Saint Malo

IMG_0107One of my favourite reads, ‘All the Light You Cannot See’, is set in the ancient French port city of Saint Malo. The Author, Anthony Doer, charts the impact of the war on a six-year-old blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werther, a young German lad. The story so poignantly drawn, made me want to walk the streets of St Malo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and took decades to reconstruct.

So, one morning earlier this year, I left our hotel to wander the streets of this stunning town. You could almost sense residents stretching, yawning, awaiting their café au lait and croissants. Beams of sunlight slid down the tall elegant buildings, chasing away the shadows of the narrow-cobbled streets. Shutters clanged. Dogs sniffed at tell-tale signs of activity from the previous night.

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From the walls of the Citadel – solid, stalwart battlements of granite, I watched the tide depart, exposing sandy stretches of beach, connecting this spit of land to nearby islands. The cathedral dedicated to St Vincent remained closed as did the many cafes and restaurants that feed the many French and English visitors, who come to enjoy this delightful city.

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Over in the port, ferries deposit folk from the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. These islands share, in part, Saint Malo’s history – links with early Roman invaders from the first century, and the Celts who slipped across the Channel to escape the early Saxon and Viking incursions.

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Saint Malo became home to bands of corsairs, who sheltered their vessels in the nearby riverine estuaries. During the medieval and late medieval periods, French kings endorsed piracy and raiding, particularly against the English whose ships were made to pay tolls for using the waters of the Channel.

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From its port, explorers set sail. One of its famous sons, Jacques Cartier, sailed the St Lawrence river and charted new territories, naming Canada as a French province. Around 1590, Saint Malo even declared its independence from France and Brittany, and saw its fair share of internal strife before control was resumed under the French royal flag.

IMG_0111The city is full of surprises: one of the interesting buildings I came across was the International House of Poets and Writers in Rue de Pelicot. Established in 1990, under the auspices of UNESCO, writers of all nationalities, known and unknown, are welcome to attend the organization’s literary programmes to support creative endeavours.

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One writer, whom I could imagine attending, might have been Jules Verne whose grand tale ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ comes to life in Anthony Doer’s novel. It plays a thematic role allowing the children to escape for a brief time from the horrors of war. Though Verne was a Breton native from Nantes, the city of Saint Malo seems to have welcomed him as a second son. Indeed, his exploits may have resonated with the resilient and adventurous Malouins.

IMG_0085With this in mind, we were pleased to be able to stay at The Hotel Nautilus – one of the few buildings which escaped the bombing in WWII: the Allies believed the city to be filled with enemy soldiers when in fact, only a few hundred remained to man the Anti-Aircraft facilities. Today there are no signs of the devastation and the exquisite reconstruction is a testament to the proud people of St Malo, both past and present.

Of course it is not all about the past and galleries display a quirky sense of fun with their art works, adding another layer to this fascinating city with its unique history. Sadly, my visit to Saint Malo was all too brief but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and look forward to going back one day.

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Come on a Journey with me…

 

Come on a journey with me…a short trip by ferry from Poole in southern England; the journey – back in time, to one of the larger islands within the English Channel – its layers of history will amaze and delight. The islands’ situation, so near to both Britain and France, has resulted in a unique blending of cultures and, at times, a shared history.

Guernsey’s position close to the shores of Brittany and Normandy in France made it a strategic stronghold luring traders and settlers from as early as the Iron Age period. Dolmens and strange statue menhirs dot the island. Beneath the harbour waters of the main settlement at St Peters Port, a Roman trading vessel rests. Early Britons, Celts and Christian missionaries, escaping Saxon raiding parties, soon called it home. Viking raiders followed and, when Normandy passed into the hands of the Northmen, the islands were annexed by the Duchy of Normandy. Since then, ownership of the islands has been held as a possession of England. However, in the 13th century, King John lost his Angevin lands in Normandy, whilst somehow retaining the Channel Islands. From around 1259, the islands have been governed – as possessions of the English crown but were never absorbed into the Kingdom of England.

At the entrance to the harbour of St Peters Port lies the medieval Castle Cornet which saw off an invasion by the French in 1338. IMG_0017

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IMG_0033Edward III granted a charter confirming customs and laws and allegiance to the English crown. Richard II confirmed the charter which gave exemption from English tolls, customs and duties. Much later, during the wars between royalist and parliamentarian forces, battles and sieges took place, and the loyal islanders benefited from the confirmed economic rewards of freedom from external taxation.

