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Roger McCann

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The Isle of Skye - Where Dinosaurs Walked

2018-03-18 17:46:44

Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.

For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.

Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.

The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.

Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.

As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.

With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.

The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.

It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.

For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.

Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’

It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.

‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’

Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.

Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine

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HolyroodHouse Palace Gardens

2018-03-17 15:15:02

From its eminent position on a foundation of ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle’s massive, fortified doors open onto a flat parade ground known as the Esplanade. This square is always busy. Many visitors head for the Castle during the day. Others arrive for evening concerts or the displays of precision drills and musical skills at the annual Military Tattoo.

After the Esplanade, the Royal Mile slopes gradually downwards with a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways falling away to either side. These alleyways or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ running through and between properties have long witnessed the day-to-day lives of people in the densely populated tenements.

On either side of the road, other well- known landmarks including St. Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s House have also known the mundane as well as occasional sensational events down through the years. You can almost sense the history in the old stones.

At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Mile continues into Abbey Strand and stops at the impressive gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse , residence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth when she is on official business in Scotland.

A few yards back from the gate, where the modern tarmac meets the old cobblestones there’s a large brass S fixed into the road. This letter marks the place where there was once a prominent painted line. Creditors were not allowed to cross this line. For those in debt who owed money, getting across that line meant they had reached safety, a place affording sanctuary!

Just as today, there were always lots of people in debt. To provide for their needs, a number of establishments offering accommodation with booths selling food and drink sprang up in the area. The few buildings of Abbey Strand are all that remain from the time.

If the Queen is in residence, the Scottish variant of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom will be fluttering on a flagpole above the Palace rooftop and the place will be closed to the public. However, if a flag bearing the Royal Standard of Scotland is showing, visitors are welcome to visit the Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.

Away from the crowds on the Royal Mile the gardens are a haven of peace for much of the time, though down the ages, long before these acres were so lovingly tended, this was a backdrop for many moments of high drama.

Such a moment happened on a day in 1127 when King David 1 of Scotland was out hunting. At that time, a forest covered the land. When his horse was startled by a deer stag, the king was thrown to the ground. According to one variation of the legend, as the stag charged, he saved himself from being gored by grabbing the beast by the horns. Just then, the king saw a holy cross descending from the skies and the stag reared away.

As an act of thanksgiving for his escape, David 1 founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128. ‘Rood’ is an old name for a crucifix or Christian cross. Augustinian monks were gifted the Abbey with rights to work the land, to pasturage and to draw rents from the villages within their bounds. For his endowment, King David expected prayers for the protection of his kingdom, his government and his hoped for heavenly salvation.

During the 15th century the Abbey guest house was developed into a royal residence until James 4th constructed a Royal Palace adjacent to the Abbey cloister a few years later.

There’s very little known about the garden around this time, but it’s been written that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -1587) did enjoy games of real tennis (a bit like the game of squash). She also enjoyed archery for which she wore a velvet glove. She also played croquet, golf and liked hawking.

It was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who had the garden laid out much as we find it today. He was also responsible for getting rid of most of the untidy buildings that grew up nearby to provide shelter for sanctuary-seeking debtors. On occasions their numbers could reach 6500, including members of the aristocracy, fleeing from creditors.

The wide garden path beginning near the ruins of the Abbey leads alongside deep borders studded with mature trees, backed by hedges and a wall on one side. The first notable piece of sculpture is a stone sundial carved by John Mylne in 1633 to commemorate Charles 1’s Coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignia of Charles 1 and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

As we follow the path round a corner, the next stone sculpture to come into view is a much weathered, slightly hunched fiddle player. Supposedly, Queen Victoria didn’t like this particular figure and it has been moved within the garden a few times.

It’s not long before we turn the next corner and are facing south. Now the views over the large area of grass are expansive and lead over mature trees to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This is Edinburgh’s very small mountain, the remains of another volcanic plug surrounded by wild land. It’s a popular walk, minutes from the centre of town.

