Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Surgeons' Hall, Radio Scotland studio and Scottish Parliament

UPDATE: 1/1/2012

Andrew Connell from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh sent me a charming book with a cd of 7 poems which had been commissioned for the quincentenary of the College.  I had made a remark praising Pandora's Light Box at the time of my visit to Surgeons Hall.  One of their poems 'The Eye in the Hand' by Andrew Greig was particularly interesting, so I've gone back to Andrew Connell  suggesting they get a stethescope or listening device for visitors to appreciate around the opthalmic section of the museum. 

Many thanks to Andrew Connell ( )

** end of update

The Edinburgh Festival is over and I’m catching up on some visits made during the festival.  These will be brought together in terms of city walks, river walks and even a canal walk, together with some bus trips, train trips and the odd car trip.  Yesterday (30th August) I was scheduled to do an interview at Radio Scotland studios in The Tun in Edinburgh, and having got to the bridges in good time, I decided to check out what was going on in Surgeon’s Hall, in Edinburgh.  This is a magnificent building and during my childhood it stood out against some rather sleazy buildings, shops and a flea pit known as the La Scala  cinema officially, but was always referred to as The Scabby Lala.  Edinburgh’s cinemas had a tradition of having chummie seats in the rear! 

Prof Whitestick outside Surgeons' Hall
4 August 2012

Surgeons' Hall is an imposing building and walking through the grounds one can enter the museum which is actually in Hill Square.  It’s a bit of a trek upstairs but you also get an idea of an Edinburgh tenement with the ‘stair’.  In Glasgow, this would be known as a ‘close’.  The museum has several exhibitions and I was interested in the ophthalmology section.  The entrance fee was £3.00 (concession) and a carer goes free.  One could touch some exhibits, for example stereoscopic viewers.  Other exhibits related to surgery in Edinburgh, historically and today.  There are some exhibition notes that have to be read to you as there is no audio tour yet.  Some interesting 18th century eye surgeons were recorded.  A John Taylor was noted for quackery and some aspects of eye surgery still sound quite gruesome.  There is a video of a cataract operation and you can listen to the surgeon discussing this in great detail.  The inside of the pathology museum is behind the famous portico which I passed by on many occasions going backwards and forwards to school, or changing buses at Surgeon’s Hall.  This room by Playfair is still used for examinations and perhaps the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh could copy the Artlink Pandora’s Light Box project and engage a poet to write a sound guide for the benefit of visitors, especially the visually impaired! 
Marion and Evelyn were very helpful and this museum is certainly worth a visit as both are prepared to read out the captions on the exhibits, if required.  A very interesting museum and an interesting building. 

The next stop was Radio Scotland’s studios in The Tun, which is convenient for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.  Having heard about ‘green’ rooms, it was interesting to be in one and have a coffee and chat with other guests on Radio Scotland’s Culture Cafe.  I met the production staff based in Edinburgh and put on the headphones and was worried about being given a nonverbal cue.  However, as Claire English, the presenter, was in fact in Glasgow, there was no need to worry.  It was good to be able to promote Artlink’s activities in Edinburgh and the project with the Talbot Rice Gallery.  I did manage to avoid plugging my own blog, though Claire did refer to it.   A big thanks to Elizabeth Anne Duffy for looking after me and the CD arrived this morning!  You can hear the interview on: . (only available till 5th September)

The next stop was the Scottish Parliament and after going through security, the reception centre has a tactile floor plan of the complex and I was encouraged to go on the tour (which is free, by the way).  Having been to Arniston House and hearing of the keystones of Parliament House (the Scottish Parliament met here until the Treaty of Union in 1707) it was good of the reception staff to brief Gordon, the guide, on my interest in finding out where they were.  I could make out the keystones with my peripheral vision, but not the detail on them. (see my review of Arniston House in the blog)  The acoustics in the complex change from space to space and the design is intriguing.  There is great use of  glass, wood and granite and my cane could pick out the different floor textures as we moved from Aberdeenshire granite to Caithness granite.  There’s quite a lot of symbology in the building which might be mixed but if you remember the Scottish flag is the Saltire or St Andrew’s Cross, you will find them all over the place.  In looking outside, one can make out Salisbury Craigs and the Dynamic Earth ‘structure’ which appears like a tent with spikes.  The parliament was in recess and we were able to go into the chamber through the garden lobby and find the presiding officer checking out the new sound system in the chamber itself. 

One of the features of the Scottish Parliament are window seats which some of the journalists have referred to as ‘think pods’.  I’m afraid my imagination got the better of me as I thought about the ‘chummie’ seats, a noble tradition of Edinburgh cinema going.  I didn’t ask Gordon, the guide, about this.