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IMG_0029n 1483, a Papal bull decreed the islands would be neutral during times of war and this neutrality allowed the islands to trade with both England and France up until the 17th century when it was abolished. IMG_0028The Channel Islands were caught up in the religious wars of both England and France. In 1556, three women were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, one even giving birth to a baby boy in the flames. Later a frenzy of witch trials and persecutions took place.IMG_0045

In the 1640’s, Charles II, exiled in Jersey, gave George Carteret, Bailiff and governor, a large grant in the American colonies, later named New Jersey. Exhibiting their strong entrepreneurial spirit, many of the islanders acquired business interests in the North American colonies as well as fishing rights in the rich Newfoundland waters. By the late 18th century, the islands gave refuge to wealthy French emigres fleeing the French Revolution. Aspects of French culture remain, particularly on Jersey.

Today, on Guernsey, those battles of old are commemorated with the daily ritual of a midday firing of a cannon by volunteers in ceremonial dress.

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We enjoyed our time in the busy, elegant town of St Peters Port. A short walk along the harbour walls takes you to the castle and a delicious lunch. I loved the tomato soup – tomatoes being a major crop on the island.

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Not too far away, a local museum explores the troubles experienced by the islanders in more recent times with the islands having been the only British territory occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945.

Prior to the landing of enemy troops on 30 June 1940 after some indiscriminate bombing, young men hurried to leave the islands to join the Allied armed forces. Many children and women were evacuated to England and Scotland. Later, 2000 islanders – some of whom were Jewish or those involved in the local resistance movement – were deported to Germany by the enemy command. Alderney, one of the smaller islands was the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil. With the islands blockaded, and thousands of slave labourers brought in to build underground tunnels and buildings, hunger brought the local population to its knees, requiring ingenuity to survive the privations.

Eventually, a Red Cross ship made it to Guernsey relieving the dire strictures. For those left behind, the Guernsey shore still held many dangers. Post-war bomb disposal engineers dismantled some 69,000 mines. Even to this day, reminders of the war remain – huge concrete anti-aircraft structures still dot the landscape.

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On 9/5/1945, the islands were liberated. After three years of separation, many of the evacuees returned but had difficulty reconnecting with families.

More recent history holds an interesting Scottish connection, when one of the major marmalade producers, moved their production to the Channel Islands for economic reasons. Once the sugar tax was removed, production returned to Britain.

Today, the Channel Islands benefit from its historical economic status, being part of, but separate from the United Kingdom. We were fascinated by the use of the donkey as a symbol of Guernsey – only to learn that it represented the people’s hardy, stubborn spirit.

I have just scratched the surface of this fascinating place. There is so much more to learn…

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Here’s a Treat!

And now for something completely different…  some snippets from our recent visit to the city of Singapore, a modern but very ancient part of south east Asia. For many Australians, it is a stopover, breaking the long journey to Europe, as it was for us – a brief but memorable visit. However, with its layered past – so much older than much of continental European civilisation, its diverse cultural mix, and artistic and architectural delights, it merits a visit in its own right.

During the war years, my grandfather was interned in Changi prison so a visit to the prison’s museum was a must: a terribly sad place filled with memories of hardship, survival and comradery – a tribute to the human spirit against all odds. I wouldn’t have lasted a week…the heat alone would have done me in. But my granddad was one of the ‘lucky’ ones: he came home, but lost a leg to a tropical ulcer and endured Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for the rest of his life. I wondered what he would have made of today’s Singapore.

Back to the present day… here are some of the sights, among many, worth seeing. Singapore has many different cultural areas. We chose to stay in the Arab area near Hadji Lane with its grand Mosque, old shopping precincts, eateries and markets.

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Murals near Hadji Lane

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Nearby was the neo Gothic building – Parkview Towers, recently built, home to a number of consulates.  A surprising array of Dali sculptures lined its courtyard – an unexpected delight to be sure, but Singapore is like that. Next time, I plan to dine out at the Parkview Café, superbly decorated in art deco style. Way to go!

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With a night to spare, we headed down to the river, crossed over the delightfully quirky Helix Bridge and found our way to the Gardens by the Bay. If you like shiny things, this is the place for you!

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The forest of man-made trees is lit up at night. Watching the colours change on the Super Tree structures to the booming Star Wars soundtrack added drama and texture to the futuristic nature of the park, with its great Skywalk and massive greenhouses. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see C3PO or R2D2 slide by….

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Refreshed and ready for the long flight ahead, we left Singapore with fond memories of the distinctively different sights, heartened by the warmest of welcomes from the local people.

There is so much more to see. I can’t wait to go back.

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Doomed Lovers

Come with me on a journey into the past. Paris awaits!

