Back to Blighty #19 – Loch Leven Castle

My boys and I took a trip to Loch Leven Castle accompanied by my mother, one of my sisters and her youngest son.  A trip to Loch Leven Castle necessitates taking a boat to cross the loch and, as there were eight of us, we were told that our group would have to wait for the 1pm crossing.  This presented us with no problem since there is a fantastic playground on the mainland side of the loch.  The kids had a great time careering up scramble nets and across rope bridges, whipping across zip slides and careering down slides.  As it seemed apt to do so, I also taught the kids how to do “Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off” whereby a flick of the thumb is used to knock the head off a dandelion.

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In no time at all, it was time to go to the jetty and clamber aboard the small boat that took us across the loch to the island.  The boat ride was part of the whole experience for the kids rather than just a necessity as they loved being out on the water.  In just a few short minutes we reached the island and were deposited on the shore.

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Loch Leven Castle has a rather sad and sorry story, involved as it was in so much conflict and tragedy.  It was built some time in the 13th Century and went through a period of being captured by the English and then recaptured by the Scots and then retaken by the English and taken by the Scots again … The story of Scottish medieval history really.  The prominent keep dates from the 14th Century and was frequently used as a prison.  Some notable prisoners died in captivity there.

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The most famous of Loch Leven’s prisoners, of course, was Mary Queen of Scots.  The story of her imprisonment and escape are the Castle’s main claim to fame.  Scottish nobles, opposed to Mary’s marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, placed here there in 1657 under a form of house arrest, a sort of awkward guest of the Douglas family who owned the property.  A few days after she miscarried twins, she was forced to abdicate thus making her baby son James the King.  Under a year after she was imprisoned, however, Mary – aided by a member of the Douglas family – was able to make her escape, row across the water and flee to freedom.

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The Castle changed hands several times and fell into ruin by the 18th Century.  That, however, is my kids’ favourite kind of castle.  They much prefer to run around and explore the empty spaces than to see historic buildings with restored and recreated rooms full of furniture, tapestries and treasures.  The keep – or tower house – was originally five storeys.  Access has greatly improved in terms of safety since I last visited.  I felt completely at ease allowing my boys and my nephew to run in and around the keep unaccompanied.  They could enter through one exterior door, ascend staircases inside and then emerge onto an external wooden staircase from a door part way up the tower – and they did so again and again.  They also enjoyed running in and out of the Glassin tower, a round shaped tower of rooms in the opposite corner, and scaling the ruined walls.

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We spent much longer on the island than our fellow visitors as the five boys were having a whale of a time playing in the ruined buildings and running around in the courtyard.  Thankfully they had the boat ride back to look forward to and a trip to the sweet shop for a wee treat each otherwise we might never have got them to leave.

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Back to Blighty #16 – Edinburgh Castle

The focus of our day trip to Edinburgh was to visit the Castle.  I had not been to Edinburgh Castle for almost 20 years, bizarrely Mr Pict had never been despite us living in the city centre for five years and – obviously – none of the Pictlings had ever been.

Edinburgh Castle is very distinctive, a large fortress sitting atop an extinct volcano.  There has been some sort of castle on that site since at least the 12th Century and it has, therefore, evolved over a lengthy span of history, gradually transitioning from being a royal residence to being a military barracks.

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The kids instantly found Edinburgh Castle to be enchanting because it is just the type of castle children conjure up in their imaginations.  From walking through the thick outer walls beneath a portcullis, to walking the battlements, to clambering up cobbled paths and exploring murky dungeons, there was plenty to spark their interest.  We decided, however, that a tour of castle highlights would be best rather than slogging around every section of the site and risk the kids disengaging.

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We all enjoyed perusing the view from the castle ramparts.  We had clear views over Princes Street Gardens, the New Town and the West End, the Mound, Waverley Station and all the way across to Calton Hill.  While the adults reminisced about the places we could see, the boys enjoyed clambering onto the many canon.  On the subject of canon, the kids were able to see the famous one o’clock gun.  It has been firing since 1861, a way for ships in the Forth to gain an accurate time for setting their clocks by, and the tradition has continued long past its maritime relevance.  I used to love listening for it when I was wee and was visiting my Gran and it was always entertaining to see visitors to the city, not aware of the tradition, give a startled jump when it banged.  We were in the Castle at one o’clock but sadly it was a Sunday and the gun is silent on Sundays and other pertinent days throughout the year.  The other famous canon within the castle walls is much older: Mons Meg.  Mons Meg is a medieval canon and apparently has the largest calibre of any canon in the world.  It suffered an injury in the late 17th Century and has just been on display ever since.  Nowadays Mons Meg is famous for its role in Hogmany celebrations as it is fired at the beginning of the fireworks display, an indication of the passing of the old year into the new year.