Outside the parliament complex is a bus stop for the number 36 bus which will take you round the byways of Edinburgh all the way to the Ocean Terminal.  I was a bit of a pest in asking for ‘what’s the name of this street’ as I found some of the buildings familiar on bus routes going backwards and forwards to school a long time ago.  We jumped buses in Great Junction Street in Leith, got back to Princes Street and my cane hit the tram lines of the Edinburgh tram project which seems to have hit the buffers. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Edinburgh Art Festival : Pandora’s Light Box : Artlink

Radio Scotland are going to be doing an interview with me and Jan-Bert of Artlink about Artlink and the Pandora Light Box project.  I will be offering a blind person's views on the art world, inclusion and how positive I felt this project of Artlink had been in conjunction with the Talbot Rice Gallery.   We will be at the BBC Edinburgh studio and linked with Claire English from BBC Radio Scotland in Glasgow.  The running time is for 13:25 today (August 30th).  If you're listening on the internet, you can check out the BBC schedule for The Culture Cafe which starts at 13:15. 

Following on from my post regarding the Edinburgh Art Festival and my visit to the Anton Henning exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, I returned to the gallery for the launch of Pandora’s Light Box.  I had been invited to take a sneak ‘peek’ on my first visit and had decided that I would definitely go back.  I attended the reception on 17th August and was welcomed by Zoe Fothergill of the Talbot Rice Gallery and Susan Humble from Artlink.  I was able to meet several people from the visually impaired community and it was good to share in their interactions with others in the community.  My own contribution was in lending out my cane to both Zoe and Susan so that they could experience the carpet in the Anton Henning exhibition and do a compare and contrast with the Georgian gallery, to where we later adjourned for drinks and a performance of a poem especially written by Ken Cockburn and performed by Ken and Lorna Irvine from the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL). 

The poem can be heard using the listening devices in the three galleries and I listened to the poem in the Georgian gallery before hearing it live with Ken and Lorna. 

The evening was very entertaining with some suggestions made about visiting other exhibitions in the city.  By this time I had been to the two galleries in Belford Road (Modern 1 and Modern 2) and, on the recommendation of a lady who rescued my hat in Modern 1, had made a quick trip to the Dovecot gallery in Infirmary Street.  (It’s true; they do have a great cafe and good coffee!) 

During the reception I was chatting to Ken Cockburn and Lorna Irvine about the poem and poetry in Scotland in general and the time when I was doing my PhD in Chemistry at the University and would visit the writer in residence, who happened to be the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean from Raasay. 

Below, I am including Ken Cockburn’s description of how the project was undertaken:

the way our words / associate with what’s / on your mind
My brief was to write a descriptive poem about Talbot Rice Gallery, to be recorded and presented in the gallery as an audio work for visitors both visually impaired and sighted. Access to visual art for individuals with a visual impairment relies on verbal description, and Pandora’s Light Box aims to take that ‘practical’ form and extend it into an artwork in its own right.
I ran three sessions with a group of visually impaired people and Artlink volunteers. At the Scottish Poetry Library, we discussed their experiences of visual art and poetry generally, then at Talbot Rice Gallery, we walked through, discussed and wrote about the gallery spaces. Smell became a recurrent theme – how the galleries smell today, but also what the history and architecture suggested – from the dramatic experiments of the Victorian chemistry professors, to imagined evening balls.
Drawing on those sessions, and reflecting the current layout of the building, the poem fell into three distinct parts – White Gallery, Round Room and Georgian Gallery – and, as I was writing to be heard rather than read, two distinct voices, which echo, support and contrast with each other. I researched the building’s history, and the final poem includes ‘found’ material – accounts of rowdy lectures, names of builders and decorators, instructions for scientific collectors working ‘in the field’.
beetles of brilliant colour and lustre / shells brought up by the cable in weighing anchor
Lorna Irvine and I gave two public readings in the galleries, which led to further revisions, before we recorded the poem with Martin Parker and Jung In Jung. They suggested various ways the recording might be presented within the gallery, and at that stage ceramic artist Frances Priest came on board.
Frances, again after workshopping ideas, developed a prototype ‘listening post’. (Participants said wearing headphones made them feel cut off from their surroundings, so we wanted to avoid those.) This had to meet several (sometimes conflicting) requirements. It had to be accessible and visible within the galleries, without becoming confused with, or detracting from the changing exhibits; it had to be comfortable enough to hold to one’s ear for the length of the poem; it had to work technically, housing the speaker and a control mechanism; it had to be robust enough to endure the odd accident; and it had to convey the message PLEASE HANDLE in an environment where the rule is DO NOT TOUCH.
We hope we’ve squared that particular circle, and, whether you are a first-time or a regular visitor to the gallery, that listening to the poem opens up some new perspectives for you.
this is the is / between / was and will be
Ken Cockburn

I found Susan Humble's speech at the launch encouraging as they had decided to start from first principles without any preconceptions. (I have previously made comments about ‘disability korner’ attitudes by some ‘professionals’ which usually fail in both terms of service and outcome.)

