A Disputed Castle – Part One

Set your sights for Carlisle Castle. Once upon a time, you would have been walking on Scottish soil. Some nine hundred years ago, England claimed it, and it was no fairy tale. History here is deep and layered. With so much blood spilled, even the walls seemed stained red by it.

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Around the end of the eleventh century, William Rufus, red-haired son of the Conqueror, wrenched control of Carlisle and Cumberland from the Scots. It was a perfect post for forays into the north. The castle grew into an imposing fortress; the town, fortified with walls. But it was not enough to stop the Scots who fought to have the area back under their control. In 1136, King David I regained it, only to die there some fifty years later. You can still see the oratory, a small prayer room where he died.

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Onto the 13th century – a complex time of fluid boundaries when the Bruce family sided with the English to survive against their Scottish enemies; Robert the Bruce’s father was constable and his famous son defended a siege against their nemesis, the Comyn family, supporters of King John Balliol whose reign fell into ignominy and defeat before King Edward’s manipulation.DSC00617

It was here that Robert’s brothers, Thomas and Alexander, were brought to suffer the most torturous of deaths after their capture in Galloway. Thomas’s head hung above the castle gate while the heads of many other Scots adorned the walls of the town. King Edward’s wrath knew no bounds, and even being Dean of Glasgow could not save the life of Alexander Bruce.DSC00514

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Walk down to the dungeons and you will see where prisoners licked moisture from the walls. Your finger traces the indentations and time slips a little.

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Even after his success at Bannockburn, Robert needed formal recognition of his country’s independence to gain true peace. A supreme strategist, he took the war over the border – this time as Scotland’s king. Success was so close he could almost smell it…but the weather took an upper hand. Soon all of Europe was in the grip of a disastrous event – rain that never let up. In the dull light, crops shriveled and died. Fields flooded. Desperation swept the land with animal and human pandemics. There was even talk of cannibalism…

1315 was the beginning of such a time, and when Robert and his army of Scots set up camp beneath the stout walls of Carlisle, they could not imagine what would follow. Soon men and machines, the great stone-flinging trebuchets, foundered in the mud and swollen waters. The castle could not be taken.

It is hard to imagine that this very English town with its grand cathedral and castle were once part of Scotland, and that the Bruce family had such a strong bond with it.DSC00560

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But the Scottish connections do not end there.

In 1567, Mary Queen of Scots threw herself on the mercy of her protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, whilst attempting to escape the Scottish nobility who no longer supported her claim to the throne. Her Catholic beliefs – along with other complex factors, caused her to be hounded from Scotland and undermined her relationship with the English queen. For several months in 1567, Mary and her female retainers were kept at Carlisle in a tower which bore her name. Years of incarceration followed, before she was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in the south.

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And there were the reivers, wild men from the borders who raided English towns and farms for cattle and booty. Many ended their lives at Carlisle.

The walls also tell another story. During long vigils, guards carved their memories into the stone.

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But this tale does not end here. The castle lays claim to a poignant Scottish tune penned by a prisoner before his execution. Find out in my next post…

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How strange it is…

How strange it is to come across a cluster of buildings where the stone has been dug and shaped by  Roman hands, robbed from Hadrian’s great wall nearby – and formed by medieval  French monks into a vibrant community.

Not far from the Scottish border in Cumbria, Lanercost  Priory nestles midst lush meadows – a shadowed, queer place. Oak leaves slip down over lichened graves. Strange paths entice the unwary – evocative, seeping with history. Old walls offer stepping stones. A whisper on the wind.. come this way. Can you hear it?

It was here that King Edward of England rested, fed his army, planned his northern attacks. Augustinian monks welcomed England’s great monarch in 1306 – frail, unable to rise from his sick bed. For months, they nursed the old king. Indeed, Robert the Bruce’s younger brothers must have stayed here en route to their execution in Carlisle – a place of misery and sadness. King Edward’s spite for the Bruce family and Scotland’s fight for independence knew no bounds. It fed his life force.

