Sunday 30 May 2010

Stirling Castle Skeletons - who are they?

The skeletons of a man and
a horse in a museum

Six hundred years on .. could a skeleton be identified? The body was found under the recently restored kitchen area of Stirling Castle .. this is what makes the person worth investigating – he was buried within the castle walls: probably making him of noble descent.

Forensically could we follow this person back to the times he lived? An interesting thought and one I was fascinated with ... the unearthing of clues on his body parts together with the highly qualified and technical skills of a forensic team of today.

In an early medieval chapel our man and his ten compatriots were laid to rest. As Stirling became the principal royal centre new buildings were added to the site, with a Great Hall, completed in 1503, being erected over the remains of the chapel.

Jousting helmet, late 15th C:
illustration by Albrecht Durer
The historically correct restoration of the Great Hall, its under kitchens, its hammer beam roof, the great wall hangings were finally finished late last century – when the excavation of the burial site was undertaken.

So the archaeologists are digging around and up pop eleven skeletons, which must have been a huge surprise ... 

... as you can imagine in 1997 when they were found these long forgotten bones were painstakingly removed as archaeological ‘finds’ and stored. A few artefacts were also found including one particular arrow head providing another clue.

The BBC have made four programmes on a series of historical cold cases – this one happened to be about Stirling Castle .. just after I’d written the two posts .. one here  and the one there over at Biking and Architecture – so felt I had to continue the story and let you know.

Plate Armour
Dundee University in Scotland has one of the best forensic departments in the UK and wondered if they could pit their skills against the passing of time on these bones discovered deep within the castle. Forensic techniques have advanced a long way since the bodies’ discovery in 1997.

This unsolved death had lain undiscovered for over six centuries – what could be revealed? The team concentrated on one particular set of bones indicating a heavy set man who had died in the prime of his life, while considering the probable period of his death .. about six hundred years ago.

Carbon dating of his bones confirmed that he had lived between 1290 – 1400 during the height of the Scottish Wars of Independence .. England held Scotland eight times during this period.

Professor Sue Black heads up Dundee University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, where her highly respected team established various facts:

1) that the skull had a horrendous gash to its forehead, which didn’t pierce the second part of the skull, and therefore didn’t kill him, had healed over time;
2) His face had been ‘bashed’ as his mouth and teeth, which had abscesses, showed damage;
3) His lower back had an abscess;
4) One ankle was badly injured;

A knight in gothic plate armour,
from a German book illustration,
published 1483
The damages were not life threatening as there were no fractures, but must have made life very uncomfortable ... hardy chap this man – how many doctors would we have seen by now?!

His bones, apart from their actual natural development, showing that he was a well-built man in his prime, between 25 and 40 years old, also reflected the extensive amount of muscle mass he had in various parts of his body ... his upper body was very heavy, particularly both scapula (shoulder blades), his lower limbs not quite so, but still well developed.

So what else could be determined ... samples from his teeth and bones were sent away for mineral analysis .. the isotopic testing of his bones was unexpected in its return ... Stirling is nowhere near the sea – yet our man had a diet of 30% marine life, with the other 70% coming from terrestrial life ... he was not a meat eating carnivore, as might have been expected.

Was he Scottish? No – the isotope of his teeth (establishing the first 15 years of his life) confirmed he came from the south coast of England (my neck of the woods); he could have been French supporting the Scots – but this could be disregarded as the Records listed every French soldier and the routes they took .. those routes were southerly from their mustering point at Leith Castle (just north of Edinburgh).

Modern Replicas of various
medieval European arrowheads
What else could they look at? The armouries to establish the various weapons in use at that time (in particular that arrowhead), how life was lived .. it was the time of knights, heavy armour, jousting (the gardens at Stirling had been built over a medieval jousting arena), and the reconstruction of his face and body to show us how he would look today.

This gathering of clues is so interesting ... as from them Professor Black’s team was able to establish our man as

** a nobleman, because he was buried within the castle walls;

** a jouster: to become a knight and nobleman, you needed to earn your place on the battlefield;

** a fish eater: in medieval times a food staple was wind dried cod, with a sweet-sour sauce (the Romans had similar) – this preservation method made it eminently suitable to provision the armies; while interestingly the piscivore would have been a religious Christian knight .. as it was believed that eating fish avoided carnality (thought you’d like this!);

Renaissance Fair - jousting
in Livermore, California: 2006
** a southern survivor: we know this from the isotopic results and anyone who had survived the early skull crack, the smash in the face from the lance, the well muscled upper body from carrying the lance, and the shield, the heavy set neck providing a core for the armour and the helmet [just as an aside .. Henry VIII’s armour weighed in at nine stone (57 kilos)], the abscessed back probably from a jousting fall (or over use), the fall could have resulted in the ankle injury as stirrups were pretty basic back then, or again just over practising.

So how did he die – this they could establish ... but who was he? Can we find out? He died from a barbed broad-head arrow strike to the back of his head – a particularly nasty implement of war.

The snippet of information that did interest me - as I’d often wondered why archers were so important in medieval warfare – was this rather nasty invention of the barbed arrow – it could not be withdrawn. This is why archers were a turning point for warring armies .. those with the know-how and numbers against those without.

