Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



A Walk through Dundee

2019-01-08 14:12:37

As I waited for the traffic lights to change before crossing the road outside Dundee’s newly refurbished railway station, a friendly woman engaged me in conversation. “Braw, isn’t it” she said, answering her own question.

We were gazing at the tall masts of the R.R.S. (Royal Research Ship) Discovery berthed in its dock by the River Tay. The ship was built hereabouts beginning March 1900 for the National Antarctic Expedition to be led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. His quest the following year was to be first ever to reach the South Pole. Scott described the ship as, “a splendidly strong and well-fortified structure and the machinery is in all respects equal to the hull.” At 172 feet long and 32 feet broad it seems small for what was then an adventure into the unknown. But he was right. The ship survived two years imprisonment in the crushing, vice-like grip of Antarctic pack ice.

At Discovery Point Centre, in comfort, visitors can learn something of that Antarctic experience before boarding R.R.S. Discovery to see the crew’s actual living quarters.

From there, a few steps will take you to the front door of Dundee’s newest attraction – the futuristic V&A Museum of Design – the only outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The fantastic building designed by Japanese architectural practice Kenzo Kuma & Associates opened on the 15th September 2018.You’ll find the permanent display dedicated to Scottish design including a Charles Rennie MacIntosh tearoom. A succession of international exhibitions will feature throughout the coming years.

To reach the newly paved waterfront walkway behind the V&A, find the tunnel-like space which leads through the building. From there views across the river are extensive to the shores of Fife.

As you head eastwards, pause for a moment at the memorial slab commemorating the opening of the Tay Road Bridge in 1966, at the time the longest in Britain. The bridge appears graceful from a distance but close up the dull concrete is severely strong and functional.

Past the bridge, the river becomes ever wider and deeper - safe for docking ships and oil rigs.

A sign for the Frigate Unicorn points along a street heading away from the waterside. This was a busy place when ships from India unloaded tons of jute for Dundee’s now defunct jute industry.

The long- empty warehouses have now been converted into riverside apartments. Behind the apartment blocks, lies Victoria Dock. One sad-looking boat, the North Carr, appears to be held together with a coverall coating of red paint and rust. Once it was manned, a working lightship that signalled safe passage for ships negotiating the River Tay estuary. Now, when lightships have been replaced with fixed buoys this is the only survivor in Scotland.

Further along Victoria Dock, the Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built wooden ship afloat was built for the Royal Navy in 1824. Visitors can wander amongst the cannons and historical fittings to get a feeling for times when Britannia ruled the waves.

Crossing a new bridge to the north side of Victoria Dock leads to an avenue of new shops and business premises. This refurbishment, renamed City Quay, is part of a long overdue plan to make more of Dundee’s superb riverside location.

Leave the harbour by the wide gates that open onto streets constructed originally for transporting goods quickly from ships to shore markets. Appropriately named Commercial Street was designed to give speedy access to the town centre and continues across the High Street to the McManus Art Gallery and Museum in the surrounds of Albert Square.

The galleries show a collection of Victorian and 20th century Scottish paintings including landscapes by the ever-popular Dundee artist, the late James McIntosh Patrick. The museum houses displays of local history. A stained glass window in the museum cafe commemorates Mary Slessor who worked as a child in a Dundee weaving shed and later became Scotland’s most famous woman missionary to Africa. This is the same woman whose portrait graces present day bank notes. At the rear of the museum, a statue of Queen Victoria appears to approve.

It’s worth taking a turn round the ancient stones of the Howff cemetery, diagonally opposite the statue of Robert Burns on Albert Square. The cemetery was granted to the town by Mary Queen of Scots in 1564. Many of the ancient stone grave markers have a carved symbol denoting the trade of the deceased.

From the graveyard there’s a good view of the red stone building opposite known locally as the Courier Building. This was the historic home of D.C.Thomson, publishers of newspapers, magazines and comics such as The Dandy and The Beano. Cartoon characters in these two esteemed publications were inspirational for the artists who created the life size sculptures of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx, complete with loaded catapult, which stand on a pavement near the end of Reform Street.

Ahead, the City Square is enclosed on the south side by the imposing bulk of the Caird Hall, a popular venue for a diverse range of concerts and other gatherings.

West along the Nethergate, St. Mary’s Church was founded in 1190. A guided tour to the top of the adjoining Auld Steeple (232 steps) will give further insights into the City’s mediaeval history and great views. In contrast, immediately behind, all glass front, stainless steel and polished wood is the Overgate Shopping Centre.

It was not so far away, unmarked by any monument, that a different sort of retail outlet probably had a much greater impact on the world. A Belgian immigrant, Edward de Gernier, in the late 1870s, opened what he claimed to be “the first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Britain.” Today, throughout the land, fast food fanciers have reason to thank M. de Gernier.

Before crossing the road to find the plaque commemorating Winston Churchill’ s time as an M.P. for Dundee, look for the replica of a unicorn on top of a stone column which stands on the pavement in front of the Auld Steeple. This is Dundee’s 16th century Mercat (market) Cross. Like others in Scottish towns and cities, it marked a place where merchants would gather and as it was granted by the monarchy, it gave merchants the right to hold a market.

Further along Nethergate, on the left, hardly noticeable, a small plaque on a tenement wall commemorates Fanny Wright (1795-1852) an early feminist and proponent of women’s rights. In the same house lived Dr. Thomas Maclagan, also a pioneer in his field. His research into salicin, an extract from the bark of white willow trees led to further research abroad. What millions of people are grateful for, and know today as aspirin, was the outcome.