I was able to talk to the locals who had participated and it was encouraging to hear that some were also going to an exhibition by Duncan Robertson at the Patriot Hall gallery in Stockbridge later that week.  I was also invited, but sadly was unable to attend.

You can listen to the poems on sound cloud at:

Susan Humble has kindly provided links to Artlink's activities with a special tour of the exhibition at the Talbot Rice gallery on September 1st. 

Susan Humble
Audience Development Officer
Arts Access
Artlink Edinburgh and the Lothians, SC006845

Monday - Friday 9am - 5pm

13a Spittal Street / Edinburgh / EH3 9DY
Tel 0131 229 3555 Option 1
Text relay 18001 0131 229 3555
Fax 0131 228 5257

Scottish Poetry Library:
Lorna has kindly provided information regarding the Scottish Poetry Library as follows:

Scottish Poetry Library website:

You can listen to some poetry as well as get more information about events.  If you would like to become a member, or simply enter our mailing list, please do contact Kay at reception on 0131 557 2876, or at

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Forth Railway Bridge: Dunfermline

One of my early memories of travelling by train is going over the Forth Railway Bridge on the way to holiday in east Fife.  An exciting part of the journey was crossing the River Forth between Dalmeny and North Queensferry.

The cantilever bridge was built at the end of the 19th century and was opened by the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII on 4 March 1890.  One of the rituals on crossing this bridge was being given a penny to throw out at some point during the crossing.  There are three arches on the super structure of the bridge and the chances of the penny missing some of the ironwork were negligible, though with the old steam trains and the rattle going across the bridge, the noise of the penny clanking down the bridge would never be heard.  I was a bit envious later on when I found out that some friends of mine had lived in North Queensferry and had allegedly made a fortune in finding the coins at low tide on the north side of the bridge.  These days the journey is done by modern diesel trains and you can’t throw anything out of the trains.  

Travelling on the Forth Rail Bridge
There’s a frequent commuter service from the Fife circle to Edinburgh.  We decided to park the car at Dalmeny from where a return ticket to Dunfermline costs £3.30 with a Disabled Railcard.  The station is marked Dunfermline Town and this is the old Dunfermline Lower Station, with a passing reference to the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens: “The king sits in Dunfermling  toune, drinking the blude -reid wine” ('s_Ballads/58)

Dunfermline was one of the capitals of Scotland before Edinburgh took the title.  Dunfermline prides itself in having been the birthplace of King Charles I and of Andrew Carnegie.  King Robert the Bruce is buried below the pulpit of the church situated at Dunfermline Abbey.  The Abbey and palace buildings are in the care of Historic Scotland and are well worth a visit.  The pillars in the Abbey can be touched and some of the carvings are original.  There was a very warm welcome in the Abbey church from Anne Toschack.  There is a gift and book shop in the church itself. 

Adjacent to the graveyard is Abbot House, which is also well worth a visit.  It has a very attractive coffee shop with home-baking and extremely obliging staff.  There is a small bookshop and gift shop and Patricia was very enthusiastic in discussing the local amenities.  There is an impressive City Chambers in the town centre.  If by chance you refer to it as the Town Hall you may be gently reminded of its proper name!

Later, I found myself in the historical section of the Public Library and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful when I mentioned that my father’s family came from the town and surrounding area.  One of the staff kindly searched through the microfiche and microfilm as handling optical data is something I can’t do.  The library has a mine of information and as family history is quite a big thing in Scotland, it was not surprising that there were some overseas visitors at the time. 

The Tourist Office staff is extremely friendly and I am grateful to Isabel and her colleagues for many helpful tips which they made and on a second visit later in the day for checking up on the availability of High Tea that afternoon! 

Not far from the Tourist Office is Pittencrieff Park which was gifted to the town by Andrew Carnegie and is usually known as the Glen.  There is a beautiful function suite called The Pavilion where I took my granny some 40 years ago for lunch.  There’s also a museum in the park and though only the ground floor is currently open, there are many interesting displays.  I was talking to the staff about the visit with my granny and they showed me a large photograph of the Pavilion Restaurant and a display section of the wicker chairs from the Pavilion, so I was able to sit in one of the wicker chairs by a table and imagine my granny (with her best hat on) and I having lunch! 

The coastal towns of Fife are well worth a visit.  Culross is very well known and is a major National Trust for Scotland centre.   Other villages are Charlestown and Limekilns. 