The team went off to the National Archives in London and first thought he might be a Norman knight .. but this man did not die in Scotland ... more in a post on Petitions to follow shortly: that I didn't do I see now in 2014!

The next set of records that was uncovered was an account of Stirling Castle when it was held by the English in 1340/41, which listed everyone at the Castle – starting with the knights and going down through the household – the family, archers, peasants etc

The reconstructed face of Sir John de Strychley
as made by Dr Xanthe Mallet of Dundee University
Our man was almost certainly the senior member of the Castle: Sir John de Strychley .. as the records state “Obit 10 Oct 1341”; this would have supported him being buried within the walls, his injuries confirm his nobility and the fact he was English ... 

.... the history matches, the documentation reflects it .. and the reconstruction gives him life .. and we can see Sir John as he might have been .. a heavily built battle wounded knight, with a well developed scarred face.

Why he was buried with the other ten skeletons we will never know – perhaps they were massacred, perhaps they were killed before the Scots retook the castle in 1342 – we shall never know ... the woman also died from a particularly nasty puncture wound to her skull .. it is likely that they died fighting for their cause.

God Rest Sir John de Strychley and his household buried for so long in the Chapel, beneath the kitchen built on top, below the Great Hall at Stirling .. we now know who you are and finally give you provenance in the 21st century.

Joy Division
One last snippet – which I thought was interesting and relates .. Peter Hook a bass player with Joy Division (left), later reformed as New Order, confirmed that he has injured his neck over the years playing his bass guitar round his ankles ... 

... when he was trying to be different from other bass players. Hook also worked as a producer for bands such as Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses.

Do you think the cold case team would have worked out his injuries to his upper back and neck .. as a cause, because of his constant stretching down to play his guitar for all those years .. I suspect so – especially as they can talk to him!?

BBC's Cold Case .. or google for more information, as there may be a block on viewing for overseas viewers ..
Stirling Castle Blog for more information

Dear Mr Postman .. my mother would have enjoyed this, as too would my uncle .. however my mother was awake enough to sort of watch the State Opening of Parliament this week – how much she took in, I cannot tell ... but we plod on ... the weather sort of thinks summer is coming ... there’s still snow in the north of Scotland.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 27 May 2010

A stroll on the wild side ...

I grew up being told that our rainfall was plentiful, we had lakes, reservoirs, ponds, green grass, lots of trees, fields of rainbows .. yellows, blues, greens, creams, interspersed with white daisies and red poppies .... and yet 40 – 50 years later as soon as it doesn’t rain for a few days, here in the South East, we have a drought.

When I went to see The Silent Pianist speak .. I had a walk around Arlington Reservoir (above) built for water storage, so that in the year 2010 I can have a shower! Good thing too. So here’s a brief summary of works, facts, pictures of some of the plants and wildlife, some history and a general stroll around the park.

It’s a lovely circular trail of about 1 ½ miles (4 km) and takes approximately an hour – perfect for a leisurely walk on a summer’s day. Construction began in 1969, with the spoil being spread across the site creating a beautiful rolling landscape around its circular shape. The underlying weald clay gives a natural water tight base, so when a meander in the Cuckmere River was cut off all that was needed was a concrete faced earth dam.
Ox-Eye – with sprig of cowparsley – a typical meadow flower

A full size reconstruction of a woolly mammoth, at Ipswich Museum, UK
During excavations several interesting animal remains were found including a mammoth tusk, a bison horn and the skull of a woolly rhinoceros dating from 250,000 years ago. Some facts about the reservoir ... the kind of eclectic details many of us enjoy reading:

Area: 49 hectares, or the total of 121 English football pitches
Maximum depth of reservoir: 11.3 metres (12.3 yards)
Capacity: 3,500 million litres, or 11,665million soft drink cans
Recorded bird species = 173
Recorded butterfly species = 35

Marbled White - it is thought that Red Fescue grass is essential in their diet

A couple of conservation thoughts:
A water butt can collect up to 85,000 litres of (free) rainwater per annum
Using mulch and bark on your garden can reduce evaporation by up to 75%

There are reed beds protecting the banks from erosion, while providing nesting and feed habitats for many birds including wagtails, warblers, kingfishers and wildfowl. The grasslands are managed as wildflower meadows where we are able to see the Common Spotted Orchid, Ox-eyes, Common Milkwort, Cowslips, Grass Chalkland Vetch, Hairy Mallow, Meadow Buttercups, with various grasses including Red Fescue and Meadow Foxtail.
Common Spotted Orchid
Red Fescue grass below

Sections of these grasslands are cut in the autumn on a two-year rotation, when the clippings are removed, because if they are left the soil fertility will build up tending to favour a few coarse grasses and disadvantage the colourful wildflowers. There are hay meadows – these rough grasslands create an ideal habitat for the small mammals, the favoured food of the barn owls nesting nearby.

