Thursday, February 07, 2019

Let's Build a Broch!

Our guests on Clans and Castles 'Outlander Tours' know more or less what to expect: much-loved film locations, great countryside and a 'feel' for Scotland in the 18th century. But a visit that always surprises (and delights) them is the Glenelg brochs.

Brochs are double skinned, dry stone towers, originally 30 - 40 foot high. They are unique to Scotland and were built over a 300 year period around the time of Christ. The forerunner of the broch is the Atlantic round house, but those are much lower, less ambitious structures. Brochs emerged more or less from nowhere and then were, for some reason, no longer built.

Dun Telve, Glenelg
There were  about 500 brochs in Scotland, most of them on coasts where stone is readily available. Sadly, many have since been used as convenient quarries. Dun Telve (above) was depleted to build the nearby barracks at Bernera. The only broch still at its original height is Mousa, on a small island in Shetland.

Mousa Broch, Shetland
All brochs are round and very slightly concave, like a cooling tower. Apparently, if they were not double-skinned, they would collapse (I wonder how long it took to learn this!). Remember, they are built without mortar.

There's still a lot we don't know about brochs (not least why they were built). To improve our knowledge, the Caithness Broch Project aims to build a broch which will act as a visitor centre. It's an ambitious undertaking. Ian Armit, in his book 'Towers in the North', quotes an architect's estimate that building a broch would take 400 man days of specialist labour and 5,600 man days of unskilled assistance, assuming that the stone has first been gathered. I salute them!

PS. It is generally accepted that the brochs had a timber and thatch roof. Personally I cannot see how this could have been the case. Could iron age man have constructed a timber roof with a diameter of 18.3 metres (Dun Telve) ten metres above the ground? Would he go to all this trouble to live in darkness, the only light coming from a fire and a low door (which was presumably closed for much of the time)?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The enduring riddle of the Pictish symbol stones

They are the hieroglyphs of Scotland. But we have not yet found a Caledonian Rosetta Stone to interpret them.

There are thought to be about three dozen different ‘Pictish symbols’ carved in different combinations on a few hundred extant stones around Scotland – usually found in the traditional Pictish heartland of central and north-eastern Scotland. Some are combined with Christian symbology on magnificent stone crosses (or slabs with crosses engraved on them).

For a while after their conversion, the Picts used Christian images together with the old symbols. Sometimes it seems as if the crosses were engraved on older pagan stones. Many of them also include hunting scenes or other depictions of dark age aristocratic and military activity.

What they mean nobody knows for sure, even though numerous clans such as the MacGregors and MacNaghtens claim Pictish ancestry.

This magnificent specimen, which I visited last week, stands at Wester Fowlis in Strathearn, not far from the pretty spa town of Crieff. On one side is an extraordinary engraved cross, notable for its protruding arms. On the other, a series of hunting scenes with the tell-tale Pictish symbols of a ‘mirror’ and a ‘double disc’.

The one in the photo is actually a replica, with the real thing kept sheltered in the nearby church. It’s open and you can in and see it – a great example of the many historical sites and works of art that can be experiences for free in Scotland.

What do the symbols signify?

Some have speculated that, in different combinations, they depict various clans, territories, individual nobles or noblewoman. Although they are not usually located on burial sites, they may have religious connotations.

I feel sure that one day someone will either crack it logically or discover something that unlocks the code.

Maybe language has something to do with it. When I was a boy, it was thought that Pictish was a language largely separate from the two Celtic languages of northern Britain – Gaelic and Brittonic (early Welsh). Most scholars now think that it was similar to Brittonic.

Either way it was apparently replaced by Gaelic in the period after the union of the Picts and Scots in the early middle ages. As with the symbols, there is little hard evidence as to its nature.

But the idea that Pictish was eradicated by Gaelic has always seemed a little odd to me. The supposition is that the ruling elite became Gaelic speaking and, quite rapidly, imposed its language on everyone else. This didn’t really happen in other similar situations in the British Isles or elsewhere in Europe unless there was an accompanying movement of peoples.

Perhaps Pictish was really much more like Gaelic in the first place, and the clue to its symbology will come from that source.

At any rate, I have no real idea, except that it is a fascinating riddle!

Tom Miers
For a memorable holiday exploring Scotland's heritage and culture, check out the Clans and Castles website

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots. Did you know?

The film will be with us soon and we'll see the dramatic (but fictional) meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. But here are a few facts about our tragic royal heroine.

1. Mary is one of the best known Scottish monarchs and yet she spent 18 years 8 months in England, 13 years in France. Only 12 years 5 months in Scotland (1542 - 48 and 1561- 68).

2. Mary was married three times. The marriage to Francis II of France lasted 26 months (Francis died). The second to Henry Lord Darnley lasted 18 months (Darnley was murdered), the last to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell technically lasted some years but after 30 days Mary was imprisoned and Bothwell fled.

3. When at Jedburgh, Mary nearly died of what was probably a gastric ulcer. Her French physician 'cured' her with tight bandaging of the arms and legs, and by inducing vomiting with an enema and large quantities of wine.

4 Mary went to France aged six as Marie Stewart but her French governess explained that 'ew' is pronounced 'ev' (it is in French!) and if you want 'Stooart' it must be spelled 'Stuart'. So she returned as Marie Stuart.