We planned on staying three hours in Dunfermline but spent seven hours strolling around before having a real high calorific value High Tea at the City Hotel: main course, toast, cakes, two pots of tea all for about £10 per head.  As a result, we just missed a train.  While waiting for the next train, I had an interesting chat with Peter from the railway company about current and historic trains.  He too was a bit of a railway enthusiast and had been on some of the lesser known parts of the rail network including the suburban rail around Edinburgh and a trip from Miller Hill to Smeaton.  My street cred increased when I mentioned I had walked across the forth Railway Bridge in the mid-1970s as part of an organised trip where we were allowed to climb up and down the famous cantilever structures.    

The Forth Road Bridge from the Forth Rail Bridge

On the way north we had sat on the left hand side of the train with views to the Forth Road Bridge which was opened in 1964.  This brought back memories of having to wait at South Queensferry for what seemed like ages to cross the Forth during the Edinburgh holidays.  At one point, my father decided it would be quicker to go the long way round and cross the river at Kincardine.  This bridge was built in the 1930s and until then the Forth could only be crossed at Stirling by road.  There is currently talk of building a second Forth Road Bridge as the capacity of the 1964 bridge is being stretched as have the cables holding the suspension bridge up. 

People from Fife are known as Fifers and they have a reputation for being fly and a bit crafty.  There is a saying: “It takes a lang spoon tae sup wi’a Fifer.”  Another expression frequently mentioned to children who had unreasonable financial demands on their parents: “Who do you think I am: Andrew Carnegie?”  Andrew Carnegie was a philanthropist, though many have questioned the unbridled capitalism which brought him his fortune in the USA.  While Carnegie Hall in New York is famous, as is Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, many Scottish villages have a hall known as a Carnegie Hall.  The Carnegie Trust  endowed many local charities and students as well as libraries.  In fact the Public Library in Dunfermline is called the Dunfermline Carnegie Library.  

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Edinburgh International Book Festival: a tale of two lucky bags

Update: 29 December, 2011

** end of update

The merits of the cloth bag

My Guardian cloth bag survived a return trip to London but has only been used once in the capital.  It is too impractical when used with a cane as the strings round the bag are a distraction.  According to the In Our Time programme which included Tony Ryan, Athene Donald and Charlotte Williams ( ), a cloth bag has to be used a 130 times to justify the high energy inputs in manufacturing the fibres and making the cloth.  Given that a plastic bag can be used about 10 times before falling apart, this cloth bag of mine would have to be used 1300 times to make a fair comparison.  The cloth bag was not suitable in wet or windy Edinburgh and the Scotsman bag proved to be effective in the ‘Athens of the North’. 
The Edinburgh International Book Festival can be found in Charlotte Square at the west end of Edinburgh’s New Town.  This is a very attractive square and the facades of the buildings are well worth an inspection.  It is possible to visit the Georgian House on the north side of the square which is convenient for a visit to Mr Salmond’s official residence as First Minister in Bute House.  The gardens in the square itself are currently taken over by the book festival and this gives a chance to attend talks, get books signed and meet other bookworms. 

I was initially disappointed on asking about any specific talks on audio books or eBooks.  It may be that I asked the wrong person.  The location is primarily designed for book selling and signing and very heavy promotion.  On the day I visited there were talks by authors such as Jonathan Agnew and Orlando Figes, discussions by Katharine Birbalsingh and Justin Cartwright as well as book signings by Jim Johnson and William McIlvanney among others.  I didn’t quite have the brass neck to go up to an author with my ‘autograph book’ and say “I enjoyed your book which I listened to on the RNIB talking books list” or “I enjoyed your audio book which I borrowed from the library”.  I assume authors still get a cut of such publishing formats, though it is worth acknowledging that many publishers and authors waive fees when the books are recorded for the visually impaired or ‘print disabled’.  On the other hand, if you had enjoyed a talking book or you knew that a friend liked a particular author, this book festival is a good chance to get a signed copy and even a dedication for a present. 

It’s also quite a social event and caters for the Edinburgh weather.  The tents include signing areas, bookshops, bars and cafes, shows, talks and these can all be arranged on the day or booked in advance.  It was very pleasant to wander around within the gardens.  There is a covered walkway which protects you from both the mud and the rain and in case of good weather there are deck chairs to sit out and enjoy the sun. 

And now for the tale of two lucky bags …

A lucky bag was a tradition which I can remember from my childhood.  From memory, they cost 3d (three old pence) and there was an assortment of various sweets and toys, rather like the contents of a cheap Christmas cracker.  At one time, they would have been made up by the newsagent/sweetshop and were allegedly more hygienic than the ‘penny tray’ or ‘twopenny tray’ which other children had probably laced with all the germs one caught as a child.  The lucky bag was a commercial variant of the “soiree bag” (pronounced surree bag) which was something else.  The concept of a lucky bag has probably been usurped by such expressions as “a freebie” or a “goodie bag”. 

