Islay: Finlaggan and Ballygrant

Loch Finlaggan

Finlaggan Castle is a ruined fortified house on the isle of Eilean Mór on Islay’s Loch Finlaggan. It was once a residence and stronghold of the Lords of the Isles, semi-autonomous rulers of the Hebrides and Kintyre from the 12th century until 1493 when the lands of the Lordship were forfeited to King James IV. The title Lord of the Isles was annexed to the Crown in 1542 (and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales). The castle appears to have been demolished around that time.

In truth, there’s not much to see of the ruins, but we enjoyed our visit all the same. We started in the small visitor centre which has an interesting display of artefacts discovered during archaeological excavations, along with a fabulous new virtual-reality reconstruction of the settlement in the early 15th century. You can see John totally immersed in it above.

I was also, if you remember, looking out for references to Sinclairs (my great-grandfather’s name) and MacAffers (the family his sister married into). Sinclair is a relatively common name in Scotland and we found many in the graveyards around Islay, but the only reference to MacAffer that I found was at Finlaggan. The MacAffers were hereditary armour bearers to the Lords of the Isles – see below.

From the Visitor Centre, we took the path down to the site, crossing the reed beds of the loch on duckboards.

On the island, interpretive panels explain the ruins and fill in the gaps of what was no longer there. We also visited Finlaggan in 1989 when it was quite overgrown, and I think you can tell from the pictures below that it is now much better maintained.

After a quick lunch in Port Askaig, we drove back to a little village called Ballygrant from where we planned to walk to Lily Loch. This was a pleasant, if unspectacular, walk through woods and farmland, and the loch was pretty – although we were there too early to see waterlilies.

From the loch, we crossed an area of open moorland to take a parallel track back – this took us through the village of Keills. The name derives from the Gaelic for church, Cill, and the graveyard here contains the ruins of an old chapel attributed to St Columba. I can never resist an old graveyard, especially one with a view like this. Headstones which caught my eye included one for a father and son who died a fortnight apart, and the memorial to Piper Lily MacDougall aged 100 years. There must be interesting stories attached to both of those.

From the graveyard we headed back to Ballygrant where we caught Labels, the local café, just as it was about to close. Coffee at an outdoor table was a pleasant end to a round walk of 9.5km.

(In my last post, I mentioned that I had been called for jury duty and might therefore be out of action for a while. That turned out to be an anti-climax. I called the helpline three nights in a row to find out if I was required – I wasn’t and was “released from my citation” on the third call. Whoopee!)

Islay: Mull of Oa and Port Ellen

Admiring the extensive views, Mull of Oa

The Oa (just pronounced O) is the rocky and rugged peninsula in the southwest of Islay. Once fairly densely populated, it now has only a few scattered dwellings, one of which is our rented cottage. A top priority was to drive out to the Mull of Oa – the tip – to the American Monument: our error was to do this on the first morning. The weather looked reasonably pleasant from our window, but we failed to take into account that the Mull was considerably higher than we were and the closer we got, the poorer visibility became.

Oh well, we pressed on regardless. The Mull is an RSPB reserve, so we left the car in its parking area and set off on a waymarked circular tour (3.5km). If there were birds, we couldn’t see them.

The outer route is direct to the monument, but before we got there we were surprised by a herd of feral goats suddenly looming out of the mist: almost impossible to photograph. This one looks quite evil!

The monument itself was similarly invisible until we were almost upon it. The second picture below is from our previous visit in 1989 – that’s John lurking under the blue cagoule – so we have never visited this site in good weather! Last time was even worse: we had hired bikes and cycled out from Port Ellen (hence the map pocket round John’s neck) and it wasn’t just misty, it was pouring. I remember we cut our losses on the full-day hire and returned the bikes by lunchtime.

What is the American Monument? It was erected by the American Red Cross in 1920 to commemorate two US troopship disasters off the coast of Islay in 1918. SS Tuscania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on 5th February with the loss of over 200 American and British crew. A few months later, HMS Otranto sank following a collision in bad weather with another troopship. This time 431 people died, including 80 British crew. As well as the main commemoration, there is a tribute from President Woodrow Wilson.

As we left, we spotted more feral goats. This pair were more visble and posed helpfully against the skyline.

