arranged for three burials of his body: his heart we know was taken on crusade by Sir James Douglas; his body, buried at Dunfermline Abbey but his entrails and breast bone were buried locally at Saint Serf’s Chapel in what is now Levengrove Park in Dumbarton. The hairs on the back of my neck rose as we approached the ruined church and the brass plaque which marks the little-known site. I wondered whether the closeness of this chapel might add some credence to the importance of Renton, or medieval Cardross, in the Bruce story.
A further treat was in store as we drove along the banks of the Leven River, thought to be the site of the king’s manor house, an old hunting lodge originally owned by the earl of Lennox which the Bruce had purchased and extended.
The river was quite broad here and fast flowing. It would be easy to imagine the king’s galley moored by these banks, within sight, strategically, of the great castle of Dumbarton on its rocky mound, to the south, on the Clyde. The Artizans hope to obtain archeological support and funding to investigate this site and verify these important links.
Pailleanflath, a lovely Gaelic word which means both Tent of the King and Pavilion of the Great Hero, is the name of the manor.
Another diversion, and our journey took a different twist. Duncan called in to visit one of the master carvers hard at work in her workshop constructing one of the dragon heads for the king’s throne – one of the the aforementioned projects celebrating the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
If you find yourself just north of Glasgow make time to visit the centre. Not only will you receive a warm welcome from these generous-hearted, dedicated folk but you’ll learn so much as well. I certainly did!

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Dunbar Castle – after the Battle of Bannockburn

From the bloody marshland by the Bannockburn, King Edward II escaped with his barons firstly to Stirling Castle. He was not admitted there and was forced to flee further afield. With Sir James Douglas and his men hot on his trail, he retreated to Dunbar Castle on the east coast of Scotland where he found sanctuary and a boat south. Had he been captured, peace might have come much earlier for Scotland and northern England.
Dunbar Castle with its striking, red sandstone ramparts, rises above the compact harbour of Dunbar. It sat astride a strategic land and coastal route between England and Scotland. It has been attacked and besieged many times during the Scottish Wars of Independence and had an illustrious line of visitors including Mary Queen of Scots. It’s well worth a visit.

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