Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - Scottish gardens


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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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Chatelherault

2017-07-06 13:33:28

Have you ever noticed road signs on the M74 pointing the way to Chatelherault near the town of Hamilton? Like thousands of others you may have wondered where the unusual name came from.

It’s derived from the French town, Chatelleroult. The Duchy of Chatelherault was a gift from King Henry 11 of France to the 2nd Earl of Arran, a Hamilton, for his part in the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to the French heir in 1548.

Later, the 5th Duke of Hamilton used the similar name for a building that has served as a hunting lodge, a summer palace and a dog kennel. Essentially though, Chatelherault, which is only one room deep, was especially designed as a sort of ostentatious terminus to catch the eye at the end of the tree-lined Grand Avenue stretching south from Hamilton Palace which was once the largest non-royal residence in Britain, possibly even in Europe and the main residence of the Dukes of Hamilton from at least 1591 until 1919.

Unfortunately, Hamilton Palace is no more. It became a casualty of Lanarkshire coal mining operations and had to be demolished in the 1920’s. Chatelherault meanwhile, was also falling into disrepair.

Today however, after extensive restorations, it has been brought back to its former glory and now forms the impressive centre-piece where visitors usually begin their explorations of Chatelherault Country Park.

Let’s start from the front door with a turn along the paved path that edges the borders on three sides of the pink sandstone building. These borders contain some trees and ornamental bushes but it was mainly herbs that were grown here.

The Duke’s table in the 18th century would have been fairly dull without them. In fact, flowers rarely got room in his garden unless they were edible. Among the herbs for use in his kitchen were parsley, thyme, rosemary and basil. Some plants were also cultivated for drying before being spread on the floors to mask the smells of everyday living. Others were used to scent the air. There’s nothing new in today’s pot pourri!

Herbs were also grown for medicinal purposes. Rosemary twined in your hair was thought to be an aid to better memory. Lemon balm, it was believed, given every morning, ‘will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature’. If only it was that easy!

At a gap in the border there is a low gate in the garden wall. Behind it, patterns have been created in the grassed area with low box hedging.

Continue along the path and the views stretch all the way to the towns of Hamilton and Motherwell with the distant hills of Ben Lomond and Drumgoyne beyond.

From the lawn area at the back door it’s a steep drop down to a much lower green sward. This different level is the result of quarrying in the past. In fine weather the space is enjoyed by children playing and picnicking. What, I wonder, would the Hamilton aristocracy have made of all this fun and games? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the local populace were seen merely as a source of income while they dug out sand and mined the coal on the Duke’s estate.

The women in this collier population were serfs or slaves like their husbands, fathers or brothers and worked with them in the mines. ‘Muscular strength in a female, not beauty was the grand qualification by which she was estimated and a strong young woman was sure of finding a husband’. If the women attempted to escape, they were liable to be seized and brought back to servitude.

However, in a letter written to the Duchess of Hamilton dated January 2nd 1851, the Duke’s factor, Robert Brown, who must have been more enlightened, described how an Act of Parliament passed on 13th June 1799 changed a way of life. In his letter he was attempting to persuade the Duchess to finance the education of these young women. Education, he pointed out, would be their saving. Their refinement would benefit the whole country and prosperity would follow.

Off to one corner at the rear of Chatelherault stands a small, square red sandstone building. Over the years it has served many purposes. Most times it was just a posh garden shed but along the way it became known as the Leopard House where the Palace leopard was kept. On other occasions it housed the 6th Duke’s polar bears! Other animals known to have used the facility included a monkey, wolf, eagle, peacock and peahen.

Before completing your walk of the square and returning to the front door of Chatelherault, look out for a small herd of Cadzow cattle. They may be seen grazing amongst the sheep in the distance. The estate is one of only a few places in the country where this rare breed with white coats and long, black - tipped horns are kept. They are possibly the descendants of wild cattle that roamed the ancient Caledonian Forest which once covered large areas of Scotland.

Wild white cattle were the sacrificial beasts of the Celtic Druids and the Romans. When the Romans left Britain, large numbers of these beasts were turned loose to roam the forests. Tradition has it that King Robert the Bruce hunted wild bulls around here in 1320 as did James 1V of Scotland two centuries later.

But never fear! As you wander the woodland paths, keep in mind that the cattle of old were rounded up and driven into parks more than three hundred years ago during the time of the enclosure of the great estates. Wild things to look out for now include bluebells, butterflies and birdlife. Stroll out to the Duke’s Bridge and you may spot, far below, a grey heron standing stock still studying the slow flow of the Avon Water.

This twisting path runs past the remains of Cadzow Castle and further on, the venerable Cadzow Oaks. Some of these trees are thought to be up to nine hundred year old remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Although they are hollow they still support a vast amount of insects and other wild life.