The return journey took us parallel to the clifftops – the mist was clearing a bit by this time. I suppose you could say the view was atmospheric, if not extensive …

From here, we turned inland again towards Upper Killeyan Farm and the path back to the carpark. There were several highland cattle in the field who were not bothered by us at all. Even the one almost blocking the gate barely looked at us as we sidled past. Scary horns though!

As we had to pass our cottage to go on to our next walk, we stopped off there for lunch before heading down to Port Ellen, the island’s second largest town. Below is the Islay Hotel which sits on a corner site overlooking the seafront. (We didn’t go inside this time, but we had lunch there later in the week when I took the shot of their wine glass chandelier which caught my eye.)

We stayed in the Islay Hotel in 1989, though that building was later demolished after 20 years of dereliction, and replaced with the current hotel in 2011. The two views below are of the same terrace. The first, taken in 1989, looks towards the old hotel, the taller building just right of centre. The second, taken this year, looks in the other direction along the terrace from the hotel, but I think you can see that they are recognisably the same.

After almost 3 weeks of camping and B&Bs in 1989, we thought the Islay Hotel would be a treat for the last three nights of our holiday. Nothing could have been further from the truth! The place was very run down and badly managed, so I’m not surprised it closed a few years later. The owners were a couple who, I’m guessing, had sold their home in the South of England for such a vast price that they could afford to buy a Scottish hotel – not an uncommon occurrence. Unfortunately their management skills seemed to be close to zero, but you couldn’t dislike them because every time something went wrong they would laugh merrily as they botched a solution, whereas I’d have been dying of embarrassment at demonstrating such incompetence. Later in the week of our recent stay, we asked someone local if he knew what had happened to them and it seems they left the island. Probably one of their wiser decisions.

Anyway, back to the present day. We wandered round Port Ellen, which didn’t take long, before heading off on a 5km loop in search of standing stones. The weather improved as the afternoon wore on and we were able to appreciate the views this time.

The walk first of all took us up a very well made cycleway / footpath running alongside the main road. There are three distilleries on the coast to the east of Port Ellen – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – and this would be a fabulous way to visit them on foot, possibly getting the bus back if the refreshment had taken away your desire to walk. Our whisky plans were for another day, however, so we turned off before we reached any of the distilleries. But first we climbed the small mound topped by the memorial to Major General Alexander McDougall.

McDougall was born in Islay in 1732, but emigrated to New York with his family when he was six. His first job was as a milk delivery boy, then he signed up as a merchant seaman aged 14. He worked his way up to become the owner of several ships before being commissioned in the Continental Amy during the American War of Independence. He later became a politician and President of the Bank of New York – MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village is named in his honour. (I’m not sure why the spelling is different. A mistake? Or maybe he had changed his name slightly?)

Across the road from the memorial is the Old Excise House. We took the lane running alongside it, walking uphill through the fertile fields growing grain for the whisky.

The verges were lush with wild flowers. A stile on the right provided access to the first standing stone, one of many dotted across Islay which date from the Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Climbing above it, we could look back on the distillery buildings of Laphroaig.

We continued up the lane and turned right onto the tiny road towards Kilbride Farm where there is another stone.

Retracing our steps, we passed the junction with the lane and carried on down the road back to Port Ellen. Here we met some curious cows who gave us a hard stare from behind a wall. They didn’t have the big horns of the highland cattle, but they looked much more intimidating. The second picture below, of cows blocking a gate, dates from 1989 so we must have had a similar experience then. What is it about Islay cows?

The field across the road contained another standing stone. There appeared to be no cows in it, but there’s a cunning dip in which they were hiding. As we walked up to the stone we spooked a small herd of deer which ran down the slope, followed by the thundering hooves of at least 20 cows. They ran back and forward across the field as a herd, eventually stopping between us and the gate. And staring. Hard. We sidled to the fence at the side. Barbed wire, so I wasn’t going to climb that. Fortunately by this time, the cows were beginning to lose interest in us and wandered off. No pictures of this bunch, but next to the stone below (which wasn’t even all that attractive) you can see the first lot again who, after our escape, were still giving us the evil eye.

The last stone was near the junction of the main road we’d started out on. Fortunately, no cows in sight. From there it was a short distance back to Port Ellen and our car.