The surrounding woodland contain coppiced hazel trees (underwood), interspersed with oak and ash; the native tree theme was continued within the reservoir when 30,000 trees were planted – oaks, birch, wild cherry, hazel and hawthorn. The hedges are created using a traditional technique known as “hedge-laying”. All this diversity attracts nightingales, green woodpeckers, chiffchaff, hedgehogs, voles, shrews, mice, speckled wood butterflies, the marbled white .. as well as painted ladies and the peacock butterfly.
May blossom
Northern Shoveler – a dabbling duck

There’s an Osprey Hide, particularly valuable from March to October when the rainbow trout are beloved by the migrating ospreys, and a Bird Sanctuary where many bird species can be seen including great crested grebe, Canada geese, kingfishers as well as the thousands of birds migrating either during summer or autumn, including pochard, widgeon, mallard and shoveler. Three ponds have been dug which attract all kinds of wildlife from birds like heron, to the smallest microscopic organisms.

School groups come out to the Reserve using its nature trail, while the pond-dipping platform provides a perfect stage to view the large number of aquatic insects, such as dragonfly nymphs, pond skaters, water boatmen as well as amphibians like frogs and newts.
A bluebell glade and an avenue of horsechestnut trees - pictures I took on that balmy evening

The wonderful thing is the Reserve has been designed for all .. school children, picnickers, trout fishermen, bird watchers, walkers .. in this tranquil position nestling in the Cuckmere River valley while providing that necessary haven for wildlife ... trees, plants, flowers, insects, amphibians, small reptiles, birds et al .. what more could one want – oh yes – some sun and that’s exactly what I got when I visited.

Dear Mr Postman my surprise my mother was awake enough to watch the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday .. I’m not sure how much she saw, but it made a change. She still can’t hear, which is rather frustrating .. but we cannot do much about it as the bad cold-cough is still around. She’s still with it though – one of the carers had been home to Glasgow and Marie’s return brought a “oh hello Mrs Glasgow” .. that’s what my mother calls her! I’m not sure if Ma knew she’d been away as such .. but it’s good we still get some reaction! When she does talk – she talks slowly .. as though I can’t hear!!!, but she chatters away to herself sometimes ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 23 May 2010

The Silent Pianist Speaks ...

What on earth ... silent, yet plays music presumably, and speaks .. but this is Neil Brand .. who started his career in Eastbourne playing his debut as a film accompanist with the Eastbourne Film Society in 1983 – the silent film was Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jnr”.

The Film Society in 2004 brought the silent classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc “(1928) with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand, to Eastbourne when a new print became available in England (it had been banned by the authorities for its poor English propaganda!).

Neil by London & Cambridge photographer Tom Catchesides

The programme note says “some members of the Society may wonder why we should have set such great store on this screening, but those who find it strange are unlikely to be those who have attended previous silent cinema screenings by the Society at which films were accompanied by Neil Brand at the piano. Such screenings rarely bring out the largest audiences - it’s their loss”, and I absolutely agree.

I have never been to a film, a silent one at that, where I was completed sucked into the ‘narrative’ – the passion play. The actress’ eyes were riveting – it is an unorthodox piece in that it is shot largely in close-ups with sparse backgrounds – I was completely absorbed within this atmospheric presentation.

There is not one single establishing shot in all of “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, it is filmed entirely in close-ups or medium shots, creating a fearful intimacy between Joan and her tormentors. If you go to the Danish Film Museum in Copenhagen you can see Dreyer’s model for the extraordinary set he built for the film.

Dreyer, returned to the actual trial records, combining the 29 cross-examinations into one inquisition; the charges of heresy are set within a Church court, in which the judges, their faces twisted with their fear of her courage, loomed over her with shouts and accusations ...

In selecting Falconetti to play Joan .. there was something that struck Dreyer .. there was a soul behind that facade .. he did screen tests without makeup, and found what he sought, a woman who embodied simplicity, character and suffering.

I hope some of my passion, still at the forefront of my memory after six years comes across – I can still remember the metal baskets containing the steaming hay for the cows, the ghastly monks or churchmen, they loomed large, I can still smell the hay, the dung, the heavy smoke from the tallow candles, I itched with the hay, I can feel my senses assaulted from my involvement within this setting and the events unfolding in front of me.

Renee Falconetti - c/o Chicago Sun-Times - written by Roger Ebert

This is where I first saw this Silent Pianist, who speaks ... I went to the film thinking I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy this – but I so respect Mansel Stimpson’s selections and his knowledge of film, he is an active member of the National Film Theatre in London, that I went along expecting to sort of watch, but keep an eye on Neil to see how he played to or with the film .... well you now know how I came out – totally emotionally enthralled by it, and I hadn’t watched Neil at all!

Yesterday Neil came to a small Sussex village hall to put on two shows – one aimed at children .. but definitely with us adults in mind, and another telling us adults, who attended both, how his career started and giving us an exposition about silent movies.

Both shows were wonderful .. and I was able to visit my mother, wander over to Berwick (about 9 miles from Eastbourne), have a walk at one of the local nature reserves, see the show, revisit my mother and return for the evening performance .. on a glorious summer’s day – really the first of this year.

To top the day – I had a wonderful subject for my 250th post .. and collected another two along the way: Neil has kindly said he’d do a guest post for us sometime .. and the nature reserve (to the left) presented some interesting facts.

Now to Neil .. the Silent Pianist .. it is time for you to speak .... he returns to his roots – Eastbourne, via London, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Abu Dhabi to Berwick – from zero to half a million listeners, through his international reputation with a programme on BBC’s Radio 4, to a few dozen yesterday .. he suits my style – an eclectic mix. He’s so down to earth and it was an absolute pleasure to be there to learn more about this master of the silent art.