5. The day after Darnley's murder Mary attended the wedding of her bedchamber woman, Margaret Carwood. She is said to have played golf 'a few days' after the murder. She certainly married the man widely thought to have been the murderer (Bothwell) just three months and six days after the murder.

6. She was held in seven different castles in England. Nothing remains of the grand royal residence of Fotheringhay where she was executed on 8 February 1587.

7. Her descendants have been on the thrones of England and Scotland ever since.

Follow the Mary Queen of Scots trail  with Clans and Castles.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Neidpath Castle, a seat of Frasers, Hays, and Douglases

The Frasers are a Highland clan. Of course. But before that they were a Lowland clan, and their seat was here at NeidpathCastle on the Tweed, founded by Sir Gilbert Fraser in about 1190.  The last Fraser to own it was his descendant,  Sir Simon Fraser, known as 'The Patriot', for his astonishing feat of defeating three English armies in one day in 1303.  Detail is on Sarah Fraser's excellent blog, Patriot Games. The strawberry plant (fraise) can still be seen above the archway in the Neidpath courtyard.

The Patriot was executed in London in 1306 and his head stuck on a spike on Tower Bridge, next to that of William Wallace. His daughter Mary inherited a ruin but married Hay of Yester who rebuilt the castle, now all in stone and now of walls 10 foot thick with distinctive rounded corners. 

And Neidpath, overlooking a bend of the River Tweed just above Peebles, has dominated the Upper Tweed Valley ever since. Tower houses sprang up all over the Borders in the reiving times of the 16th century but in the 14th century there was really only Hermitage, Roxburgh and Neidpath. (Cessford and Newark followed in 1425 and 1465). One reason for its outlasting its contemporaries is the construction. A vaulted basement to carry the weight of a castle was normal, and sometimes a castle's top floor was vaulted; but Neidpath was built with three vaulted floors.
The castle was gradually extended and ‘modernised’, largely in the 16th century, and no doubt considerably spruced up for the visits of Mary Queen of Scots in 1563 and James VI in 1587 on expeditions to discipline the Border reivers. But the Hays were not reivers; they were establishment, becoming Earls of Tweeddale in 1646.

They sold the castle in 1686 to the Douglas Duke of Queensberry, whose granddaughter, they say, still restlessly walks the battlements. This is Lady Jean Douglas: having not been allowed to marry young Scott of Tushielaw in Ettrick, she pined for him and so became a shadow of herself, to the extent that, returning from exile, he didn’t recognise her; and she, wounded to the core, died of a broken heart. The tale was related by Sir Walter Scott who speaks of ‘cheerful evenings’ at the castle. However it was gradually abandoned as a dwelling in the 19th century,

Neidpath is once again roofed and available for events.  It also plays a significant role in the annual Peebles Beltane Festival. Each year a ‘Warden of Neidpath’ is appointed and has the honour of welcoming the Peebles Cornet, his lass and supporters to the castle from where they will ride the boundaries, an echo of the old reiving times, of course!

Warden of Neidpath, Bob Harrison, addressing the crowd at Neidpath in 2016

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Lord James Douglas, The Royal Scots and Louis XIV.

Lord James Douglas, who died in 1645 aged just 28, is buried in the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris. Wandering through the church recently I was amazed to see the graves of both Lord James and his grandfather, 10th Earl of Angus (another interesting story). Not just graves but, in the case of Lord James, a massive monument in its own chapel, with a sculpture of him in white marble, all funded by King Louis XIV at a cost of 2900 livres. Anyone who has visited Versailles knows that Louis was a big spender, but to spend close on a million pounds commemorating a 28 year old foreigner...

Statue of Lord James Douglas, Saint Theresa Chapel, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Lord James, born at Douglas Castle in Lanarkshire, was “at an early age” a page in the court of Louis XIII of France. His father, a committed Roman Catholic in a predominantly protestant country, clearly didn’t enjoy life in the ruthless (and often rule-less) world of the South of Scotland. He was embroiled in a long legal dispute with the rough and reiving Kers of Ferniehirst over rights to hold courts in Jedforest, his brother was remanded in prison at Blackness Castle for threatening one of the Kers. It was all too much for this quiet and rather unhealthy earl. He left his estates to be looked after by others and lived for many years in France where he could practice his religion in peace and not be plagued by Border lairds.


His son Lord James was made of different stuff. He worked his way up in the French court and at the age of twenty, was appointed colonel of the ‘Scots Regiment’, which had been raised four years earlier in Scotland and was bound to King Louis, "in all service except against the King of Great Britain”. (The Auld Alliance in action).

This was the time of the 30 Years War and the regiment, now titled the Régiment de Douglas, took part in the siege of St. Omer in the Spanish Netherlands, fought in Piedmont under the Prince of Savoy, participated in the successful siege of Turin, and was then back in the Spanish Netherlands at the siege of Gravelines. The regiment 'fought with distinction' and its strength was increased to twenty companies of one hundred men each.  Lord James, however, was killed in a skirmish near Douai on 21 October 1645 during an attempt to take it from the Hapsburgs. On the very day of his death Louis XIV had indicated his wish to give him a Field-Marshal's baton.

Douglas was succeeded as colonel by his elder brother, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. The Régiment de Douglas returned to British service in 1662, and in 1812 took its more famous name: The Royal Scots.