The Nethergate merges with Perth Road and on passing St. Andrew’s Catholic Cathedral you reach the cultural quarter, the bohemian West End. Dundee Contemporary Arts building houses galleries, cinemas and a café/ bar. In the restaurant, large windows give a good view over the Science Centre. There is a choice of other art galleries and eating establishments nearby, including a restaurant in the Repertory Theatre though a “peh” (meat pie) or “ingin bridie” culinary specialities of Dundee might be hard to find here.

Still on the Nethergate, past the University and across the road from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, the street known as Roseangle leads down to the river. Near its end, on the left, is a well - used children’s play area. Passing trains and small aircraft that leave and return to Dundee’s nearby riverside airport add extra interest.

Before leaving Roseangle, stroll at least as far as the bandstand on Magdalen Green, Dundee’s oldest park. The bandstand is used for concerts in summertime.

Retrace your steps to Roseangle and Riverside Approach, which ends almost below a span of the Tay Railway Bridge (1887). From here, panoramic views extend across to Fife and up the river towards Perth. Seals are often seen on sandbanks near the bridge supports when the water level is low.

Stumps on the east side of the old railway bridge are still visible in the water. These are remnants from the calamity since known as the Tay Bridge Disaster, when, in high winds on the 28th December 1879, the evening train from Edinburgh to Dundee - engine, six carriages and all the passengers, plunged into the icy waters of the River Tay. No one survived. A hundred yards or so to the west, on the walkway, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster.

Continuing eastwards, Riverside Drive leads back to the railway station, to Discovery point, the V&A and the centre of town. As you leave the rail bridge behind, you might take a few minutes to read William Topaz McGonagall’s poem carved into the walkway – though you’ll have to find the start and walk back towards the bridge.

Beautiful Railway Bridge by the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am sorry to say...

Views of both bridges spanning a huge expanse of water, Fife, green on the opposite bank, are splendid.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further information: There is a choice of cafes and restaurants along this walk including at Discovery Point, the V&A and the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.

www.brightdundeetours for a guided tour of the exterior of the McManus Art Gallery and Museum

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The Nature of Glasgow

2018-06-04 03:03:18

Though Glasgow is a busy city it’s easy to escape the bustle and find a quiet place to walk where nature thrives.

The Canal tow path of the Forth and Clyde Canal can be accessed from Anniesland Cross or Maryhill Road and many other points along its length. This green corridor stretches across Scotland from Bowling in the west to Edinburgh in the east

Another haven for wildlife near Gartnavel Hospital is Bingham's Pond, or Jury’s Pond as it is probably better known. It can be reached easily from Great Western Road.

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Caithness Flagstone Industry

2018-05-17 07:13:08

On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.

Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.

Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.

James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.

Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.

The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.

Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.

Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.

Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.

Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.

By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.

There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.

The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.

The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.

In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.

The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.

So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.

If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!

On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.

While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.

Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.

Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.

Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.

Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.

The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.

The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.

However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.

The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.

The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.

Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.

On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk

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A Path with Poetry and Sculptures - near Dunkeld

2018-03-28 02:43:47

The A9 running north from Perth roars with traffic for much of the day. If you are ever driving the section of this road near Dunkeld and feel the need of a rest, you might consider giving the usual stopping places a miss and instead, find the turn-off for the A822, signposted for Crieff.

Some eight miles along this quieter road and just past the hamlet of Trochry, there’s a small car park with an information board and a directional arrow pointing to the start of the Corbenic Poetry Path, a circular walk of around 3.57km. The gradients throughout the walk are fairly easy while the immediate scenery is always interesting and varied.

The path was created by the Corbenic Estate team and numerous volunteers, from home and abroad, who dug out the route and used wheelbarrows to move tons of material. Underfoot the path has been formed with gravel in places, wood chippings in others and where the walking surfaces may become wet and muddy, a variety of wire covered boards. That this work was all done by hand is most impressive.

The path meanders through farmland and areas of different tree species including ancient larch and new plantings of birch. On the day I strolled along its length there was plenty of birdsong, colourful patches of wild flowers poking through leaf litter and sightings of butterflies.

Poems along the path - there are already thirty two with more to come - can be found incised into slate and stone and carved into slabs and rounds of wood. Other poems have been etched on glass, while the poems on paper are sealed in blocks of resin before being secured on top of way markers along the path.

The poems showcase the work of some of the best poets currently living and writing in Scotland. From time to time, they give readings at events held in specially created performance spaces along the path.

One poem written in praise of Douglas Fir trees is attached to the wire cage protecting a single sapling.

Douglas Fir

(Pseudotsuga douglasii)

This long lived giant

welcoming the mountain winds,

the snow, the mellow light.

Youthful freshness

is undiminished

through a thousand storms

and century after century.

The primary branches

whorl around the axis,

and stretch like words

far into other times.

There are also a number of sculptures along the path. The renowned sculptor Gezia Sollai was invited to create works here along with six sculptor students from Budapest. Some of the works have been sited to entice walkers into quiet corners along the route. Other sculptures are on show where the background views of the hills of Perthshire are expansive. Like any other works of art, some of the sculptures on display such as the hollowed out log drums – drumsticks provided - may have a particular appeal and become favourites.

Stone carver Michael Reilly is another gifted artist who has created pieces which are now sited along the path. Under his tuition, other members of the Corbenic Community are learning to carve.

Nearing the completion of the circuit, the path runs alongside the River Braan rushing white between rocks and large boulders. This end of the Poetry Path is especially lovely and walkers will find spots where they can enjoy a picnic before climbing a flight of stairs for the last short walk back to the starting point.

Further Information: Corbenic Camphill Community situated in beautiful Strathbaan a few miles from Dunkeld is based on the principle of living and working together with those who have special needs.

Respect and concern for the dignity of each person are actively fostered at Corbenic as is ensuring a stable and secure physical, emotional and social environment.

The Poetry Path is used regularly by those who live in the Corbenic Community.

www.Corbenic Camphill Community


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