As I mentioned he played at the Film Society for Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jnr back in 1983, then in 1984 got his first audition at the National Film Theatre, (with a gentle prod from our cinema buff Mansel Stimpson to the NFT’s Kevin Brownlow, who was one of the panel of judges that day) – that was it ... The Silent Pianist was on the road ...

The really interesting thing is that Neil does not read music – cannot read it .. but he absorbed this love from the local cinema .. the world of bright colours, with the new reverberating magnetic sound of the 1960s ... here he saw “My Fair Lady” (1964) and learnt the 6th and 7th chords – now these are the chords he uses all the time ...

Flowers of the Sussex Downs

... he went on to study Drama at University .. but while growing up his parents realised that he had a natural talent for improvisation at the piano ... so when he got bored, they suggested ‘play a windmill’, ‘play a herd of buffalo’ .. and here we are today – with another NFT member, John Gillett, confirming “Neil is the best silent pianist he knows”.

Earlier I drew attention to the fact that Dreyer selected Falconetti to play Joan of Arc, because he could see the soul behind the actress as she played Joan; while Neil, when he was explaining his ability to play the piano is because he feels the music .. something within him comes to the fore, letting his fingers do the playing – there is no score, there is no repeat.

I find that quite extraordinary; Neil interspersed his performances with explanations and some background notes – all really interesting. What is silence? If you’re watching a silent film where the rain is pouring down, the umbrella looks like it’s about to disappear .. we expect to hear that pitter patter, or those heavy plops of the dropping deluge, or see the umbrella turn inside out, swept away down the street .. but we don’t – it is silent. Silence is weird .. unless we choose it .. Buster Keaton decided to sing in the film “Prisoner’s Song” .. but it’s silent ......

Le Silence (1842–1843), painted plaster sculpture by Antoine-Augustin Préault.

Silent films embraced world culture, many of which have not been available since those times – Neil showed us a 2 minute 1906 complete movie by the Pathe Brothers (Pathé Frères) – but fortunately innovation in restoration and recent film finds have re-opened the door so that classics can again be seen.

In the UK in 1929 there were 25,000 silent film pianists ... in 1930 – there were none! Yet the genre of silent movies is largely misunderstood ... comedy was not an established force, it was not written, it was created by the great actors, directors of the time .. the Chaplins, Keatons, Laurel, Oliver et al .. and how we laughed .. we laughed yesterday .. we certainly laughed as kids .. great belting stomach heaves .. and just wanting more .. the next ‘gag’, the next ‘disaster’ ..

Silent film in this day and age – needs us .. the screen portrays wonderful scenes, the pianist interprets the plot, we are totally involved by our reactions ... you cannot have one without the other for the full impact.

Pictures, Jul 23 1921, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle (1887 – 1933) on the cover

We were tested at the evening performance to see our expectations of a film as it develops – this was the People on Sunday (German: Menschen am Sonntag), which is a 1930 German silent movie, from a screenplay by Billy Wilder – here Neil showed us the hooks Wilder used to draw us into the film – which side would we come down on .. were the couple happy, or was it a murderous plot .. ?

Then he told us a few anecdotes .. he quite often plays for films he’s not seen before .. and one time this happened – suddenly up pops a ‘title’, which said “now we will play the Latvian Anthem”!? He played on .. thank goodness there were no Latvians in the audience!

Another time he was accompanying a tinted print, this was when the printed film had been tinted up to give it some colour, the trouble was .. the copy had been put back together with all the night scenes together, all the fire scenes together, all the daylight scenes together – you get the picture .. don’t you? There was no chronological order ... the film made no sense, the star character died, then reappeared ... Neil played on (thinking to himself ... that was a radical narrative technique, not seen before!) .. and there was huge applause!

There was lots more .. but I’m sure the master himself will give us some additional flavours in his guest post (thank you in advance Neil) .... if I’ve stimulated any questions .. please ask .. Neil has been very generous with these performances .. giving back to Berwick Church where he was married – this is where the walls of the Church were decorated by members of the Bloomsbury Group: here are two previous posts on the area, which may be of interest.

Berwick Church

The area around this Sussex Church .. Safari here or Safari there ...

One last thing – one of our audience, an American lady – certainly with her twang – was really interested .. as her grandmother, who hailed from ‘horse heaven’ country in Washington State, told Margaret that her first job was playing sheet music in a music shop to encourage sales of this new music, and then went on to become a silent film pianist – small world?!

Neil Brand – The Silent Pianist Speaks ...

We saw clips with or from: Charlie Chaplin – the thief at the fair; Fatty Arbuckle and a young Buster Keaton in the 1921 film “A Garage”; Buster Keaton’s “One Week” 2 part; the whole of “Big Business” where Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy want to sell Christmas trees in California – November - this clip shows the film and location .. still there today; Pathé Frères; German (film) Expressionism; and many others .. YouTube has many clips ...

Dear Mr Postman – my mother and my uncle would have loved this post .. and I’m sure my uncle would have often been to the National Film Theatre – sadly it’s too late for me to ask him .. I took him to a few of the Film Society Films, and let him read each season’s notes .. and he was fascinated at the choices Mansell made for us – and was so pleased we’d seen Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday .. I had to get it for him on video, so he could re see it ... he loved the genre! Happy Days. Happy Birthday too .. to my sister-in-law for tomorrow.