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We spent a great deal of time on the Citadel, the upper level of the castle accessed via the arched Foog’s Gate.  There we visited St Margaret’s Chapel, a tiny building believed to be the oldest building still extant in Edinburgh.  Margaret, a Wessex princess and the wife of Malcolm III of Scotland, was renowned for her piousness and good deeds.  Margaret did not actually worship in the chapel.  It was built in the reign of her son David, in the 12th Century.  We also enjoyed the panoramic views from Half Moon Battery which took in such places as the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat and the area of Edinburgh where Mr Pict and I had once lived.

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We joined the line to view the Honours of Scotland which was effectively a conveyer belt of people.  The line was in constant motion and it was absolutely necessary to keep pace with those in front and behind or else risk getting completely snaggled up.  The system was a plus in that it removed the tedium of queuing.  The lines snaked through displays and dioramas depicting the history of Scotland’s crown jewels, from their manufacture by skilled artisans to their use in royal ceremony through to their disappearance and rediscovery by the novelist Sir Walter Scott.  After about 20 minutes we finally ended up in the room where the actual Honours – a crown, sceptre and sword – were showcased alongside the Stone of Destiny, a block of sandstone once used in the coronation of monarchs and the object of much conflict and controversy between Scotland and England.  We then segued into the rest of the Royal Palace in order to see the apartments where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI and I in 1566.  As the chap who united the thrones of Scotland and England, I thought it might be handy for the boys to have that connection to his personal history to act almost as a mnemonic for his role in history.  I also knew we were going to be visiting another Mary Queen of Scots site so I wanted them to be considering her importance to Scottish history too.  Sadly, all but the oldest found the rooms dull so I think that was an education fail.

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Much more impressive to the kids was the Great Hall, a spacious Renaissance room with a hammerbeam roof.  It was converted into barracks during the Commonwealth with floors being added to split it into three storeys and then became a military hospital before being restored at the close of the 19th Century.  What the boys loved about it was that the walls were lined with hundreds of swords and other pointy weapons and there were suits of armour throughout too.  Along with the huge stone fireplace, it made them think of the hall at Hogwarts School.  My Dad and I then had a wander into the Scottish National War Memorial which commemorates those killed in the two World Wars and more recent conflicts and houses the Rolls of Honour.

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Next up were two prisons.  The first we visited was the Victorian military prison, a collection of spartan cells, a basic shower room and a room for ablutions.  The boys all enjoyed pretending to be prisoners while their granddad was the prison warden.  The kids learned about the type of offences that would have led to soldiers being sent to the cells and the types of repetitive or physically exhausting punishments they would be given.  I was hoping their might be a moral in the tale.  We then went to see the vaults where prisoners of war were once housed.  These were dank and dark with hammocks hanging everywhere.  The standard conditions had been recreated to bring the scene to life so the children were able to comprehend what life would have been like there for the prisoners – from America, France, Spain and Holland – cooped up together, keeping themselves entertained by crafting, eating food the kids would find ghastly.  They were shocked to learn that the prisoners would have included cabin boys, some as young as six years old.  We also saw the prison’s original wooden doors which were covered in carved graffiti.

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The prisons were our last stop on our jaunt around Edinburgh Castle.  Sans kiddliwinks it would be easy to spend at least a couple more hours touring the buildings and absorbing the history.  There are just so many layers of history at Edinburgh Castle and we barely skimmed the surface.

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Back to Blighty #12 – Carnasserie Castle

Following our jaunt around Kilmartin Glen, we headed a few minutes further north to get to Carnasserie Castle – a favourite play location of my boys when we lived in Lochgilphead.  Before even reaching the castle, of course, some tree climbing had to be done.

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Carnasserie Castle is a ruined tower situated on a hill just north of Kilmartin village.  It was built in the 16th Century by John Carswell, later the Bishop of the Isles, whose main claim to fame is that he published the first ever book in Gaelic.  The Castle was blown up by Royalist troops in the 1680s as retaliation for a later owner supporting the rebellion against James II and VII.  It has, therefore, been a ruin for several centuries.  Apparently it is a spectacular example of architecture of its period but that is not something I know anything about.