I really should have had my July Gallivanting post online today, but guess what? We’ve been gallivanting too much! A large part of the month was spent travelling with no time to write and sometimes without decent wifi, which also eplains why I have been less active in blog reading and commenting – apologies!  I’ll do a joint July / August Gallivanting post instead.

In a further complication,  I’ve been called to the High Court for jury duty, starting on Wednesday. As this is the last post I prepared before we went on holiday, I might have to go silent for a bit if I’m selected to serve. I know it’s my civic duty and I should want to do it, but I really hope I’m not picked. I’ve served on four juries in total, the first when I was only 19 years old, so I think I’ve done my bit!

Till we meet again … may it be soon.

Islay: Cragabus Byres

Islay map-en

Attribution: Ayack CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Our week on Islay began by ferry, which deposited us at Port Askaig in the north-east of the island. With only a short stop for provisions in the main settlement of Bowmore, we headed straight for our cottage in the south-west. As the name suggests, Cragabus Byres is the former byre of Upper Cragabus farm. Set in gorgeous countryside on The Oa peninsula, about half way along the road from Port Ellen to Lower Killeyan, it has been beautifully renovated. The owner, Craig, could not have been more helpful and the welcome dram was very much appreciated.

Our legs felt a bit cramped after the journey, so when we had finished our dram we set off on a circular walk around the local farmland. In the first couple of pictures in the gallery below, we are looking back at Upper Cragabus. Away behind the ruined church you can see the end of the peninsula, the Mull of Oa, which we would explore the next day. As I mentioned in my last post, my Great-Grandfather Sinclair came from Islay and I intended to keep an eye open for any mentions of the name. We found the first on a farm lorry – possible distant relations?

After our walk, we cooked our dinner (no handy restaurants nearby!) and settled down to plan the next few days. There were so many places we wanted to explore. This was going to be good!

Islay: call to place

MV Finlaggan at Kennacraig

Back in May, we took the ferry from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Askaig on beautiful Islay (pronounced Eye-la) where we spent a wonderful week tramping all over the island. We last visited on our epic Hebridean tour of 1989, parts of which we replicated last summer, so we were well overdue a visit, especially as we had only been there for a couple of days the first time and felt we hadn’t done it justice. Since then, of course, a certain amount of Islay whisky had been consumed and it was not impossible that a distillery – or two, or more – would appear on our itinerary.

John and Janet Sinclair, John and Meg

In addition to the scenery and whisky, another attraction of Islay was the pull of family lore. One of my great-grandfathers, my mother’s maternal grandfather John Joss Sinclair, was born there in 1866. John was destined to be a Church Minister, as decided by his father. However, he declared that he had no intention of going around the countryside with his collar on back to front, and at 16 years old he ran away from the island to mainland Scotland.

Over the next few years John was employed in farms around the West of Scotland and became a noted ploughman. Eventually, he arrived at Kilmacolm to work on The Green Farm where he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Janet Carson. John and Janet’s first child, and only son, John, was born in 1886, sometime before their marriage. By 1901 seven daughters had been added to the family, so Janet’s life must have been a hard slog.

John Sinclair ploughing, 1908

John and Janet worked on farms in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and Amochrie, and John was eventually in charge of a Clydesdale stallion. In his fifties, he gave up farm work and returned to Kilmacolm. They moved into the Bridgend Toll House, which came with his new job in charge of the road-menders. The Toll figures largely in Mum’s many happy memories of her childhood. Here she is in the late 1920s as a baby and toddler, “Wee Chrissie”, with her grandparents. For reference, Janet must be about the same age as I am now. How times have changed!

John never went back to see his parents, only returning to Islay in later life with one of his grandchildren (not my mum) to see his sister Katie MacAffer. He and Janet are both buried in Kilmacolm – compare the gravestone below as it was after my great-grandmother died in 1949, and as it is today. (Thanks to my cousin, Tracy Rice, for the current photo.)

When we visited Islay in 1989 I either didn’t know about this family history or wasn’t especially interested, I can’t remember. However, in the last few years I’ve worked with Mum to blog about her memories – you can read her post John and Janet for a fuller version of what I’ve written here – and now I’m much more aware. I’m not about to start researching our family tree (far too much like hard work) but I love collecting the stories Mum is passing down and decided on our recent visit to Islay to look out for any references to Sinclairs or MacAffers.