PS: I credit Mansel Stimpson, who writes all our Eastbourne Film Society Programme notes as I have used some of his words and phrases; as well as Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times – again the paragraphs and sentences in italics use a great many of Roger Ebert’s words – for more go here.
The Curzon Cinema - Eastbourne: Roy Galloway is the owner-proprietor - this where the film society films are shown.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 20 May 2010

Dumbarton and Corgarff Castles

This is the second of the castle series .. two more from Scotland .. I think in future I’ll mix and match a bit .. adding a little magic dust, a few nuances to tickle the interest .. and here’s ...

Dumbarton Castle, which has as prolific a history – but I have less information on this castle ... you may be pleased to hear! Dumbarton guards the northern shore of the River Clyde, another of the great firths cutting into the heartland of Scotland, this time to the west of Glasgow.

Its recorded history reaches back 1,500 years, when Saint Patrick wrote a letter to King Ceretic of Alt Clut (‘Rock of the Clyde”), later becoming know by the Gaelic name Dun Breatann, “Fortress of the Britons”, from which the name Dumbarton is derived.

Dumbarton Castle above - picture from Places to Visit in Scotland
Dumbarton Castle and lime kiln in 1800

Historically it has been a site of strategic importance since the Iron Age and very possibly the Bronze Age before it, pre 600 BC. The Romans were known to have traded here, St Patrick came from Ireland in the Dark Ages; the Norse legends mention the castle; the Vikings defeated it in 870 AD – the Norse King Olaf looted the town and its inhabitants, returning to the Viking city of Dublin with two hundred ships full of slaves and looted treasures; after the Vikings, the Picts (a confederation of Celtic tribes around 1,000 – 1100s AD) laid siege to the settlement.

When the recent castle was first built in the 1220s, the Norwegian frontier lay just 10 miles (16 km) downriver, with Dumbarton serving as a Border stronghold. In medieval Scotland Dumbarton was an important royal castle and sheltered various royals at difficult times, including Robert the Bruce’s son and later the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. The castle provided an important back door in and out of Scotland to Ireland, but more importantly to France and the European continent.

Today all visible trace of the Dark-Age Clyde Rock, its buildings and defences, have gone with precious little remaining of the medieval castle. The fortifications of the 17th and 18th centuries survive, and illustrate a painful struggle by military engineers to adapt an intractable site into contemporary defensive needs.

Erskine Bridge, Dumbarton and the Firth of Clyde, looking west

Dumbarton Rock is everything one imagines a might Dark-Age stronghold to have been. The volcanic rock rises up almost sheer from the murky waters that swirl around its base, and from its twin peaks – White Tower Crag and The Beak – you can see for miles, hence why it was chosen all those centuries ago. There are 557 steps to climb to the top?!

The third castle, Corgarff, is a medieval tower house surrounded by a distinctive star-shaped perimeter wall, set in the lonely moorland, on the quickest route between the two great river highways of the Dee and the Spey, so essential in the Dark and Middle Ages.

The tower was built as an impressive fortified home for the Forbeses, built around 1550, who were supporters of the future James VI of Scotland (and as, he was to become, James I of Britain), while their nearest clan neighbours, the Gordons, supported the claim of Mary to the Scottish throne. Some serious feuding ensued.

Corgarff Castle

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the arrival of the redcoats resulted in the tower being gutted and transformed into soldiers’ barracks; this was when the star-shaped wall was built giving Corgarff its unrivalled appearance. For a hundred years or so, the redcoats patrolled the area hunting down Jacobite sympathisers and latterly helping the excisemen stamp out the illegal production and smuggling of whisky.

The castle was typical of contemporary small houses of the gentry throughout Scotland. Its nucleus was the tall tower house – above a basement for storage was the family’s main living room, the hall, with their private chambers above. The stout stone courtyard wall surrounded the tower, within which there would have been other buildings including a stable, bakehouse and brewhouse: these have gone, but the lofty tower still stands.

Soldier of the 20th Regiment, circa 1742 (Culloden)

Corgarff Castle passed into State care in 1961 and has since been restored by Historic Scotland as it would have been in the years following the 1748 conversion. There are some beautiful and evocative pictures of the Castle, its rooms, illegal whisky stills, the courtyard, uniform of the Redcoats etc – well worth a visit or view here.

So bearing in mind the winter we have just had .. freezing cold snowy days, long with gloomy grey .. think about life back then .. how it would have looked to the soldier about to go on duty, staring out from castle walls, or upper floor windows ... that frozen waste, amid a hostile population or a raging sea below ..

Life is good now .. we visit and admire these castle, thinking of the hardships incurred on behalf of the fight that was the order of the day – warfare across the moors, fighting for King and country, or Queen and papacy, .. or feuding against invading nations – that was life then .. the expectation of good times at the mercy of life and death of nobles and the Crown.

Here on this map of Scotland, you can see Balmoral, Corgarff is a little to its north east; Stirling in the middle, Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth, while Dumbarton is to the west of Glasgow, as I mentioned on the Firth of Clyde ..

Tonight I'll have an addendum to the Stirling Castle post .. so update anon ..