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My kids love running around in the walled courtyard garden and scurrying across the hillocks at the rear of the castle – which sometimes gives me palpitations since the drop from some of them is really quite steep.  What they especially love, however, is the castle interior with all its imaginative play possibilities.  In addition to large spaces, there are two towers, one at each end of the castle.  These are accessed by spiral stairs which open up into other rooms before spiralling upwards again.  My mountain-goat-children whizz up these steps in no time at all which always makes me feel queasy as it means they reach the open roof before I do.  The way they leap around at such heights – especially the youngest one who has neither fear nor an ability to undertake any sort of risk assessment – makes my knees wobble.  They also love the cellar – which contains a well – and that is a much safer venue for play but, alas, they prefer the higher areas of the castle.

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Back to Blighty #8 – Falkland

We crossed the border between England and Scotland in order to go and spend some time with my family in Fife.  My parents came out to stay with us last July but I had not seen my siblings or their kids since we emigrated almost two years ago.  Thankfully tools like Skype and Facebook have shrunk the Atlantic.

One of the first places we headed out to was Falkland, a short drive from my home town.  It has been one of my favourite spots since I was a tiny wee person.  I have fond memories of visiting the palace, playing in its gardens, of climbing the Lomond hills, of wandering through the woods of the estate and of my Gran taking me to have a tea of scones with cream and jam.  In my mid-teens, I did some work experience in the Palace, taking visitors on tours.  There was a goat on one of the tapestries that used to freak me out when I was wandering around the building solo.  In 2012, when the Pict clan were holidaying in Fife from Argyll, we actually rented a gorgeous little white cottage next door to the Palace as the base for our explorations.  As I said, I have lots of fond memories of Falkland.

The whole village layout revolves around Falkland Palace.  It was built in the 1500s by James IV, on the site of a previous Castle and hunting lodge.  It is a striking Renaissance Palace, well worth visiting for its wonderful architecture, beautiful rooms and its rich history.  Under James V, the gardens were developed and a Royal Tennis Court was installed.  Those courts are one of the Palace’s main claims to fame as it is the oldest in Britain. The Palace was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s troops and it was during that time that a fire broke out which completely destroyed the East Range.  That section was never rebuilt, remaining a ruin open to the elements.  The rest of the building was restored in the 19th Century.  The Palace’s other main claim to fame is that it was there in 1542 that James V died thus making his very newborn daughter the reigning monarch.  Said daughter was, of course, Mary Queen of Scots.

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I had taken my kids for an extensive tour of Falkland Palace and Gardens when we had visited Fife in 2012 so we did not visit this time.  Instead we decided – we being the Picts, my mother, my sisters and three of my nephews – to go for a walk around the woodland that once formed part of the royal hunting estate.

The boys all had a grand time running wild through the woods.  They threw “sticky willies”* at each other, climbed trees, hurtled athletically over puddles, turned twigs, branches and pine cones into weapons, and spent time watching a herd of cattle pee and poop.  An awful lot of time was, in fact, spent spectating the bodily functions of cows.  Boys.  We also stumbled upon an area where local school children, undertaking their Forest Schools education, had constructed various shelters out of branches and leaves.  All seven boys had great fun playing in and around those structures plus clambering over fallen trees and sliding down their mud-plastered roots.

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One of the side benefits of all the children being free range in the woods was that it allowed we grown ups to just chat and catch up with each other, punctuated obviously be children yelping that they had fallen and were hurt or by the need for one of us to yell at the kids to please not throw that really large stick, thank you.  On our loop back to the village, we stopped in at the Pillars of Hercules, an organic cafe and store set in the woods, to buy the kids a snack.  Artisan chocolate is an expensive treat.  They wolfed it down like it was cheap as chips too, little scoundrels.  Once back in the village, the kids had fun playing with the fountain and then we headed off to see the War Memorial that was just unveiled last November as part of the First World War centennial commemorations.  We also saw a park bench dedicated to Johnny and Roseanne Cash who felt an affiliation for the area since the Cash ancestors originated from the Howe of Fife.

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*What we call the plant whose scientific name is apparently Galium Aparine.  What did you think they were throwing?

 

 

Ephemera Castle

The July theme for the Documented Life Project is Ephemera.  Knowing this to be the case, I kept all my tickets and leaflets and maps from our travels around Britain.  The prompt “Life with a History” made me think of all the castles we visited on our trip* so I decided to collage a castle.  Simple as that.