To the east, the lawn appears to stretch for a vast distance over flat parkland to distant houses. This deception has been created by an effect known as a ha-ha. Here the grass reaches up a gradual incline to end on top of the unseen high boundary wall.

We’re now passing the foundations of what were once monastic buildings on one side and the ruined Abbey on the other. The Abbey was a magnificent building, worked on by craftsmen from abroad. Inside it was richly painted and furnished. Now the walls are open to the sky.

Near the ancient sunken foundations of other monastic buildings there is a grass covered mound that was once a source of intrigue. Could it be concealing some dark secret? However, on investigation, the lump proved only to be hiding an old kitchen ‘midden’. Now it serves as a podium for the conductor whenever a band plays here during receptions.

Every year, usually in early July, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh host a garden party on the grassed area. They arrive from a room at the back of the Palace and come down a red carpeted flight of steps in the corner where the ruined Abbey is joined on to the Palace.

Over the course of the afternoon, many of the 8000 guests will take the chance to admire the gardens, brought to their best for this particular occasion by a team of up to 14 gardeners.

Some of the guests will be presented to The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Royal couple proceed down an avenue formed by the Queen’s Royal Company of Archers- the Sovereign’s ‘Body Guard’ in Scotland. When they are not practicing their archery skills in the garden, they add an extra dash of colour to ceremonial occasions.

Over hundreds of years there have been many changes worked in the gardens. The mulberry sapling that was recently planted for Charles, Duke of Rothesay appears to be thriving. When King James 1 of England and 6th of Scotland had 10,000 mulberry trees imported, they didn’t grow so well. They were the wrong variety. His hopes of creating a silk industry came to nothing.

It may be helpful to know that even in a Royal garden things don’t always go as planned.

We may not all be invited to the garden party but a visit is always a delight.

First published in The People’s Friend

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Spring Flowering Gardens

2018-03-13 20:27:29

Though the weather will often be at its worst in the early days of a new year, it’s a joy to spot the snowdrops that begin to appear at this time in gardens across the country. Like tiny pinpoints of light, they are often thought of as the harbingers of spring.

Spotted in the gloom, they may be cause for a little optimistic smile, but for a proper pick-me-up, for confirmation that spring really is on its way it’s worth travelling a few miles west of Glasgow to Finlaystone Country Estate. There the snowdrops, mostly the common Galanthus nivalis, grow in glorious abundance.

Most visitors drive to the estate but others take the train from Glasgow’s Central Station to the village of Langbank. It’s a twenty minutes journey that leaves the city behind and allows passengers to see out over the widening River Clyde as far as the distant peak of Ben Lomond, about twenty miles away and northwest to another mountain range known locally as the Arrochar Alps. These peaks can be snow covered at any time of the year.

The walk through the village of Langbank is pleasant, then a further few minutes of pavement walking alongside the M8 leads to the estate’s entrance gate and approach road.

Pick up a map from the visitor centre and the Snowdrop Stroll can be followed easily on a way marked path.

My first visit of the year coincided with one of those occasional, bright days that come like a glad tiding and seem to announce the approach of spring.

I followed the Burnside Path leading alongside the course of a small river. A bench has been placed in an ideal spot for visitors to sit and enjoy the sight and sounds of a waterfall dropping from a height over a wall of rock. Sunlight filtered by the trees makes the water sparkle. Poking above the ground cover of dark leaf mould, the clusters of snowdrops beneath the still bare trees appear to be glowing.

But as the poet Henry Van Dyke said, ‘the first day of spring according to the calendar is one thing and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month’. This is usually true, but no matter. Even if the weather reverts to wintry we should keep in mind that spring is sure to follow.

Get out for even a short walk and your spirits will be lifted on seeing someone’s flower filled window boxes, or an array of flower pots set on an outside stair. In the West End of Glasgow, containers of vivid red and orange pansies with black centres are popular. Other plant pots are filled with mixtures of pale yellow, bright blue or shocking pink primulas.