Along the tree lined avenues and winding pathways of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, stone angels stand in silent sentinel over the maze of tombs. Cats rest upon graves warmed by the sun or seek out the shadows, whilst gendarmes cast a watchful eye over the many curious visitors to this iconic hillside.

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Down one of the many lanes, midst old iron fretwork and uneven cobbles, you might come across an ornate crypt, believed to be the last resting place of a famous medieval couple. Perhaps you’ve heard of them – Heloise and Abelard?

Their tale was one of the most enduring love stories to arise from the 12th century….

Peter Abelard was a prominent theologian and philosopher at Notre Dame Cathedral. I immediately imagine him to be handsome and charismatic, perhaps even a little bit stuffy.

His life changed when Fulbert, a canon and close friend, asked him to tutor his niece. Enter Heloise – a rich, young noblewoman of outstanding intellect with an aptitude for the classics. Who knew Rhetoric, Latin, Greek or Hebrew could be so exciting?

Heloise soon fell under her teacher’s spell. A son was born. A secret marriage followed, though the lass was a reluctant partner because she feared it would damage her lover’s career. But the die was cast. Enraged by the scandalous relationship, Heloise’s protective uncle and guardian had Abelard castrated, and Eloise confined to a convent.

A tragic outcome to be sure, but their tale does not end there. For many years, the couple maintained a fruitful, supportive correspondence, each assisting the other in their grief, and in time their intellectual pursuits and earthly duties. Heloise rose to become an abbess of a convent (a gift from Abelard): the name of which, Paraclete, was Greek for ‘one who consoles’. Not surprisingly, she excelled in the highly complex administrative role. And in 1125, Abelard was elevated by the monks of an abbey in Brittany to be their abbot.

A miracle to my mind is that some of the couple’s letters have made it into the 21st century – a true melding of minds and hearts; a lesson perhaps in an unconditional love which allowed their relationship to transcend distance and the horrors bestowed by fate.

When Abelard died in 1142, his remains were entrusted to Heloise. And at her death in 1164, they were interred together. Legend has it that they were moved to Paris’s main cemetery in 1817 to lie beneath this specially-constructed canopy but not everyone is convinced of this.

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Regardless, it has become a shrine for lovers who come to pay their respects, leave notes, and ask for guidance in their own troubled relationships.

The history of the cemetery fascinates me as well, established as it was by Napoleon in 1804. He famously said that every citizen had a right to be buried regardless of race and religion. But soon the rich and famous of France were clamouring to be buried here. Which is why, it is now such a rewarding, if somewhat macabre, experience – especially for those with a taste for Gothic art – to wander amongst the graves, to search out the resting places of those whose lives have brought meaning and richness to our own.

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But I imagine that Heloise and Abelard would be pleased to know that – even in death, they share a hallowed space with so many talented artists and intellectuals from around the world….Chopin, Pissarro, de Balzac and Moliere to name just a few.

And here are a few of my favourite people buried at Pere Lachaise.

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An unknown woman who obviously loved to read!

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And a feline friend catching a few rays on a chilly Paris afternoon.

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Chateau Gaillard

High on a chalk cliff, above the River Seine sits a castle that was once the residence of a king of Scotland.

My first sight of this castle took my breath away. Its crumbling white walls held a touch of magic and mystery. Exploration was a must – and I was fascinated to discover some Scottish connections.

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David, the infant son of Robert the Bruce, began an eight-year period of exile here, along with his child wife – Joan of The Tower, sister to Edward III. David’s sisters, Margaret and Mathilda, accompanied them on the dangerous journey. After a staggering loss to the English at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, it was far too dangerous for the royal household to remain in Scotland. Exile – the only option!

Can you imagine what that flight from familiar shores to a foreign land must have been like? These youngsters had experienced the loss of their mother and father during a tumultuous time indeed, and now faced life in a strange castle in a far-off land. In Anglo-Norman Britain at that time, they would have been familiar with the language but meeting the French king for the first time must have been a daunting experience. Phillip VI offered the Scottish royal family sanctuary, another solid link in the connecting chain of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

But what of this castle and the land of Normandy?

Had the Vikings looked up on their way to ravage Paris, they would have seen little bar smoke rising from a collection of thatched hovels – now the bustling villages, upper and lower, of Les Andelys – which nestled in the folds of the hills. No doubt the villagers soon learned to dowse their hearths and scramble into the forest until danger had passed – if they were lucky…

It was Richard the Lionheart who saw the strategic potential of the landscape. At the end of the 12th century, a bevy of stone masons arrived to begin carving out huge blocks of chalk from the hillside. In record time the dramatic profile of towers and walls took shape, above the bend in the river.IMG_1879

Richard boasted that he could defend this position even if the castle was made of butter, a claim which was put to the test on many an occasion. Sadly, the fact that chalk could easily be undermined by sappers in a siege meant the castle was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the use of three enclosures, separated by dry moats, added to the security. Though it was Richard’s favourite residence in Normandy, he spent little time there, dying a few years later from an infected arrow wound to his shoulder, caught whilst besieging another castle in France.