Chatelherault Visitor Centre has a wealth of information in the display area covering the natural history of the Clyde Valley and work that took place here on the estate.

In the banqueting room and Duke’s room you’ll have to crane your neck to appreciate the marvellously restored plaster work on the ceilings and walls.

Now try and imagine what life was like here for the bright young aristocrats who charged on horseback through the Chatelherault woods by day and danced at parties in these rooms by night. A dog’s life in the dog kennels? Not a chance

Further information: The visitor centre has a shop and a café/restaurant and information on the various woodland walks. At the entrance to the Country Park there is a play area for children.

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Durisdeer

2016-10-18 09:32:12

Each time I visit Durisdeer, the pretty hamlet makes me think of a mythical Brigadoon.

The approach road is narrow. Only occasional, well-spaced passing places allow for two cars meeting, or a tractor and a car, before easing past each other.

You’re nearly there before you actually see the substantial church. It appears to be watching over its surrounding huddle of a few houses.

In front, in the middle of what may have been a small village green in bygone days, stands a war memorial. The slab of granite has a carved outline of a soldier. Inscribed on the commemorative plaque is a list of war dead, local surnames. Why so many, you might wonder? You may also ponder on the size of the church. Was there ever enough of a congregation to justify this considerable building?

Part of the answer lies a short distance away. Two minutes will take you out of Durisdeer, through a gate and onto a rough path. Go just a few steps along the path then a little way up Durisdeer Rig - the big hill on your right.

Looking back, most of Durisdeer is already hidden behind trees. Far ahead, you’ll see the path cut into the slope of the hillside.

For much of the way, this path is bordered on the low side by a head - high, dry stane dyke. The quarrying, carting, lifting and careful placing of each differently shaped lump of rock must have been physically demanding. Constructing this wall would have been the work of a very large squad of men. Could it be that at the end of a long working week, Durisdeer Church being nearby could then take care of the workers’ spiritual needs?

From late summer ‘til late autumn this heathery hillside is clothed in deepest purple. When the blossom fades and eventually dies back the bees are left with little to eat. That’s when they become a little tetchy. As a beekeeper I met on the hill explained, while warning me not to get too close, his bees will need feeding in their hives through late autumn and winter. He’ll keep this regime going except when the weather turns really cold. If that happens, the bees will bunch together in an attempt to keep warm and hibernate.

From where we’ve stopped on Durisdeer Rig we can look across the path, over the dyke and the valley below, to the range of hills opposite.

Durisdeer now lies to our left at the foot of Castlehill. As the name suggests, there was a castle here at one time. Though no trace of it now remains, its early existence may have been the reason why the aristocratic residents had such an impressive church built nearby.

Seemingly, little consideration was given to the rest of the faithful of this widespread rural parish who could only get to the church with some difficulty.

Back on the path, we’ll go a short way before crossing the wall by climbing a wooden stile.

Our track now leads us along the valley bottom. It rises gently to a grassy hillock. There’s not a lot to see here, apart from some dips and bumps, but these outlines are what remain of a Roman Fortlet.

The garrison would have been protected by a wooden palisade. Since the immediate surrounding land falls away steeply, this would have been an easy position to defend - even from attack from the hills on either side.

These same hill tops also offered the Romans suitable sites for their flaming beacons. Their signals could then be seen at other distant encampments

After all this stravaiging, let’s get back on the path. We could keep heading north - west, further into the Southern Uplands, along what was the old Roman Road. But for now, let’s head back down for a wander round Durisdeer churchyard.

Many of the stones are weathered and moss covered. The oldest discernible is 1540 but doubtless some are of even more ancient date.

In a room behind the church, a tomb contains the remains of James and Mary, Duke and Duchess of Queensbury and Dover. The tomb lies beneath their two highly ornate effigies. Commonly known as the ‘Durisdeer marbles’, they are still brilliant white. It is believed they were the work of an Italian artist named Roubilliac, one of the most distinguished sculptors of the time.

Unfortunately, he never saw his works in place. According to an old legend, he was thrown overboard and drowned while sailing from Italy to deliver the goods. The work was never paid for!

Now here’s a real treat. For a few years now, throughout the summer months, the ladies of the parish have been offering Sunday afternoon teas (until the end of September) in a room of the church building. Part of the proceeds goes towards the running costs of the church and a local youth club. The remainder goes to charity. What’s more - you don’t have to scramble to the top of any of the hills behind Durisdeer before enjoying this splendid home baking.

Further Information: Durisdeer nestles in the Lowther Hills in Dumfries and Galloway about 1 mile off the A702 - 11 miles south of Elvanfoot and 3 miles north of Carronbridge on the A76.

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