Dear Mr Postman .. all's well here - slowly my mother is throwing off her cold .. but sleeping lots and still can't hear, which is frustrating .. but we go as the best we can ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 15 May 2010

Bat and Moth Survey Night - tonight

As we had the Great British Bird survey earlier in the year (results here), we now have a survey for two of the UK’s nocturnal groups – moths and bats, which hopefully will give the Conservation Trusts an idea about their plight. The public are being asked to “to hold their own night-time safari in the garden and report back their discoveries”.

It’s estimated that UK moth numbers have fallen by a third in the past 40 years and this poses a threat to the bats that feed on them as well as upsetting the biodiversity balance. Without a flourishing and diverse plant and animal environment, humans will deserve to reap the (unintended) consequences – hard, but so true, words.

"Chiroptera" (bats) from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur,1904

Bats and moths share a close relationship as predator and prey, evolving closely. Bats are able to navigate and hunt using a sophisticated sonar system called echolocation – uttering a series of rapid clicks which bounce off any objects in the air, enabling them either to avoid a collision or to catch their dinner!

Some moths are clever too and have developed simple hearing organs that can pick up on echolocation, allowing evasive action to be taken; whilst Tiger Moths (left) are able to emit loud clicks similar to echolocation calls, confusing the bats.

Do you think this sonar system could be adopted by a human being? ... well this video is quite amazing of a young lad, Ben Underwood, who can do extraordinary things by using echolocation himself, which was unheard of in humans. “See Without Eyes” on Ben Underwood, 14. You won’t believe it unless you look ... what else will humans do as they evolve ... ?!

All of the 17 species of bat found in the UK feed on moths, but the long-eared bat, two horseshoe bats, and Bechstein’s Bat (right) are particularly partial to them, forming a significant part of their diet. A large moth can be more than a mouthful, so the bat bends its tail forward and forms a ‘feeding bowl’ in which it holds its prey whilst it is being eaten.

Castles, steeples, old barns, cellars, caves and attics of houses are wonderful day-time roosting places, where they are ready to emerge at night to hunt for their insect prey.

I have to say that there are fewer moths around, I remember growing up and seeing quite large numbers of them – and occasionally we created a moth trap in the light to look more closely at them. I was about to write about South African moths – as the insect book I found refers to Southern Africa .. no more .. back to British!

More than 2,500 species of moth have been recorded in Britain, many have a wide diversity of bright colours to warn away predators and cryptic camouflage to avoid predation. Moths are essential for bats, but just as important for pollinating plants and as a source of food for most garden birds.

The Garden Tiger Moth (small picture above) already mentioned .. is a brilliantly pretty nocturnal moth .. and is believed to have declined by 89% in the last 30 years. They love damp places, which is why they are to be found in river valleys, gardens and parks, but are usually seen around a source of light.

Poplar Hawk-Moths feed on poplar trees and other plant hosts such as aspen; but as with other moths a variety of trees are utilised depending on location, with the moth quite often being called after the tree species: viz. ‘Bird-Cherry-Ermine’, Scalloped Oak, or aptly named for their look ... ‘Plume’, ‘Light Emerald’, Green Silver-Lines’, ‘Pale-Tussock’, ‘Orange Swift’ ... and can be seen here.

The Feathered Thorn moth is an autumn-flying moth, which as you can see blends extremely well with autumn leaves. The one depicted here is a male clearly showing the large feathered antennae from which gets its common name. This picture is particularly fine – as you can see one of the major differences between butterflies and moths .. the feathers .. are found on moths; butterflies’ antenna end in a small knob.

Bats and moths are under pressure from similar changes in our countryside, and the declining numbers of insects is inevitably going to impact on the bat populations which feed on them. These changes are largely due to habitat loss – the urbanisation of this little country – so the Bat Conservation Trust together with the Butterfly and Moth Conservation Organisation are providing an essential role in the recording of these species and their habitats.

Minnie Mouse, Pomeranians, Bats and travel post: 21 May 2009

Dear Mr Postman – all well here .. it just might be getting warmer .. and my mother is sleeping lots more, but was pleased to see me before she drifted off again.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 13 May 2010

Stirling Castle – with all its history, defences, wall paintings and tapestries .. and the Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Tess, of The Bold Life, came up with Scotland – perhaps Stirling is a castle her sister visited? .. but I knew little about – I know more now, and something about Scottish history .. so we start this journey of three castles, three very different fortresses, which were established for very different reasons in Scotland, here at Stirling Castle.

I started with Stirling Castle, but it has such an amazing history, and having been restored there is so much to tell you about – the next two castles, Dumbarton & Corgarff, will follow shortly!

Balmoral and Edinburgh – possibly the most well-known castles in Scotland will come later – I have a snippet about Balmoral & I need to ‘trawl’ to find it! Dutch and English (perhaps European) castles next – after Wilma’s request, then Welsh castles ... and English .. and, and .. soooo many beautiful and majestic buildings to tour with you, with perhaps a different twist to the tale.

Stirling Castle has sat crowning the precipitous volcanic crag at the narrowing of the Forth Valley, the Gateway to the Highlands, since the Dark Ages. Its strategic position has always ensured its importance.

Stirling is situated round about the "t" of Central .. The Firth of Forth cuts right in to the heart of the country from the North Sea.