So we went to Islay looking for whisky, walking and family history. The next few posts will tell you how we got on. This post, I’m linking to Cathy at ~wander.essence~ who has a monthly Call to Place strand in which she invites you to write about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or future destination. Head over there for her fabulous traveller’s tales!

Drummond and Monzie

Drummond Gardens

The garden at Drummond Castle in Perthshire is said to be one of the finest formal gardens in Europe according to its website (source not provided!) First laid out in the 17th century, it was restructured in Victorian times and again in the 20th century. Queen Victoria herself visited in 1842 and expressed approval.

The original castle was built around 1490 by John, 1st Lord Drummond. The keep still stands, but the rest of the castle was remodelled in 1890. It’s not possible to visit either part, but you get excellent and varied views from the gardens.

The free map provided at the entrance details all the plants, many of which were not yet in bloom (our previous visit was at a later time of year when the roses were beautiful). I could have done with a guide to the statuary as my knowledge of mythology is not up to identifying the various gods and goddesses on show. Perhaps you had to shell out for the guide book to get that.

As well as the formal gardens, there is also a Woodland Walk which leads through the trees and criss-crosses the central avenue which is graced by the chap below.

The walk is enlivened by a dozen chain-saw carvings.

I wouldn’t say the carver was the best-ever. Just look at the poor wooden deer compared to the real one we spotted! Even allowing for its broken antlers, the carving is a bit weird looking.

Drummond is just south of the small town of Crieff, so when we’d exhausted the garden we headed there for lunch. New since our last visit were these “leafy” Highland cattle installed in 2018 by community group Crieff in Leaf. They celebrate Crieff’s history as the cattle-droving crossroads of Scotland.

After lunch we headed for the most important visit of the day. Monzie Castle is only open for a few weeks each year – 18th May to 16th June in 2019, so my tardiness in writing this post means you’ve missed it!

Monzie Castle

Monzie (pronounced Mun-ee) is a Gaelic word meaning field of corn. The oldest part of the castle is a 17th century tower house which was incorporated into a large, castellated mansion in the late 18th century. Owned by Grahams then Campbells, in 1856 it was bought by the Crichton family, who still live there today. In 1908 there was a serious fire which destroyed the interior leaving only the outside walls, after which it was restored by the leading Scottish architect of the day, Sir Robert Lorimer. He even furnished it.

We were given a tour by the elder Mrs Crichton, including to her private sitting room in the old part of the house, which was surprisingly cosy. At one time, you had to exit the main house and walk all the way round the back to get into the tower house, thus it fell into disuse: these days, there is a passage knocked through to the much more formal “new” house. No photography was allowed inside, but we were free to wander round the outside and the gardens.

Mrs Crichton’s son and his family also live on Monzie estate which, as well as the castle, includes holiday cottages, a B&B, a farm and a joinery business, all powered by their own hydro electric plant. Having never visited before, it’s now somewhere I’d seriously consider staying on holiday.

Finally, on our way home we stopped in the small village of Muthill which we had driven through many times but never explored. We visited the ruins of the Old Church (1400s) and Tower (1100s) as well as two present day churches (exterior only).

This is another place I would love to stay – Muthill boasts a fine-sounding “restaurant with rooms”, the Barley Bree. Some day! In the meantime, we had had an absolutely fabulous day out.

Castle Semple Country Park

Castle Semple Loch from Parkhill

Castle Semple Park, near Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire, is based on a large estate created many centuries ago by the Sempill family. The original Castle (c. 1500) is no more, but the remains of a later mansion have been incorporated into private residences which are not accessible to the public. However, there are plenty other hints as to what the landscape might once have looked like.

The park has a Visitor Centre (including café) and a loop trail for walkers and cyclists totalling 9 miles. We cut a bit out and walked about 7 miles. Here are some highlights.

Throughout the trail there are unusual seating areas and “Lookooteries” or viewpoints. The stone structure I am sitting on is the Grotto in Parkhill Wood, a once fashionable accessory to any country estate.