But it all came to an end. Easter 1307 saw the English king take his last breath a few miles to the west on the Solway marshes, cursing his Scottish enemies. Midst flocks of inquisitive sheep, crying gulls overhead, a tall monument marks the lonely spot. An unlikely place for such a powerful king to expire.

For years, Scots forces rampaged through these lands, fiery raids by Wallace and Bruce. In 1311, King Robert actually stayed here in one of the old buildings. Monks were imprisoned, then released; crops burnt, buildings damaged. Many armies have come and gone. Now only echoes remain.

By 1538, Henry VIII’s reformation saw the end of monastic life at Lanercost and for years, it lay in ruins.

But today, Lanercost Priory is part of a thriving community, managed by English heritage, and once again the voices of parishioners fill the old church.

We stayed on site – a great base from which to explore the area; terrific also to wander at will around the grounds as night closes in…

Watch for my next post on the intriguing history of Carlise Castle…

 

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A Rare Find

Picture this! You’re driving alongside Loch Awe in Scotland.

You catch sight of an imposing building settled into the curve of the hillside. With its grey stone walls and flying buttresses, your imagination soars: sending you along ancient pilgrim routes; the chanting of monks fills your ears. You hadn’t planned to stop but find yourself slowing down. The siren call of history drawing you in….

But wait – this church is anything but ancient. Still you feel its pull and the questions  form and gather. You’re hooked!

So what is so special about St Conan’s Kirk? For a start there are standing stones: then an entrance with carvings from Iona; strange and unusual carved creatures – owls and rabbits; a spiraling staircase; elaborate fish chairs; windows of angels with blood-red wings; and best of all, a chapel dedicated to Robert the Bruce with an ossuary containing  a piece of bone taken presumably when the king’s body was exhumed and relocated during renovations at Dunfermline Abbey… a bit of bone that someone popped into their pocket. Now there’s a story in itself!

Why build a chapel here for Scotland’s revered king?  On the hillside above the church, Bruce instructed his men, under James Douglas, to begin an assault – from above, on Sir John of Lorne and his men; one of the decisive battles of the Wars of Independence. Now the thud of stones, clattering swords, and cries of men fighting and dying are long gone. Centuries have passed. Before a splendid window, Robert lies in peace: his body carved from wood, and alabaster face and hands glowing in the reflected light.

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In the late 19th century, with the coming of the railway to the area, William Campbell purchased an island in Loch Awe and built a manor house for his mother and sister. Local legend has it that he constructed the building so that his mother did not have so far to go to church. With his eccentric and individual style, he concocted an architectural treasure trove of different historical periods including several chapels: one of which became the repository for his line of the Campbell family. Eventually, Walter was laid to rest there in 1914. His sister, Helen, continued his work, and her own artistic talent can be seen in the stained glass windows which she designed and painted by hand. She died in 1927, and ongoing renovations were completed by Trustees.

Within this fascinating building, there are beams from decommissioned battleships, a bell from a lighthouse, and mystery and intrigue aplenty. It’s a rare find indeed, and well worth a visit. Take your time, there’s a lot to see inside and out.

http://www.stconan’skirk.org.uk

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Following in the footsteps of …

Today we venture deep into the rolling hills, inlets and rushing rivers of south west Scotland to the town of Dumfries, where a tiny band of volunteers are struggling to bring myth and legend to life for one of Scotland’s great heroes.

Last year, we were fortunate to meet with some of the Heritage Trust members and actually walk in the footsteps  of Robert the Bruce. The Trust has published a trail of some 30 sites across the whole of the Dumfries and Galloway region. Robert’s family came from the area, both at Annandale and Lochmaben, and during a lifetime of war and struggle, he visited many times.

What do I remember of that day?  The sun was shining – always a plus in Scotland, and the wonderful sense of comradery, of being with kindred spirits: something I will cherish forever. These lovely folk have a dream – to build a heritage centre and museum to commemorate King Robert’s achievements and links with the district. If you’d like to know more, please visit their website  http://www.brucetrust.co.uk.