At the entrance to the book festival, both the Guardian and the Scotsman were offering ‘lucky bags’.  An analysis is made as follows:

The Guardian Lucky Bag
Cost: £1. 
Contents: copy of the day’s Guardian in a eco-friendly cloth bag with a quote from AS Byatt’s Possession: “Literary critics make natural detectives.”   
Comments:  bag not very practical for harsh Edinburgh weather as newly signed book would be liable to get wet and the signature ruined! 

The Scotsman Lucky Bag
Cost 85p. 
Contents: 1 thick plastic bag, copy of the day’s Scotsman, a small packet of Lavazza coffee, a small packet of Mile and Ike’s fabulous fruits (chewy candies) and a choice of book between Skinnner’s Festival by Quintin Jardine or Eat Well by Nell Nelson. 
Comments: This was in the true tradition of a lucky bag, so I bought two!  Enjoyed the sweeties, will enjoy the coffee, bag very practical and I now have two books for some unsuspecting friends to receive at Christmas time! 

Verdict: the Scotsman wins hands down in maintaining the tradition of the lucky bag, though in some parts of London my street ‘cred’ may be enhanced with the Guardian eco-friendly cloth bag. 

Tip: Charlotte Square is quite easily found.  Most of the buses going to Princes Street will drop you near it.  Buses going along George Street will take you there as well.  Make a point of visiting the Georgian House (a National Trust for Scotland property) as it gives a fascinating example of life in a Edinburgh townhouse.  Take great care when crossing into the gardens from the square as traffic will appear to come at you from several directions.  This part of Edinburgh is not particularly blind friendly as you have to climb stone steps to get from the road into the gardens and on and off the pavement as well.  Remember that the orientation of the New Town of Edinburgh is east-west with Princes Street, George Street and Queen Street being the east-west parallel lines.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Edinburgh Art Festival

UPDATE: 1.1.2012

In retrospect, this post showed serendipity, though how one can measure it is still a subject for discussion.  I am no historian of the stature of those who like to explore the counterfactual, but be that as it may my arrival in the Anton Henning installation led to an appearance on a BBC Radio Scotland Culture Cafe programme, some coverage by the Herald of an Artlink and Talbot Rice Gallery event for the visually impaired, and a mention at the end of the year for the Anton Henning exhibition.  I've also been able to share some of my findings on Frank Stella and Gerhard Richter paintings while aso being part of uncovering some of the treasures elsewhere. 

** end of update

I’ve been travelling around the Edinburgh area and have a couple of visits within the Edinburgh Art Festival to report. 

Firstly, I’m a native of the city and the layout if very familiar to me.  But having said that, once you’re used to the maze of the street pattern in the Old Town, it’s reasonably straightforward – though the pavements and crossings can be awkward on account of the many tourists and ‘street artists’.  If you avoid the High Street, you’ll miss many of these but you might also be missing out on the serendipity that it can bring.  Next, the weather has been appalling, but on Friday the rain stopped, though the sky was very overcast and it wasn’t a good vision day. 

We took an advantage of a new park and ride facility which meant that the car could be left and a bus taken into the city.  We started off at the University of Edinburgh Old College and the Talbot Rice Gallery.  The quadrangle, which is designed by William Henry Playfair (the building is designed by Robert Adam), is well worth a visit though at present there is a lot of building work being done to restore the site to its original plan.  (

The Talbot Rice Gallery is located in the Old College and there are lifts and ramps, so the access should be good.  At the time of our visit there were two exhibitions: one by Anton Henning and the other titled Ragamala of Indian miniature paintings.  There is also a further exhibition from the University’s Torrie Collection.

Anton Henning – Interieur No. 493

The Henning exhibition is very striking and the exhibition staff is extremely helpful in making suggestions after I had pointed out that I could make out quite a lot of some of the exhibits on the way in.  The gallery also has a feature known as Pandora’s Light Box which is being launched (my visit was purely coincidental, as there is a striking poster for the Henning exhibition which drew me in).   I’m not going to try and match the picture with the descriptions which I’m making.  Some of them may be what the artist intended, some might be my perception or even false recollection.   

No 6, titled Evening Song 21.57 hours – lots of blues

No 16, titled Interieur No 476 – lots of colour which I could make out an dsome 3-d effects, which got the attention of my peripheral vision.  This reminded me of the pattern on a bark of a maple tree I found in Kew Gardens.

No 10, Untitled – I could make out the palm trees

All the paintings titled Pin-up were obvious in their detail! 

There were pieces of furniture and sculpture and sound film installations.