Another must-have would have been a water feature and, between 1727 and 1730, garden expert William Bouchert diverted the burn behind Castle Semple to create a series of cascades for then-owners the MacDowall family. Although allegedly restored recently, you can see my puzzlement as I searched for the water flow. The burn is badly overgrown!

Close by is the Collegiate Church which was founded in 1504 by John, Lord Sempill. A collegiate church was not controlled by a bishop, but was served by a college of priests whose chief duty was to pray for the souls of the Sempills. John Sempill was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and his son extended the church to house his father’s tomb. Although not used for worship after the Reformation it survived as a burial enclosure.

Finally, before turning back, we climbed Kenmure Hill to the folly known as Kenmure Temple. This was built in 1758 to provide the MacDowalls and their guests with a vantage point over the estate. It seems graffiti artists have also visited!

Castle Semple is an attractive park which, although just over half an hour’s drive from home, we’ve only visited once before. It’s maybe not as spectacular as other places we visit, but we had a pleasant afternoon out and I think we’ll now add it to our repertoire of regular walks.

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walk – today she’s in the Azores – a must see!

Glasgow Gallivanting: June 2019

Monzie Castle

Despite a wet forecast earlier in the week, the first day of June, a Saturday, turned out to be a good one. We headed for Perthshire to two castles with lovely gardens. One is above, and the other – well, wait for the full post to follow soon!

Lambhill Stables

The second of June was less good so we settled for one of our local canal walks, eastwards this time to Lambhill Stables and Possil Loch. The Stables were built around 1830 when horses pulling barges were the main means of moving goods along the canal. Today they have been restored as a community facility with a café, heritage displays, and a garden. The Stables are closed on Sundays, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. We enjoyed a stroll round the Community Garden which has some interesting sculptures.

Possil Loch is a nature reserve which we walked round, but it’s very marshy and you don’t get close to the loch itself. The best view is actually from Lambhill’s garden. On previous visits, we had to peer through the hedge. This time, there was an official gap with an information board explaining the same view in Roman times. The route of the Antonine Wall, the Empire’s northernmost outpost, is very close.

On another, solo, walk I went to find the new statue of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh which was unveiled last year. Well not find exactly, as I knew exactly where it was and had walked past it before but without time to stop. For those who know the Falkirk Kelpies, Andy Scott sculpted both them and this statue. It’s in a part of Glasgow called Finnieston which, as far as I know, has no specific connection to CRM, nor does the new housing development it fronts come anywhere near him for architectural flair. But for whatever reason it’s there, I like it – although I do wonder why his wife, Margaret MacDonald, could not be included. As Mackintosh said, she had genius whereas he had only talent. Yeah, I know I said that last week too but it can’t be repeated often enough in my opinion.

On the way home through Kelvingrove Park I stopped at Lord Kelvin’s statue, one I know well – but not with a traffic cone on his head! If you have been following me for a while, you might remember my Gallus Glasgow A-Z Challenge a few years ago. ‘W’ featured the permanently be-coned statue of the Duke of Wellington. ‘K’ was for Kelvin – the river and all things named after it, including physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. It seems the cones are spreading!

Lord Kelvin joins the Traffic Cone Set

We have a new public art trail in Glasgow at the moment – in fact it’s nationwide, covering Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness as well. Oor Wullie is an iconic comic strip figure who has appeared in the Sunday Post since 1937 with his spiky hair, dungarees, and an upturned bucket, often used as a seat. Now 200 artists have given him a makeover in Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail. In September, all the statues will be auctioned in aid of local children’s hospital charities.

So far, I have bagged quite a few Wullies and will no doubt find more before they disappear from our streets at the end of August. In fact, I spotted my first one before the trail even began. Late one night, we were waiting for a taxi outside Central Station and saw him being delivered. I met him again a few days later.

The Wullie in the collage below could almost serve as Scottish Word of the Month, but I’ve already written that bit! Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye (what’s meant for you won’t pass you by) is by Natasha Zelen Forrest.

And what was I saying before about the Duke of Wellington and his cone? Triple whammy below! Wellington, his horse Copenhagen, and Wullie all have cones.

In addition, there are over 300 Wee Wullies painted by local schoolchildren. I found these cheeky chappies in the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens.