Eventually, Chateau Gaillard was regained by the French.

Fast forward to early 14th century, the chateau became a prison for two of the wives of the French royal family who were charged with adultery in the Tour de Nesle affair. Their alleged partners were tortured and executed. The women, Margaret and Blanche of Burgundy, had their heads shaved and were locked away indefinitely. Such philandering could not be tolerated, potentially sabotaging the veracity of the royal lineage.

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When the Scottish contingent arrived, they must have breathed a sigh of relief to be safe from their English enemies. As David grew into adolescence, he must have absorbed the French way of life and its customs. Keeping Scottish traditions alive in a foreign court would have come down to the accompanying adults. But to be exiled from one’s own country for so long must have been a confusing experience for this Scottish lad, especially trying to find his own identity, over-shadowed by the exploits of such a famous and revered parent.

David went on to fight for the French king in a battle in France, before returning to Scotland in a bid to take back his crown. Shortly after, he was captured in England at the Battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham, and endured eleven years of incarceration  in the Tower of London.

I wonder if he ever yearned for the freedom of Chateau Gaillard and his youth in France.

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A Momentous Occasion

Robert the Bruce

On 25th March, 1306, a new King of Scots was crowned. To mark this turning point in Scottish history, here is an excerpt from my book, Sisters of The Bruce.

Imagine if you will, Kirsty Bruce in her chamber. Outside the wind has picked up. A candle flickers. Shadows dance across the walls. Kirsty picks up her quill, tests the point and begins to write. She knows, in far off Norway, Isabel is desperate for news of the family.

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March 1306

Isa, dear heart,

  A dreadful event has taken place. At Dumfries, Robert went to confront the Comyn regards his treachery. Involved in some disputes being heard at the judicial court, Comyn was lodged at Greyfriars Kirk. It was upon this neutral ground the pair met at Robert’s request. An argument ensued. Both men drew their daggers. In front of the high altar, they struggled. Comyn fell to the ground. When his uncle rushed to his aid, Christopher struck the older man with a blow to the head, killing him. The friars carried the younger man into the vestry. Shocked, Rob ran outside. Some of his men went back in to make sure the Comyn was dead. Chaos followed. With many rallying to his banner, Robert’s force seized Dumfries Castle. The justices barricaded themselves behind the doors of the Great Hall where they had been holding the Assizes Court. Our brother threatened to burn the place down. Surrender was prompt!

  From February through to March, the fiery cross was carried from hillside to hillside across Scotland alerting men to raise arms, this time for the Bruce. Castle after castle fell to Robert and his men: Dumfries, Tibbers, Dalswinton and Ayr. Across the Firth of Clyde, Robert Boyd took Rothesay on Bute, and then placed Inverkip under siege. Through the exchange of another, our brother gained Dunaverty Castle on the tip of Kintyre. Our own castle on the isle in Loch Doon was placed in the hands of my lord husband. With a defensive ring of fortified castles in place, Robert hoped to protect the western seaboard, thus curtailing the movement of English ships based at Skinburness. Only then might our allies from Ireland travel with impunity. Without success, Robert sought the surrender of the great rock fortress of Dumbarton on the Clyde.

  Despite a murder having been committed on holy ground, Bishop Wishart exhorted his flock to rise up and support Robert. The old Celtic process of tanistry had run its regrettable course, especially when all attempts at reasonable compromise had failed. March saw our brother swear an oath before the bishop to fight for the freedom of Scotland and uphold the liberties of the Scottish church, long overpowered by Rome and Avignon. Notables from all over the country headed for Scone.

  Our contingent arrived, relieved to be attending the royal coronation of one of our dearest members.  Meanwhile, Bishop Lamberton escaped from Berwick under cover of darkness. By taking the ferry from North Berwick, he reached Scone. Nothing, he said, would have kept him from witnessing Scotland’s destiny take shape and form. Where possible, all royal traditions were to be maintained for this great event and, when Robert was crowned king, he sat upon a large block of stone on Moot Hill.

  It was rumoured some months before the theft of the Stone of Destiny a replica of the ancient stone seat was secreted in its stead by Scone’s canny monks. If it were so, then it seemed the English king was none the wiser. 