In the upstairs gallery, there is a striking stained glass window effect which is the poster which drew me in.  It is stunning, but I can’t really describe it.  It reminded me of my visit to Chichester Cathedral, when I found the Chagall window.  What I really liked about this exhibition was the interest the exhibition manager Hazel and Bobbie, a volunteer, took in asking me how I had found the exhibits.  In fact, the penny didn’t really drop until some of the exhibition notes were read to me after two days of ‘fringe’ activities.  It’s too easy in Edinburgh to go from one event to the other without taking it in, and this is certainly one exhibition where even the carpet is part of the exhibition and there were no alarm bells ringing as I swept through the gallery with my white stick.  The blurb on the artist describes this as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), which sounds as if it could be a bit Wagnerian.  Tip: ask where the free posters are, so that in the spirit of the gallery and exhibition you can ‘roll your own’ poster!

Ingrid Calame at The Fruitmarket Gallery

This gallery is next to Edinburgh Waverley station in what used to be the old fruitmarket.  If you exit via the Market St exit, it’s a short walk.  Once you are inside the gallery, there is a striking wall to floor installation by Ingrid Calame using Mylar (architectural tracing paper).  I was informed of this by one of the assistants who was probably trying to steer me away from what is a fragile part of the exhibit on the floor (note – at this point I was not aware that the carpet at the Talbot Rice Gallery had been part of the installation and you may recall my description of an installation at St Albans by Aviva where I was able to use the white stick within the installation).  The assistant explained all the exhibits in the gallery and though I couldn’t make much of the striking entry wall to floor work, the smaller works in the gallery, particularly the enamel pigment on aluminium were striking.  I made a mental note of one of them and we’ve managed to find it on the internet, and it is one of the few pieces of red (I think) which is quite vivid.

puEEP, 2001

It must have something to do with the wavelength as usually I am sound on yellows and blues, though red and greens can appear to be the same.  This red enamel work has given me ideas for trying some of this out.  I’ve tried this out with spray cans of metallic paint and primary colours, but I think a blow torch and some real enamel sounds the ticket! 

The staff at the Fruitmarket Gallery were again very helpful and I got a couple of postcards.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Trainspotting: Prestonpans to North Berwick

This train trip is way beyond my Freedom Pass, but Scotland still has the Railcard reduction, so a short train trip was made picking up the North Berwick line at Prestonpans, which is in East Lothian.  Prestonpans is well worth a day trip if you are based in Edinburgh as there is a lot to visit within a short walk of the station.  As well as the site for the Battle of Prestonpans (a win for Bonnie Prince Charlie) there is the Mercat Cross which stands out quite well on my peripheral vision.  The Mercat Cross in Edinburgh is quite famous, but Prestonpans also has an attractive Mercat Cross situated in the conservation area. 

Mercat Cross - Prestonpans

Not far away is a park with the ruins of Preston Tower.  Though no access is possible, the shell and the height of the building are quite impressive, as are the gardens of the park. “Features include a laburnum arch, topiary, a herb garden and a number of old-fashioned species of rose.” (p99, Statistical Account for East Lothian 1945-2000) 

There is also a National Trust for Scotland property at Hamilton House, though this is not open without an appointment.  The exterior lines are quite impressive and on Friday when I went it was a good day with blue skies I could pick up the colour of the pantile roofs in the village.  There is also an attractive dovecot called The Northfield Doocot between Hamilton House and the station. 

We stopped for a very late lunch at The Gothenburg (The Goth) which is a Prestonpans institution based on ‘sensible drinking’ with food, as opposed to some of the more traditional senseless drinking, which allegedly goes on in Scotland.  As their beer mat says: “Since 1908 we’ve been proud to use ‘Gothenburg Principles’ – originally established in Sweden!  They ensure that 95% of our profits go back into our community.  They sponsor arts projects that honour our community and help create a yet brighter future in Prestonpans.”  Across the road from The Goth is a real totem pole. 

Prestonpans is really in two parts.  Near the station is the conservation area, while the more industrial part of the town is on the shore line.  Previous industries included mining, salt works, glass and pottery, and a brewery (Fowler’s “wee heavy” was brewed here and was a traditional final shot to top up a pint when the pubs used to close at 10pm.).  Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum is a little outside the centre and off the main road going towards Musselburgh/Edinburgh and can be reached by bus.  This is well worth a visit with many interesting exhibits, trains and a beam engine. 

Prestonpans has taken a while to regenerate and during my childhood we used to pass through on either the coast road or the A198 to get to Gullane, North Berwick and Dunbar.  We didn’t stop in either direction, though there was always a stop at Musselburgh on the way back to buy ice-cream from Luca’s!  (They still do vanilla and strawberry.)