I’ll leave Wullie there for the moment, but he will no doubt appear in future months’ Gallivanting posts as I collect more. A more sombre piece of street sculpture appeared temporarily in St Enoch’s Square. Rubble Theatre by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbounis recreated a scene from war-torn Syria where he lived as a child, and was part of Refugee Festival Scotland. Halbounis hoped to make people think about the issues around forced migration. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in conditions like this – I’m grateful I don’t have to.

Also part of Refugee Festival Scotland was the Refuweegee exhibition at Kelvingrove, a section of which is shown below. Refuweegee is a community charity which makes up welcome packs, including letters from the locals, for forcibly displaced people arriving in Glasgow. The name is a combination of refugee and Weegie, a shortened form of Glaswegian. I’m glad to know that my city is (mostly) welcoming to refugees.

Refuweegee could also be a Scottish Word of the Month, but here’s the one I prepared earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed the meaning of Glasgow before. It’s thought to derive from the Gaelic Glaschu which, roughly, means green place – and that still describes it. We are the UK’s second greenest city with 32% green space, only beaten by (gulp) Edinburgh with 49%. The scenes below are both about 10 minute’s walk from my house in the west end of the city, the Botanic Gardens and the Forth and Clyde Canal respectively.

Finally on Glasgow, a word about pronunciation which visitors often get wrong. The ow in Glasgow rhymes with “oh” and not with the ow sound as in “ouch”. In Glaswegian it often comes out Glesga. So now you know!

And finally, finally – an unexpected meeting. The women’s history walk season is well under way, and on Saturday I was one of the guides on the Women’s Library Merchant City Walk. As you can see it was wet! We had the full gamut of weather from sunshine to thunderstorms, but that’s Glasgow for you.

It was a lovely surprise when one of the attendees turned out to be Natalie, pictured with me above, of Wednesday’s Child. Natalie is a Glaswegian but now lives in Manchester, so although we’ve chatted online we’ve never met in person before – next time, we’ll have to make it a proper scheduled meet-up when we can chat properly.

So who can believe we are now half way through the year? Here’s to July – may it bring you all you wish for including, if you live in the UK, summer. She has tantalised us with brief glimpses but doesn’t seem to want to stay.

Hill House

Hill House 2015

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the upper part of Helensburgh, a small town on the Firth of Clyde, became populated with a series of grand, individually designed villas commissioned by rich businessmen who could afford to move out of Glasgow but still needed to live nearby for work. (Helensburgh Upper Railway Station, opened in 1894, helped to make this possible.)

Many of the houses were very traditional in nature, as I’ll show later, but publisher Walter Blackie was more visionary. He appointed Charles Rennie Mackintosh as his architect, resulting in Hill House (designed 1902), as seen in all its glory at the top of this post.

Not only was Mackintosh’s design innovative, he used innovative materials too. Scottish houses are often harled (roughcast) with lime, but Mackintosh chose to use a more modern material: cement. It was easier to work into the curves and crisp angles of his building, but there was a serious flaw – the Scottish weather. Traditional lime harling allows a building to breathe. If cement roughcast cracks, rain soaks in but cannot evaporate back out. This has caused a lifetime of damp and damage to the walls and interiors – according to the National Trust for Scotland which owns the house, it is “dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water.” NTS has decided to buy time by creating the Hill House Box.

Hill House Box 2019

This shelter, designed by architects Carmody Groarke, is made of steel mesh and will protect the house from up to 80% of rainfall. At the same time the wind can pass through, water can evaporate and, as the house dries out, plans can be made for its future conservation, a process which is likely to take up to 15 years.

We’ve made many visits to Hill House over the years. On our first visit to the Box we were impressed, not just with the boldness of the solution, but also with the way that NTS has ensured that the visitor misses nothing. In fact, you see Hill House as never before. Two walkways allow an incredible bird’s-eye view.

Inside is as beautiful as ever – the Blackie family could just have walked out a few minutes ago. Youngest daughter Agnes has left her bicycle, and Walter has obviously been busy in the cosy library, one of the few rooms without the classic Mackintosh touch.

Elsewhere, the interior design of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald is much in evidence. The pair worked closely together: Charles said “Margaret has genius, I have only talent”. The drawing room and Anna Blackie’s bedroom are particularly fine. You can also see, at the end of the gallery below, examples of both interior damage and stencilling restoration.