  I wish you could have been with us, Isa. No one, not least Robert, liked how it had come about, but all were euphoric and willing to go with the grandeur of the occasion. All through the night we banqueted and danced. For a brief time, our country’s woes were pushed from the foreground of our thoughts.

Only Elizabeth, our new queen, her mood sombre and restrained, reflected on what the future might hold, expressions of fear and worry jostling with pride and love. King Edward was known to be a cruel, unforgiving man to his enemies. In his wrath, he would unleash the full force of the mighty English host upon her lord husband and his beloved Scotland. This Elizabeth understood. Once, she told me, she prayed they would come to an understanding. Now, she knew their differences could only be decided by war. Edward could never grasp how the community of the realm mattered so deeply to Robert. At its core, this Celtic belief was at odds with the feudal superiority of the English king. Ultimately, it set Robert apart.

  The next day, a small party of horsemen rode in to Scone, gasping mounts lathered white. Concealed for safety within the group was Countess Isobel of Buchan, wife of the earl who was a firm supporter of England. She escaped her husband’s harsh care to ride to Scone to fulfill the ancient role belonging to the earls of Fife – her own family line – to crown the Scottish monarchy.

  Keen to uphold tradition and legitimise his status, Robert had a second coronation take place to great acclaim. With the ceremony complete, our family accompanied the king to Kildrummy where Mhairi and the household had prepared a great banquet. How proud you would have been to see our household gathered in the Great Hall, cheering our brother, mugs of wine and ale raised to his health and happiness. You were sorely missed, dear one.

Kirsty

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A Battle, a Curse and a Ghost or Two – what more could you ask for?

Well, there’s a whole lot more to Pitreavie Castle. The history of this 17th century fortified manor is closely entwined with the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland: its strategic location in medieval times, and in more recent years, to the Forth road and rail bridges.

When the Wars of Independence were underway, the abbots of Dunfermline Cathedral held sway over these lands. Some reports suggest it was owned at one stage by a sister of Robert the Bruce. That Lady Christina (or Kirsty – for those familiar with my book, Sisters of The Bruce) lived here really piqued my interest but that early castle is long gone.  I like to think it was the centrality of its location, close to Robert’s royal court, that drew her to this site, offering a sanctuary particularly with Kildrummy Castle in a ruined state.

 

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Moving forward to 1615, we find the lands owned by Queen Anne. When her husband,  James VI, moved south to London, she passed the care of the property to her Chamberlain, Sir Henry Wardlaw, who constructed the core of the current building.

A few decades on, Henry’s heirs must have been horrified to hear the clash of swords, crack of muskets and cries of dying men. Close by the battle of Inverkeithing raged. A force of six thousand Cromwellian soldiers defeated a lesser force of Highlanders in bloody slaughter.

A ragged band of Maclean clansmen sought sanctuary at the gates of Pitreavie Castle but were refused entry. Some of its household even hurled roof slates at the retreating figures. Appalled by their treatment, a few gifted souls cast their own curses. In time, the Wardlaw family saw its fortunes decline with the untimely deaths of its male members.

As with many ancient sites, sadness and mayhem left souls wandering in search of loved ones. A Green Lady, no less, is reported to trawl the grounds calling out to her husband, and a headless highlander searches for his comrades, groaning when he finds them dead.

Not surprisingly over the centuries and after a series of owners, the castle fell into a ruinous state hidden within its wild, untended garden.img_2469

But an intriguing renaissance took place in 1938. Outbuildings were added and a subterranean bunker carved out beneath the grounds to house the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force coastal command. Ventilation ducts and escape tunnels lay concealed beneath the flat roof of a tennis court. For all intents and purposes, it was a successful subterfuge. But deep within that underground labyrinth, they must have felt the eerie shudder of bombs dropped nearby – failed attempts by the enemy to take out the crucial transport link of the Forth Rail Bridge.dsc08364

After WWII came the Cold War. Within its hidden bunker, Pitreavie was well-placed to house the HQ for NATO North Atlantic command. But even with substantial upgrades, the site proved insufficient for MOD needs. In 1996, the military buildings were demolished and the entrance to the underground bunker sealed using explosives.

Now, this substantial manor house has been divided into luxury apartments: one is even available through AirB&B.

What a treat it would be to stay here, to feel the layers of history blur around you. In the gathering dusk, you might even hear the distant sounds of battle, faint cries of ghostly spirits or the brittle staccato of communication channels telling the world of bombs falling nearby.dscn0595

References: http://www.maclean.org; AirB&B; Tales and Traditions of Scottish Castles by Nigel Tranter