These three towns form the ‘Forth Riviera’!  Gullane was viewed as a golf paradise, North Berwick had a Bohemian reputation, and Dunbar claims to have both the sunshine record and probably windy record in Scotland.  These three towns could not be more different even today.  I remember recently when the Open was at Muirfield and the weather was really bad, Tiger Woods was complaining about the Scottish weather.  But we had gone a few miles across to  Dunbar where the weather was beautiful with blue skies and sunshine.  The weather in these Forth Estuary North Sea areas changes rapidly. 

The train journey from Prestonpans follows the Edinburgh to London mainline and if you’re travelling at over 100mph you’re not going to see very much at all.  Travelling on the new electric trains is a bit slower and the train stops at Longniddry, Drem and then the branch line to North Berwick itself.  Traprain Law can be made out on my peripheral vision, but the most striking feature on the landside of the journey is the approach to North Berwick, with North Berwick Law (the locals get really hacked off if you call it Berwick Law) appearing as a pyramid.  From memory, there is a whale bone arch on the top and I can vaguely remember having climbed it. 

At the station, there is a pedestrian crossing from the car park with tactile lights and a walkway down to the town centre.  North Berwick is a popular place and traditionally people have taken houses here for a week, so it’s always quite busy during the summer season.  There is quite a rivalry between North Berwick and Dunbar.  While Dunbar is more interesting with its museums, castle, harbours and sandy beaches; North Berwick has its attractions with its marina, the seabird centre and the possibility of good views of the Bass Rock. 

View of Bass Rock from North Berwick

Again I was fairly lucky and could make out the Bass Rock, which is usually covered in guano.  There was a bit of synchronicity as the Radio 4 play on Saturday was Dr No, which is based on a guano-rich island in the Caribbean.  (Thanks to Dino Goldie for an inspirational tweet!)  Near the marina are the remains of a very old Scottish church called St Andrews, which has been excavated over the years.  There are information boards inside which someone could read to you and there is usually an ice-cream van parked next to it. 

North Berwick has many restaurants, tearooms and the RNLI has an attractive gift shop near the marina.  The tide was out when we were there, though there were quite a few people on one of the beaches.  On the trip back to Prestonpans, we passed by Seton Collegiate Church and there are views across the River Forth to Fife, which I couldn’t make out, but you will have to believe me. 

There was a treat as usual on this trip.  When I was boarding the train at Prestonpans the sound of the bagpipes could be heard.  It wasn’t a lament, but it was probably for a team of golfers who may have been staying at Prestongrange House which is now home to the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club.  I don’t think ScotRail normally greet their customers this way, but a nice thought nonetheless.  The  stations were unmanned and the ticket machines at North Berwick do not accept cash, so buying a ticket beforehand is virtually impossible if you’re blind.  There was, however, a ticket collector on the way back, so tickets could be bought on the train.  (ScotRail is operated by First Group.)   An off-peak day return from Prestonpans to North Berwick costs £3.85 with a Railcard.

Prestonpans can also be reached by frequent bus services from various parts of Edinburgh using Lothian buses or First Group.  The train service from Edinburgh is hourly.  There is a separate service using the mainline trains which stop at Dunbar.

If you have transport I can recommend Tantallon Castle, Dirleton Castle, East Fortune Museum, East Linton Waterfalls and nice pubs, Preston Mill (a working water mill on River Tyne), Gullane and Aberlady for beaches and golf, depending on your handicap.

Useful links:

Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum

Monday, 1 August 2011

Arniston House, Midlothian

UPDATE: 2/1/2012

In Christmas 2011, I was given a copy of Map of a Nation by Rachel Hewitt.  The Dundas family and Arniston feature prominently in this book and there are many references to both the house and to Robert Dundas.  Included in the book is a plate of a portrait of Robert Dundas that hangs in the Oak Room of the house. 

I am having to rely on people reading the book to me, but it is clearly a comprehensive reference book featuring many eminent Scots such as Colin Maclaurin, the mathematician.  His theorem was taught to us as part of our calculus studies in school. 

Other Scottish/English border issues discussed by Rachel Hewitt recently include a presentation on BBC Radio 3’s Freethinking Essay which can be heard here:

More information on the Debatable Lands issue can be found on:

** end of  update

Arniston House, Midlothian, Scotland
copyright Profwhitestick (2011)

Growing up in Edinburgh, Arniston was the final stop on some of the country buses (the green ones as opposed to the city buses in Edinburgh, which were and still are maroon).  I was never quite sure where Arniston was and in going through an A to Z of destinations from the Old St Andrew Square bus station, there were quite a few places which had some mystique, though there were only a few miles away.  Another place was Birkenside and it turns out that Birkenside is the last stop for public transport in order to get to Arniston House.  As it’s about 2 miles from the nearest bus stop, we went by car.