After touring the house we wandered outside for a while waiting for the next part of our visit.

At 1pm, one of the guides, the excellent Taylor, led a group of visitors a couple of blocks downhill to compare and contrast two other houses of similar vintage. These were Red Tower (William Leiper, 1898) and the White House (M. H. Baillie-Scott, 1899). Red Tower is traditionally Scottish Baronial in style. It spent some time as a Drug Rehabilitation Centre earlier this century, but has since been taken back into private hands and restored as a 14-bedroom dwelling-house, which is apparently occupied by only two people. Baillie-Scott’s building has more in common with Hill House – he also designed Blackwell in Cumbria, another house I love to visit which always reminds me of Mackintosh. Both The White House and Blackwell pre-dated Hill House, so who influenced whom?

I know from my heritage volunteering with Maryhill Burgh Halls that their architect also designed a house nearby, so I asked Taylor if she knew which one. She went off to get her plan and identified it for me – it was right next door. Cuilvona (Duncan McNaughtan, 1907) is a mock-Tudor villa which is barely visible from the road. However, part of the Hill House walkway looks right down on it, so after lunch (yes, Hill House has an excellent café in its new visitor centre) we headed back in to look. John took the photograph through the wire mesh which is why it’s less sharp.

I had photographed the plan, so we could also identify some of the other houses. Here are Morar House (at one time known as Drumadoon; Leiper, 1903), Ardluss (Leiper, 1900) and Dhuhill (I think – in which case, James Smith c. 1850). Having been empty for some years, after serving as a nursing home, Morar House ended up on the Buildings at Risk Register, but has recently been converted to flats.

There was still part of the afternoon left, so we looked at the map and plumped for a visit to Glenarn, a 10 acre private garden in the nearby village of Rhu, which is open in the summer months as part of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme.

This was a lovely day out. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Hill House Box, but I was very impressed with what NTS has done and I fervently hope that it leads them to a permanent solution for conserving Mackintosh’s masterpiece.

A weekend in Allendale

With Val and Kenn at Swallow’s Rest Cottage, near Allendale

We spent the May Day Holiday weekend with our good friends Valerie and Kenn in a lovely cottage, Swallow’s Rest, on farmland near Allendale in Northumberland. Unlike the Easter Weekend a couple of weeks before, which had been warm and sunny, the weather was cold and damp – we even had sleet and hail on the Saturday. However, we got out and about and enjoyed ourselves as we always do – Valerie and I have a long history of friendship having started secondary school together, aged 11, and although we might have fallen out occasionally, I don’t think it’s happened since we were about 16!

Killhope Mine

Killhope Mine

On Saturday we crossed into County Durham to visit the North of England Lead Mining Museum at Killhope. (I was pronouncing this Kill-hope, but it seems to be Killup.) There are several buildings above ground to visit and you can also tour part of the old mine – wellies included, it’s ankle deep in water. If you take your own, make sure you check that they are watertight: Val discovered too late that hers leaked!

The working water wheel is spectacular.

Climbing above the wheel there’s a pleasant walk round the reservoirs with a couple of hides for wildlife watching.

One of these squirrels is real!

There’s also a small café and museum. I liked this story about the proddy mats!

Finally, the site has some pleasing sculptural features. We all enjoyed our day out here.

Allen Smelt Mill

Allen Mill in its heyday

There is much more lead mining heritage to see in this area. Just outside Allendale is Allen Mill which was a massive industrial operation, smelting lead from many mines and extracting silver from it. Now it is being restored and turned into a small business park. We visited twice: one of the units is an Indian restaurant where we ate on Friday night (the Spice Mill – excellent). We came back to look round properly on Sunday morning as we set out on a walk.

As you can see in the gallery above, this mill also has sculptures. The last image shows A conflict of interest by Dave Morris which incorporates the Christian cross and Muslim crescent with a selection of weapons. He intends this as an anti-war statement and plea for world peace. Amen to that!

East Allen walk

River East Allen

Sunday’s circular walk took us along the River East Allen and through some attractive farmland. If we look flummoxed in the first picture below – we were. These very feathery hens just refused to stop to be photographed!