The background is two different colours of Dylusions ink.  I thought the vibrant colours would make the collage elements pop out from the page more but ultimately I also outlined using Posca paint pen.  It was quick and simple but fun to create.

Week 27 - Life with a History - Ephemera

The crenellated main building and the two side towers were taken from a map to the Chalke Valley History Festival, the doorway is a ticket to Stonehenge, the turret roofs are a map of Edinburgh Castle, the flag is from the ticket into Edinburgh Castle and the windows are luggage claim labels from our flight and postage stamps.

 

*Stay tuned for future posts featuring castles.

Where We Came From – A Nostalgic Retrospective

A little tinkle on my phone alerted me to the fact I now have 100 followers on my blog.  Wow.  Who would have thought?  Certainly not me.  I started this blog as a bit of writing therapy, to help me process my thoughts as I experienced this massive change in our family life, and to record our everyday family experiences in a new country.  I really had no idea anyone else would find it of interest and am deeply flattered that so many people do.  Thank you, one and all, for taking the time to read my mutterings and musings, view my photos and look at my drawings.  I very much appreciate it.

Given that I am at a bit of a landmark moment with this blog, I thought I might create a bit of a retrospective entry.  The reflective nature of this post has also been provoked by the (hopefully imminent) sale of our house in Scotland because, apart from the dear friends we have there, the house was our last tie to Argyll.  Mr Pict and I had lived there since the summer of 2002 and had started our family there, had put down roots there.  So as liberating as it is to be free of the burden of the house and to be able to press forward with establishing a permanent home here in Pennsylvania, it is most definitely a very bittersweet, watershed moment in our lives.  As such, this post is all about Argyll and the favourite places we have left behind.  I thought regular readers might find it interesting to see where we have come from.  The photos are in no particular order – just determined by where I found them on the external hard drive that crossed the Atlantic with me – but were all taken in the last couple of years.

These photos were taken at Arichonan, a ruined crofting village near where we lived.  My boys loved visiting there as it was a wonderful site for imaginative play and for finding bugs and reptiles.  It was a disappointing trip if we didn’t come back having found at least one interesting critter.

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These photos was taken in Kilmartin Glen, an area famed for its neolithic and Bronze Age remains.  We often visited the standing stones, stone circles and burial cairns there.

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We also liked a lovely walk in the hills of Achnabreac that took us past more neolithic cup and ring markings.

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These photos were taken in Kilmory woods and loch, near where my husband worked.

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These were taken in Kilmory Gardens, adjacent to the castle my husband worked in.

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This was the building in which Mr Pict worked.

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These were taken in Oban, from McCaig’s Tower.

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These were taken at our favourite nearby beach, Westport on the Kintyre peninsula.  We only seemed to go there when it was cold, hence the lack of beach wear.  As you will see, one of our favourite activities there was dune jumping. 

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These photos were taken at Saddell Abbey.  Where we lived, we were never far from centuries of history.

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These photos were taken at Crarae Gardens, which are maintained by the National Trust for Scotland and are planted to resemble what would be found in the Himalayas.

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These were taken in Tarbert, a fishing and sailing village and home to yet another ruined castle.

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These were taken at Crinan, a village at one end of the Crinan Canal.

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These were taken at Carnasserie Castle, a medieval ruin that my kids used for lots of knights and Lord of the Rings themed play.  I was often cast as an orc.

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Skipness Castle was another place that sparked wonderful imaginative play.  It also has a ruined chapel and graveyard containing wonderfully carved grave markers and a lovely beach with views over to the island of Arran.

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Another favourite place of ours was the island of Gigha.  We would go over as foot passengers on the ferry and then wander the island, including the gardens of Achamore house and the beautiful beaches.  Then there was Dunaad Hill Fort, once the capital of the kingdom of Dal Riata, which provided great views over the surrounding landscape, including Moine Mhor.  We also enjoyed walks along the Crinan Canal and around the village of Inverary.  However, I think I have trawled my photo archives enough for one post.

Thank you for indulging me in this dose of nostalgia.  Perhaps it will inspire you to visit Scotland and – if and when you do – venture further afield than the major cities.  I hope it has also provided you with some insight into the level of culture shock we have experienced moving not just from Scotland to America but from a remote and rural area to the suburbs of a major city.  You can probably also now understand why my children are as feral as they are.

Thanks again for reading.  I really do appreciate it.