As with many country houses, there is a tremendous drive into the estate with a line of trees and then a sharp left turn before the north side of the house designed by William Adam (father of Robert and John Adam) comes into view.  There are two pavilions on the east and west side which are linked.  The building is of pink sandstone.  The grounds are extensive and from the north there are views of Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and the hills of Fife across the River Forth.  However, it was overcast and I couldn’t make anything out so you will have to believe me that they are there!  A circuit round the house gives an approach to the south side, which has a staircase and a view towards the Moorfoot hills and gardens.  There is a painting of this view by Naysmith which can be seen in the house itself. 

We were greeted by the owner of Arniston (Althea Dundas Bekker) and her daughter Henrietta.  The tour lasts around 90 minutes and there is a lot to see, with many objects which I could make out: the plaster work, pilasters and spandrels. 

The hall has a fascinating clock which has weights which descend into the pilasters almost at the level of a bust of William Pitt.  There are also ‘chimney pieces’ and an amazing system of flues.  The chimney piece is non-traditional as the flue is in fact vented through an internal system, though nowadays the fires are no longer lit (due to a build up of birds’ nests over 60 years!).  The house has a woodchip boiler system and you can smell this on the west side when doing a circuit of the grounds.

The dining room has several portraits of the Dundas family, who could be said to have married well and often.  The land for the house was bought by William Dundas in c1571 on the behest of his second wife Katherine Oliphant for their son James.  This was shortly after the Scottish Reformation of 1560 and the Dundas family took a leading role in the Covenanter struggles over the next 100 or so years.  The family feature a lot in Scottish legal and government history with many of them being part of the Scottish legal system, in particular Robert Dundas who in the 1720s rose up the ranks and commissioned William Adam to redevelop the buildings at Arniston in a new style. 

There is thus some similarity with the Dalrymples who lived in Newhailes.  On visiting the great library at Arniston, I asked about the books – there aren’t any in the library - just in case they had been sold.  When the great library had been designed it was at the top of the house but later members of the family wanted a new library, so the newer library is visited last and contains a huge selection of books which have been collected over the generations. 

On entering the drawing room there was a bit of “Wow!” factor for me as it appears that you are walking into – for me at any rate – a large cage with very fine silver filigree bars and wiring.  This is, in fact, a silver foil type of wallpaper chosen by Althea during the redecoration following rebuilding of the drawing room which suffered badly from dry rot.  Much of the plasterwork was affected, though luckily some remoulding was possible, but a choice had to be made of new wallpaper.  Althea chose a design by de Guerneys in London.  I was amazed at how much detail I could make out of the silver foil pattern, though I couldn’t make out much of the plasterwork on the ceiling of this room, unlike the great library in Osterley. 

The Oak Room faces south and I could make out the line of trees and the grounds towards the Moorfoot hills.  There is some original glass in this room in the door panes leading to the Main Hall.  This room is said to have been visited by Sir Walter Scott and others and was the occasion of much drinking and merriment.  There was a water feature in the grounds facing south and which could apparently be turned on for the guests’ entertainment. (Perhaps this is an imitation of Versailles, or even Petrodvorets near St Petersburg in Russia, which I visited in 1975.) 

On climbing the stairs there is access to the gallery overlooking the hall and the great library at the top.  The library now has no books with the cases displaying the family collection of porcelain as Althea’s great grandfather felt the climb to the library was too much and had the books relocated downstairs.  It had been the tradition when William Adam designed the house to have the library at the top of the house, far away from the bustle of the domestic scene.  With the Dundas family having such a leading role in the Scottish judicial system there must have been many important cases discussed in these surroundings (hints of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston).  It’s also possible to get a glimpse of connecting passages within the house and the ‘secret’ door in part of a bookcase appears to feature in many libraries- even the library of Miss Mapp (EF Benson).  There is a model of the house on the top floor which can be touched and there are plans to have an orangery built on buildings which are currently shells. 

The estate is a working estate, with tenant farmers and though the Dundas family have statues and streets named after them in Edinburgh, the legal family tradition stopped several generations ago.  (There is no shade of the stately home image as portrayed in The Archers.)  At no time does the visitor feel that this is a tourist business.  There were only 4 of us taking the tour and there are absolutely no gimmicks.  Althea and Henrietta take an obvious delight in their home and encourage questions.  There are a few postcards and a guide book written by Althea on the history of the house and of her family. 

It is interesting to compare the outcomes of Newhailes and Arniston.  Arniston managed to attract money over the generations with a judicious selection of heiresses and legal power, whereas Newhailes seemed to struggle to develop and had to be rescued by the National Trust for Scotland.  Newhailes has declined, though in a managed way though and of course, the house is no longer occupied by the family.  Arniston, on the other hand, has managed to develop, modernise and keep an essential family connection vibrant and welcoming to a stranger.   

Related web links:

Arniston House: (opening times vary, so please check the website for current schedules) Tours cost £6 for an adult.

Lothian buses: