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

 

 

 

 

A Birthday Wish for the Bard

You will know of course that today is the birthday of Scotland’s famous poet and songwriter. In our household, we’ll be raising a glass tonight to wish him well. But what is it that makes his work revered by Scots the world over.

Robert Burns followed in the bardic tradition  – except that he did not write great sagas or incite the clans to war. Written in Scottish vernacular, his stories and songs reflected elements of  a simpler life that warmed many a hearth – at a time when to be a Scot was looked down upon. To my mind, his writings helped enrich the national identity, not to mention the Dumfries area where he lived and worked.

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It is a remarkable heritage that Burns Suppers are held throughout the world at this time. Displayed on a silver salver, the haggis – that ‘great chieftain of the pudding race’ – is ceremoniously piped in and sliced open. Those of  a squeamish disposition may recoil at the spilling of what looks like the insides of a stomach. However it is a delicious concoction of meat and spices contained within a sheep’s stomach lining, reflecting the ability of folk who in harsh times had to make the most economic use of their resources. Usually, it is served with boiled, mashed ‘neeps’ (turnips) and ‘tatties’ (potatoes). The menu may also include a broth of some sort, followed by a desert, perhaps a whisky trifle (a Tipsy Laird), and cheese and oatcakes. To my mind, the meal is a symbolic poetic gesture – to celebrate the resilience of Scots in times of hardship. For those at home and abroad, it resonates on many levels.

But haggis is not just a celebratory meal, it is a staple on most pub menus in Scotland, and is definitely one of my favourites. A whisky sauce and oatcakes make welcome additions.dsc04950

I love the old traditions. So tonight, we will recite the Selkirk Grace,

” Some  hae meat and canna eat

And some wad eat that want it

But we hae meat, and we can eat

Sae let the Lord be thankit”

…and share a dram or two for young Rabbie who brought so much to our world.

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Some Festive Cheer

To celebrate this festive season, come along with me to two of my favourite drinking establishments in Scotland. Oh… if only I could be there to shout you a drink!

Some of you might know the Canny Mans hotel in Edinburgh’s Morningside. A treat for the eyes and never dull…. I can spend hours here just checking out all the interesting bits and bobs that enliven the walls and, yes, the ceiling.

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For our next round, you’ll have to travel south to Dumfries but it was a place well-known to  a certain poet.And if it was good enough for Robbie Burns then the Globe Inn is certainly good enough for me! DSC00498DSC00490DSC00486DSC00489

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For me, these old buildings hold echoes of conversations past, whispered secrets, memories tucked away midst the paraphernalia and golden glow of half empty bottles.

I catch the clink of glass, the slow intake of breath, and imagine stories embellished at the end of the working day….surely too sad tales of times not so good – jobs lost, bills unpaid, individuals and families damaged by immoderate imbibing – but hopefully somewhere in the mix, good cheer and open-hearted friendship especially at festive times.

With 2016 coming to a close, I’ll be thinking of my own past visits greatly enjoyed within these lovely old walls, and wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a happy, safe and peaceful Christmas and Hogmanay, and a joyous future.

A Gem of a Place

Paul McCartney knew a thing or two when he sang about the Mull of Kintyre, but a gem of a place awaits if you trust your instincts and head north. At journey’s end, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Over the years, I have been fortunate indeed to visit the Scottish castle of Saddell, and its nearby abbey, on the Kilbrannan Sound on the shores of eastern Kintyre.

Have you ever heard of Somerled, Lord of the Isles?  He figures strongly in the history of the area, and his remains rest at the abbey. Set beside a stream within a verdant glen, the monastery now lies in ruins. Irish Cistercian monks farmed their sheep here, trading with Flemish weavers. Surely, old monks, and perhaps even Somerled himself, must walk these paths. Why would anyone ever want to leave?

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I’m not sure what came first – the castle or the abbey but, much like the threads of an ancient tapestry, their tales are entwined. In the early 14th century, when the Knights Templar were hounded from France, rumours abounded that they, and their allegedly fabulous treasure, found sanctuary at Saddell. When the dusk heaves with shadows, silent and dense, it is easy to imagine such a connection for nearby, within a weather-proof shelter, effigies of faceless men set into old grave stones, stand at attention, proud in the distinctive suits of the time, swords at the ready. But these are much, much older – men of the isles, highland lords in full armour, perhaps even the men of Somerled, or his son, Ragnald, patrons of this abbey.

I imagine Somerled’s birlinn sweeping into the bay, his men leaping ashore. The Norse warrior skills of this “summer sailor” gained him the Hebridean islands all the way from the Butt of Lewis in the far north, to the Isle of Man in the south, forging a kingdom, independent of its closest neighbour, medieval Scotland. Somerled must have looked around him, counted his blessings, and set about earning heavenly favour by building an abbey – now sadly long gone.

But there is still plenty to see and experience in the area. Nearby, down a long treed driveway, you will come across an evocative castle, a more recent addition to this ancient landscape

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I particularly liked the walled enclosure and tangled mossy garden, hidden spaces aplenty. The gardeners amongst us might ponder upon this peaceful sanctuary, protected from the elements, and the plants grown here so long ago.

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Silhouetted against the fading sunlight, the crenelations of this Scottish tower house will take your breath away.

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Originally built in the 16th century as lodgings for a warrior bishop, David Hamilton – with wood-paneled chambers, vaulted ceilings, curved stairwells, a trapdoor or two, and a dungeon, this abode has known many owners. And with the ebb and flow of Scotland’s contentious politics, they must have heard the clash of sword and smelt the sickening stench of fire when the castle was sacked by opposing forces.

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In more peaceful times, seals and otters play in the shallow waters of the rocky shore and visitors can stay at the castle and estate cottages, courtesy of the Landmark Trust.It’s a gem of a place and, like me, you’ll be singing its praises.

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