As the days lengthen, Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens offer a succession of cheering carpets of gold and purple crocuses, followed by yellow daffodils that come each year in spite of the earlier wintry weather.

While the daffodils and cream coloured narcissi nod in the wind, red rhododendrons and white and red magnolia blossom add their own particular beauty to the displays. Sadly, a sharp shower of hailstones can cause their petals to fall all too soon. Yet after each April blast of wind and cold rain the tulips in the formal beds still stand tall, reaching for the sun.

By this time at Finlaystone Estate, the cherry trees, smothered in pink blossom, look their loveliest against the occasional deep blue of a spring time sky.

There’s still not much in bloom in the walled garden but it’s a pleasure to sit for a few minutes and watch the play of water falling into the pool of the fountain, newly switched on for the season.

In the aptly named Smelly Garden – now there’s an invitation to get close to the plantings - the rockery contains a few aubretia, the low masses of flowers adding daubs of mauve amongst the varied greens of other plants and greys of the rocks.

Further into the main garden, other interesting features include the low-lying bog area and the Celtic knot outlined with brickwork on the ground.

The bright yellow of Forsythia blossom and the brilliant red bract tips above the white flowers of Pieris Japonica look particularly stunning but arguably can’t compete with the walls of striking red rhododendrons which even this early in the season prove attractive to big fat bumble bees and elusive small birds.

From a path in another area of the garden, visitors can look over a grassy area planted with daffodils and through a gap in a wall of the same red rhododendrons. This view appears to continue seamlessly out over the River Clyde to the far shore and hills beyond - a landscape gardener’s technique that makes use of ‘borrowed landscape’.

Further along this path there’s a sunken garden bordered by a hedge trimmed to look like the battlements of a castle. Nearer the main house in a private part of the garden visitors can see the yew tree under which John Knox is said to have celebrated the first reformed communion in the west of Scotland in 1556.

I wonder if Mister Knox would have agreed with the American gardening author Ruth Stout who said, ‘I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.’

First published in The People’s Friend

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Loch Katrine North Shore Cycle

2018-03-08 12:11:33

Minutes after docking at Stronachlachar Pier for passengers to disembark or come aboard, the steamship Sir Walter Scott, was again sailing serenely down Loch Katrine, completing the 16 miles round trip that starts at Trossachs Pier. Meanwhile, much less serenely, my wife and I were pedalling a mountain bike built for two along the traffic free road that runs along the north side of the loch.

We’d been acquainted with the tandem on Trossachs Pier about an hour earlier at the bicycle hire station. The mechanic had judged our leg lengths, made necessary adjustments to the bike, then watched with practised eye as we took a few tentative turns around the car park. He then allowed us away and we pushed the shiny blue machine up the gangplank of the SS Sir Walter Scott.

We found the boat busy with visitors from various countries. Safety announcements in English, French and German sounded before we set sail. Then, with bagpipe music playing softly in the background, we were on our way. Every few minutes a commentary over the loudspeakers described features of the passing scene. Tales were told of this pure water, source of Glasgow’s supply since 1859.

We heard about cattle rustlers, secretive whisky distillers and smugglers who once plied their trades in the surrounding hills.

As the steamer’s engines rumbled rhythmically, our passage rippled the calm loch. Small waves fleetingly disturbed the perfect reflections then died away. Mirrored images of larch trees and birch trees, gold-coloured in their autumn splendour, reformed in the ship’s wake.

The passengers were captivated. Through binoculars, some of them scanned the mist wreathed mountains. Cameras clicked on all sides.

We were informed that the Sir Walter Scott is driven by the original 3-cylinder triple expansion engine and has two locomotive–type boilers that have been converted to run on biofuel. She is the last of many such steamers that plied their trade on Scotland’s beautiful lochs.