Let’s  take a step back in time. It was here in Dumfries that Robert launched his bid for the Scottish crown – a conflagration of events which catapulted him onto the medieval world stage and the battle for Scottish independence which lasted from 1306 to 1328. Some would say the struggle continues to this day.

There is so much to this story…

Picture this… two men meet in a place of sanctity to discuss their bids for the crown – young, ambitious and powerful, firebrands both, with links to the area; scions of the two leading families vying for the top job. It’s a clandestine meeting given the power and might of their joint enemy, King Edward of England, but things get ugly as tempers flare. Robert the Bruce and the Red Comyn act out a centuries old family feud.

Who threw the first blow? No one knows but the Bruce’s men finish the job. The Comyn and his uncle lie dead, blood staining the altar of the Grey Friars’ kirk.

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Knowing the dye is cast, Robert seizes the day. He and his men rush to take Dumfries Castle…

Now, I have been here several times but the site of the castle has always remained a mystery, so it was a huge treat to discover a municipal park where the mound and earthworks are still very much in evidence.

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It was a great privilege also to visit the site of the Chrystal Chapel, founded for Christopher Seton – executed for his role, with others, in supporting Robert. The story of Christopher and his wife, Robert’s sister, is explored fully in my novel, Sisters of the Bruce. Having written about their love story cut short so tragically, I felt moved to be near the site where his execution took place. Here the veil between past and present is thin…just a breath, the slightest movement of air, separates us.

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A short time after the capture of the Castle in 1306, Robert was crowned king but he soon became an outlaw on the run, following a disastrous defeat at Methven by English forces.

For years, I’ve wanted to see Glen Trool where one of the earliest battles took place. It’s in an out of the way place certainly for the Bruce and his men were in hiding. Both English and Scottish enemies alike were trying to hunt them down. With only his wits, a ruse, and the lay of the land to aid him,  Robert enticed a large troop to travel along the edge of the loch. On the ridge above, his own supporters hovered, hidden, waiting for the sign to attack. Imagine… these desperate men, poorly-fed and ill-equipped, pushing boulders down on to the horsed troops forcing them into the chilly depths. There they were able to reap a harvest of arms and clothes and food from the dead and dying. A monument marks the site where Robert planned his strategy. It’s a rugged, beautiful place with only the sound of wind and birds for company – hard to imagine such savagery.

If you make it to the glen,  there is a very comfortable hostelry close by, known for its good food and annual ale festival. If ghosts were afoot, we did not see them.

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Further south you’ll find Whithorn, the site of King Robert’s final pilgrimage shortly before he died in 1329 – a fitting place to end our own pilgrimage following in this extraordinary man’s footsteps.

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Whose Birthday is it?

Back in 1759 on the 25th January, Robert Burns was born to a poor farming family in the tiny Scottish village of Alloway. He showed early promise and soon left the farm behind to write poetry about Scottish life – in the dialect of the people. Many of these poems were set to music. One of my favourite CDs is by Eddie Reader, an evocative singer who brings the Bard’s words to life.

Today, people around the world continue to celebrate the poet’s life and works with traditional Burn’s suppers on or around his birthday where the Haggis (best look it up!) is revered and piped in to much acclaim. Served with mashed neeps and tatties and a whisky sauce, it is delicious. A master of ceremonies recites Burns’ Ode to a Haggis, before dissecting the meaty bag of goodness for everyone to enjoy. All in all, a uniquely Scottish cultural event! Oh, and don’t forget the whisky.

What man could engender such devotion? Well the Scots certainly respect and admire free thinkers. Robbie espoused revolutionary political views but also reached into the heart of things, writing about homely subjects – the ones about a louse and a mouse are amongst my favourites – and the women he loved, and much else that endeared him to his nation.

He was a bit of lad – a good looking lad too with finely-drawn features, dark wavy hair and smouldering eyes – who adored the ladies and a drink. Hoteliers loved him for his generosity of spirit and his spirited renditions of his poetry – just imagine being in the bar when Rob popped in for a dram or two! He certainly could pull a crowd, but these inns were also where many of his assignations took place. No doubt this dissolute lifestyle got him into a lot of trouble, and a bevy of children resulted.