During the sixty year Wars of Scottish Independence, Stirling Castle was recognised as a key Scottish command post being was successfully held against the English King – Edward I of England, 1239 – 1307, who was also known as Edward Longshanks (a tall man for his times) or the Hammer of the Scots.

William Wallace (1272 – 1305), who was to some extent the inspiration for the film “Braveheart”, led resistances during these Wars, including at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where the English were defeated, leading to Wallace becoming the Guardian of Scotland. Robert the Bruce, became Guardian of Scotland after Wallace, and reclaimed the castle for the Scots in 1314 after the Battle of Bannockburn.

Historically Stirling Castle is of great importance: Mary, Queen of Scots, having been brought up in Stirling during her early years, had her Coronation here in 1543. However she was forced to abdicate in 1567 in favour of her young son, James IV of Scotland, who at the Union with England became James VI of Britain in 1603.

Mary sought refuge in England with her ‘cousin’ Queen Elizabeth, but as Mary was Catholic she was seen as a threat as a legitimate heir to the English throne, so Elizabeth had her tried and executed for treason in 1587.

James, having been born in Edinburgh Castle, was brought up in the security of Stirling Castle, where he was crowned King of Scots at age 13 months at the Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling – where the sermon was preached by John Knox.

The young King’s tutor instilled in him a lifelong passion for literature and learning becoming competent in Greek, Latin, French, Italian and Spanish – as well as his native Scots and English. Under James, the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan literature and drama continued, with writers such as Shakespeare, Donne, Johnson and Bacon contributing to a flourishing literary culture, in which James played a major part.

Beyond the North Gate, from the Nether Bailey looking northwards.

James smoothly succeeded Elizabeth I as King of England in 1603, after negotiations had been taking place during Elizabeth’s last years; he rode south to London staying in The Tower of London – another place we will visit. It was at this time that Stirling Castle ceased to be a royal palace.

This great castle has and is in the process of being restored to its former glory. It has however seen occupation from the Bronze and Iron ages of pre-Roman times, the Romans avoided it originally, but eventually Agricola captured and fortified it.

After the Dark Ages, the Scottish Kings at the beginning of the first millennium established a royal centre, which remained, despite the changes of ownership because of the warring factions, as a royal palace until James became King of Britain.

When visiting Stirling, apart from the wonderful views atop this towering rock, the building and grounds show ‘a castle’ at it s best: there’s a deer park laid out in the 1260s; William Wallace and Robert the Bruce have towering memorials erected to them nearby; the early chapel burnt down and was replaced by the Church of the Holy Rude, one of only two places in Britain (still in use to this day) to have been the sites of Coronations – the other being Westminster Abbey.

The Great Hall following restoration.

The Outer Defences with its artillery fortifications, the gatehouse, the Outer Close, the King’s Old Building – the oldest part of the Inner Close, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace – with its Renaissance architecture, and exuberant late-gothic detail – is one of the most architecturally impressive buildings in Scotland, covered with unique carved stonework, a Chapel Royal – with some wall paintings dating back to the early 1600s.

Beyond the North Gate, the Nether Bailey, containing the modern tapestry studio, and finally the two gardens within the castle grounds – one of which is a 16th century formal garden, known as the King’s Knot, now sadly only visible as earthworks, but once including hedges and knot-patterned parterres. The gardens were built on the site of a medieval jousting arena known as the Round Table, in imitation of the legendary court of King Arthur.

Stirling Castle remains the headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and although the regiment is no longer garrisoned there, the regimental museum is located within the castle.

The tapestry studios are being used to recreate The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, a series of seven tapestries believed to be part of the royal collection in the reign of James IV, which on completion in 2014 will be hung in the restored Queen’s Presence Chamber at the Royal Palace. The team of weavers visited The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, to inspect the 15th century originals and research medieval weaving techniques, colour palettes and materials.

The second of the seven tapestries, often called "The Unicorn is Found"

A castle with it all – a magnificent setting, most of its defences and buildings still in situ, a history to match across the millennia ... leaving our imaginations to wander as we conjure up scenes from yesteryear, the way of life, the battles fought – while remembering some of the reasons why we are where we are today – united as Great Britain .. which then spread its knowledge to territories new.

The Biking Architect asked me to do a guest post .. so I've added a little to the history of Stirling Castle - called Castle Buildings and Hammer Beams, which can be viewed here .. lots about architecture and biking routes too ..

Dear Mr Postman – so much history .. I learnt quite a lot; my mother continues on but cannot hear yet; the weather, I hope!, is warming up a little ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 10 May 2010

Shambles, Pawn Brokers, Hay Market, & Portobello .. evolving street names ...

A shambles is a mess, or a disorder, or a mixup .. or is it? We use it regularly in this context and I know of one family who live in a house called “The Shambles” .. appropriate I thought! Then recently someone advised me regarding a business based in a building called "The Shambles", but qualified it with ‘only in the historical sense’ – so what do I do .. look further.

Now that I’ve started looking my brain is a little shambled too, probably scrambled as well – but in this instance brains is probably more appropriate .. though I hope mine will not be in shambles.

The Shambles is an old street in York (seen here on the right), here in England, with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the 14th century. It was once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, probably from the Anglo-Saxon “Fleshhammels” (literally ‘flesh-shelves’), where butchers would display their meat.