She was built in 1900 at William Denny & Brothers, once a well - known shipbuilding firm on the River Clyde. The sections of the ship were prefabricated and bolted together at Dumbarton then dismantled and transported by barges up Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. From there they were taken overland by horse and cart to Stronachlachar. The ship was then reassembled - this time with rivets in place of bolts.

We left the ship at Stronachlachar Pier.

After a wobbly start, and having to get off the tandem when we met our first hill, we were now travelling in the same direction as the ship. We had never been on a tandem before, but as the cycling became easier, we began to relax, to enjoy that good-to-be-alive-feeling from breathing the fresh mountain air.

Leaves were falling as we passed through the woodland sheltering Glengyle House where Rob Roy MacGregor was born in 1671. It’s a beautiful spot. Loch Katrine shone like polished silver in front of the house.

Rob Roy grew up to become a respected farmer and cattle dealer but was involved in an unwise financial speculation in which he lost his own savings as well as money entrusted to him by the Duke of Montrose.

He was declared bankrupt and a warrant was taken out for his arrest. The cattle dealer became a cattle thief who also ran a protection racket. He was arrested more than once, but always managed to escape. Seen by some as a Robin Hood figure he died in his own home of old age, almost a national hero.

As we pedalled on, the air was full of birdsong. Perhaps the birds were rejoicing over an abundance of brilliant red rowan berries. Ferns were turning from green through yellow to russet near the roadsides. Against these autumnal colours, the small wild flowers still in bloom stood out like blue jewels. Fat, juicy blackberries begged to be picked.

There are easy stretches and some exciting downhill runs on this traffic free road skirting the north side of Loch Katrine. Where the hills are steep, we had no qualms about dismounting, taking time to marvel at the dramatic views.

Information boards along the route are good places to stop for a breather. From one of them, we learnt a little about the local wildlife and then attempted to discern where the roaring of a red deer stag might be coming from, far up the mountainside.

Further on, we stopped above a Clan Gregor’s cemetery on a man-made promontory extending out into the loch. Direct descendants of the MacGregors buried there have right of access to the graveyard to this day. After slogging up a particularly long incline we were glad to reach a popular picnic area. From this high point just off the road, we could see a few small islands poking out of the water, and away to the west, the peaks of distant hills.

Across the loch, surrounded by trees, Queen Victoria’s cottage looked like a doll’s house. With Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Family, Victoria stayed there on 15th October1859.During the day she had turned the silver handle which started a small hydraulic engine that primed the operation allowing the clean water of Loch Katrine to be pumped to the citizens of Glasgow 34 miles away.

Many famous people travelled here specifically to marvel at the beauty of Loch Katrine and the surrounding countryside. But it is Sir Walter Scott who is credited with starting the fashion for such visits, which were the beginnings of the tourism industry in Scotland.

His epic poem, ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was based on an older story and tells the tale of a young knight who, with his hounds, had been hunting a stag on these steep mountainsides. When his horse had an accident and died, the stranded knight was rescued by a young lady, the fair Ellen. In her boat, he rowed out across Loch Katrine to what is now known as Ellen’s Isle.

Today, at another viewpoint opposite Ellen’s Isle, there is a contraption known as a sound-store box. Turn the handle and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely voice singing ‘Ellen’s Third Song’, or ‘Ave Maria’, as it is better known. The music was composed by Franz Schubert, who was inspired by the words of Ellen’s prayer in Sir Walter Scott’s poem.

This is a popular trip with walkers and cyclists of all ages. But beware - if you haven’t been on a bike for twenty years, or in our case, on a tandem before - first consider the easy run from Trossachs Pier westwards. Of course, if you still don’t fancy all that sweaty effort, you could always stay on the boat for the return trip.

First published in The People’s Friend

Further Information: From Glasgow, a 60 minute drive along the A81 passes through pleasant rural countryside into the mountains of the Scottish Highlands. At Trossachs Pier there is an information centre, craft shop, bike or electric buggy hire and the Captain’s Rest restaurant.

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