Rabbie, as he is sometimes called, made his money in the literary circles of Edinburgh. His poems in the romantic pastoral style were beloved by children and adults, city and rural dwellers alike. He returned to the south west, to Dumfries, where he parted company with Jean Armour, his long-suffering wife, and sailed off to the West Indies with his lover, but the poor lass died suddenly and Robbie legged it back home to Jean.

With money in short supply, he became an Excise man, chasing down smugglers and the like, a task which was probably anathema to him. By 1796 at the age of 37, he died. Sadly, a son was born on the day he was buried.

So a character and a legend, indeed!

Last year we were fortunate enough to visit the pretty town of Dumfries. Our friends at  the Robert the Bruce Trust (more about this wonderful group in a future post) arranged a lunch time tour of the Globe Inn, where our poet spent many happy hours down in the bar and in his very own room where he scratched odes to his loves on the window. An unusual triangular chair, purported to be ‘his’ chair, holds pride of place in the cosy bar and anyone who sits therein, so the locals said, must shout the bar. Aye right!

Tucked down an alleyway, the Globe nestles within its ancient stone walls. Opened in 1610,  its dark wood paneling holds mystery aplenty, nooks and crannies that cry out for further inspection, tiny rooms and narrow stairways. Of course, there’s a ghostly woman and if you ever sleep in Robbie’s bed, you may meet her. But beware, she’s definitely not a happy wee lass!

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What’s Your Favourite Dram?

This Hogmanay, I know I’ll be reaching for my favourite dram – a peaty monster from Islay! Situated off the coast of western Scotland, this isle has a remarkable history with many archaeological treasures. For more information, check out islayinfo.com. You’ll even be surprised to learn that Islay is pronounced ‘eye-la’!

I’ve often wondered if Islay’s early Neolithic folk in their crannogs or duns, or perhaps the Vikings, or even the Lords of the Isles who ruled the region from Finlaggan Castle drank ‘uisge beathe’ – the water of life?

But who would have thought that Irish monks introduced whisky to Islay? Sometime in the early 14th century, these intrepid souls saw value in the fertile ground suitable for growing barley or bere as it was known then, as well as the inexhaustible supply of pure water and fields of deep rich peat. It is  conceivable then that the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who supported King Robert the Bruce around that time, might well have drunk his health in whisky.

Overtime, the MacDonald clan were ousted by the more politically powerful Campbell lords who focused their efforts on developing different industries such as linen weaving and fishing, building small villages to accommodate workers. Crofters continued to grow barley as their main grain crop, distilling the surplus into whisky. When a tax was levied in 1644, many of the small stills relocated to remote areas across Scotland but the excise men didn’t sail over to Islay until well over a century later. In time, famine and ‘the clearances’ saw extensive migration to faraway lands like Australia and NZ.

How did this small island come to offer such an idyllic base to so many distilleries – eight at the last count? Some say it was the lure of peat, soaked by sea spray, which gives the whisky such a unique and tantalizing flavour. But even in different parts of the island, there are variations – gentle scents of moss and spice, and stronger, acquired mineral tastes that pack a punch for the unwary.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Islay has a relatively gentle climate and lush scenery. But during the short ferry ride over from Kintyre, you’ll pass Jura’s stark, treeless mountains – another intriguing place to visit with an equally fascinating history.

There’s a lot to see and do in this part of the world. A treat lies in store for golfers at The Machrie, and twitchers find their own unique paradise with great flocks of geese arriving seasonally, as well as many rare birds. And in the village of Bowmore, I have it on good authority that the water in the local swimming pool even smells of whisky.

If you love single malts, old hotels, fine seafood, tiny villages and tranquil island life, then you’ll love Islay. Come along now for a wee trip about the isle. Don’t dally or you’ll be left behind…

Oh and you’ll have to guess which is my favourite tipple.

Happy Hogmanay!

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Isle of Jura

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Looking across to Bowmore Distillery

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The village of Bowmore

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Port Charlotte Hotel

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