The sheep were more cooperative.

We were intrigued at this system of bells to avoid flying golf balls. Ring once when you start to cross the field, and twice when you reach the other side. We could see no golf course – maybe the sheep liked to play?

Some of the farm houses were exceptionally pretty. This was a lovely walk all round, and a short detour took us to The Crown at Catton where we had a delicious Sunday lunch.

Allendale Town

The Tearoom, Allendale

Finally, as is our custom, we packed up on Monday morning, left the cottage clean and tidy, and headed out for breakfast. The Allendale Tearoom hit the spot, but we didn’t linger afterwards because it was so cold and wet. We made do with a quick walk round to see all the pubs we didn’t visit – our cottage was well out of town and no-one would have volunteered to drive.

Even a visit to the local Dalek couldn’t tempt us!

So we returned to our cars, with Val and Kenn heading south to Yorkshire and us heading north to Glasgow. We had intended to stop at some of the Roman Wall sites on the way home, but decided just to keep going. After all, we only had a couple of weeks before our next trip away – to the beautiful island of Islay. Coming soon!

Haltwhistle: the Centre of Britain

Market Place at the Centre of Britain

The name Haltwhistle comes from “Haut Whyslie” or “high watch between two rivers”. So I learned on our recent visit to this small, Northumbrian town.  Its Market Place dates back to 1207 when King John granted a Charter for weekly markets and two fairs to be held each year.

The town also claims to be the Centre of Britain. Here I am at the marker points this year, and on a previous visit in 2010.

If it surprises you that Britain’s centre should be located so far north, as it did me, see the diagram below. Convinced? Well, maybe. It is definitely plausible, although there are other places which make similar claims.

Whatever, the town certainly makes the most of it as a marketing concept with a Centre of Britain hotel, launderette and shops.

Many of the buildings around the market place originated as Bastles, including the hotel above. These are 16th/17th century defensible houses built to provide protection from border skirmishes between the English and the Scots. Haltwhistle has the highest number of bastles, 6, remaining in England.

It also has a fine example of 13th century architecture in the Church of the Holy Cross, with the addition of 19th century stained glass windows made by the William Morris Company.

I knew nothing of this heritage when I was five years old. What is the significance of that, you might ask? Well, this is the town in which I was born, and five is the age at which my family (by then including a younger sister) moved away to the bigger town (now city) of Sunderland. The War Memorial Hospital has been rebuilt in the last few years (and hasn’t had maternity services for decades) so I had to go online to find a picture of it as it was in the 50s and 60s.

Haltwhistle’s War Memorial Hospital 2019

In 1960 my sister was also born there. In those days, women were confined for almost two weeks after a birth. I wasn’t quite three, but I have clear memories of that time – one of my aunts came to stay to help Dad look after me (no such thing as paternity leave in those days). Every morning I received a postcard from my mum, and sometimes a gift that my wee sister had (allegedly) sent via Dad at visiting time: I particularly remember a small baby doll in a wicker cradle.

Children weren’t allowed to visit the wards, and one day Dad held me up to talk to Mum through the open window. I thought I was going to be handed in to her and screamed all the way home when it didn’t happen (and she tells me she took herself off to the bathroom to howl too).

And this was that home – the Methodist manse in Moor View. The colour image is 2019, the old photos show Mum and Dad posing proudly outside their first married home, probably in 1956.

And here am I at 15 months, toddling in the garden behind that big hedge at the side which looks much the same in 2019 as it did in the 1950s, and the whole family together a few years later.

The house was near the railway bridge – that hasn’t changed much either. This is my late Uncle Jim posing on it in the 1960s when it was fairly new – the stone work is dated 1953.

The railway station is also well-preserved – although now unstaffed, it retains its 1901 signal box, in the shape of a ship’s keel, and other buildings.

Finally, this is the church we went to – one of several where my father was minister – the Primitive Methodist Chapel of 1864, known as Castle Hill Methodist Church when we were there. It has since closed and both it and the Sunday School building, seen on the left behind the church, are private houses. The other Methodist church in town, Westgate, is still functioning.

After our brief, nostalgic (on my part) visit to Haltwhistle we drove on to our final destination for the day: Allendale, where we were to spend a long weekend with friends. More on that next time.