As recently as 1872 there were twenty-five butchers’ shops in the street – now there are none, although there are meat-hooks hanging outside, and, below them, shelves on which meat would have been displayed. Interestingly the shops now comprise a mixture of eateries and souvenir shops, as well as a bookshop and a baker?!

Shambles is an obsolete term for an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market ... then there were no hygiene laws as exist today, and guts, offal etc were thrown into a runnel or street gutter down the middle of the street or open space where the butchering was carried out. By extension, any scene of disorganisation and mess is now referred to as “a shambles” – makes sense, n’est pas?

One of the Snickelways: The entrance to Lady Peckett's Yard, leading through the buildings to the right of the shop.

Off this flesh spot .. is another interesting area – a recently coined neologism named Snickelways; these are defined as “narrow places to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else” – good thing otherwise presumably they’d be dead ends .. leading to a shambles?

York has many such paths, mostly mediaeval, with quirky names such as Mad Alice Lane, Hornpot Lane Nether and Finkle Street (formerly Mucky Peg Lane) – while snickelways are called “Opes” in Plymouth, “Chares” in north-east England towns, “Jiggers” in Liverpool and “Twittens” here in Sussex.

This portmanteau of a name, "Snickelway” comes from snicket (a passageway between walls or fences), ginnel (a narrow passageway between or through buildings) and alleyway (a narrow street or lane, often called alley).

Names fascinate me .. sometimes they are so obvious: Eastbourne .. the east bourne, (bourne from the Anglo Saxon word for a stream); Smith Street, Pottery Lane or Haymarket – streets where trades were carried out .. blacksmithying , tile and brick making or a street market for animal fodder dating from Elizabethan times; or after people: Denyer Street after Elizabeth Denyer, daughter of John Denyer, a collector of Bibles and missals, founded one of the Chelsea Charities.

Hogarth (1697 - 17 64) print, showing what is believed to be Portobello Lane.

In the 1740s, Green Lane, was renamed, as was the farmstead it served, as Portobello Lane (Road) from the popular victory during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, when Puerto Bello (Portobelo in modern day Panama) was captured from the Spanish.

Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London began in 1666, you would have thought baked dessert puddings as we know them today – but no .. like shambles .. ‘puddings’ is the medieval word for entrails and organs, which would fall off the carts coming down the Lane from the butchers in Eastcheap as they headed for the waste barges on the Thames.

Eastcheap surprisingly derives its name from cheap, market, with the prefix “East” distinguishing it from other markets. In medieval times Eastcheap was the City’s main meat market, with butchers' stalls lining both sides of the street. Falstaff Boar’s Head Inn, which features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One and Part Two, was located here.

Ludgate in flames during the Great Fire of London, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance (square tower without the spire) now catching flames. Oil painting by anonymous artist, ca. 1670. (Ludgate – the western most gate in London Wall)

Lombard Street was named for the goldsmiths from the Lombardy region of Italy, who were originally associated with the street. As the street developed to become the home of London’s money lenders, the name “Lombard Street” came to be associated with the financial industry – pawn brokers in the Middle Ages.

Several cities in the United States, including San Francisco, Baltimore and Philadelphia have a Lombard Street named after the one in London – are they money centres now? I see that Lombard Street in San Francisco is famous for having a steep, one-block section that consists of tight hairpin turns.
Lombard Street, San Francisco

Streets and towns with ‘castle’ in their names .. Castleford named after 'castle' as in a fort, and 'ford', a low crossing point through a river, dating from Roman times. Castlebar in Ireland is named after the settlement around the de Barry castle, built by a Norman adventurer in 1235.

Castle Acre in Norfolk – perhaps should have an acre of castles? Or a number of castles built on an area of land tillable by one man behind an ox in one day. Acre comes from Old English for an “open field”. It has a castle and a priory amongst its earlier settlements.

Castle is derived from the Latin word castellum, which is a diminutive of the word castrum, meaning fortified place The Old English castel, French chateau, Spanish castillo, Italian castello and a number of other words in other languages also derive from castellum.

The word Castle was introduced into English shortly before the Norman Conquest to denote this type of building, which was then new to England. Although they appear to derive from the same root, there are distinctions .. for example the French chateau is used to describe a grand country house at the heart of an estate, regardless of the presence of fortifications.

Castle Acre, The Priory

So in its simplest term, the accepted definition of a castle is “a private fortified residence”. So guess what post comes next .. castles ... – has anyone any preferences .. or shall I just take some pot shots over the summer – and cover a range of castles and their locations?

Dear Mr Postman .. I don’t know about you – but it is still jolly cold – they were saying the temperature is more suited to early March and they’re having snow in Scotland. Mum and I watched the VE Day Service at the Cenotaph, with Prince Charles in attendance, on Saturday, but because she can’t hear .. I couldn’t really explain to her what she was watching!

Just spotted an interesting snippet that I didn’t know courtesy of The Times Online: The Dutch Royal Family annually sends 10,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa, as a demonstration of the nation’s gratitude, for the sacrifices the Canadians made by their forces during the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

To bring us all down to earth – we watched a little of the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, Mum used to enjoy watching these .. it makes a change – but she fell asleep & I came home!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories