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Archive for September 6th, 2017


George Bain, for his Book of Kells, Plate 14, and a mural: Highland games

Friends and readers,

One last briefer blog on my Road Scholar Tour in the Highlands area just around Aigas House. I’ve arranged my memories (from notes on a stenographer’s pad) thematically, and so we have left scenic drives and walks. Non-human animals, ruins, a small museum, lunch in an apparently well-known pub liked by tourists (and it was the one place I was at where the food was pompous and absurd, and I could find very little edible so the less said the better). On Thursday night there was the splendid treat of Celtic folk music by three musicians who appear also to live at Aigas House, which prompts me to end on the house itself.


Western Coast, Isle of Skye … much that we saw looked like this from the bus ….

Thursday was the long drive day – to the Western coast and back; part of Friday we drove around the Black Isle, a peninsula. We used observation equipment to see birds (all sorts), bottlenose dolphins (sunning themselves on stones in the sea), deer — and everywhere sheep (including black face, rams) and goats. We sat by a lovely beach in a quiet cove. Some brave souls were actually trying to get into the water. There was what was farmed, what was grazed, where there are attempts to bring back the original plants, trees, and landscape. Attempts have been made to have a railroad going through some of this but there is just not enough traffic.

On the West Coast tour, we got as far as across the way to the Isle of Skye whose “song” serves as one of the thematic tunes for the opening paratexts of Outlander. I discover that I can no longer transfer YouTube music and videos to another site so you will have to be satisfied with these (said to be) original lyrics;

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the wind howls
loud the waves roar

Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes
stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

One of the most interesting drives was around a bay which served as a military installation during World War 2 — one can still see the re-fueling installations, places for submarines and planes to land. We stopped off at an exquisite museum, very small, a perfect place: Groam House Museum or Taigh-Tasgaidh Taigh Ghroam). Downstairs was relics of Pictish art, complete with stories of savage rites around some of it; upstairs the work of a local artist, George Bain (1881-1968), who is said to be recognized as an artist of “national significance.” He worked during World War One and there were drawings and paintings of the local area in that time, of his time in Bulgaria, and later work in a children’s art center; he is important for having studied, understood and and re-created central Celtic patterns and designs. Here is a picture by him of an ordinary day for someone driving through the area:

Bain, George; Highland Picnic; Groam House Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/highland-picnic-166734

Two ruins of note: an 18th century Priory in Beauly, in much better shape (destroyed by wars rather than time) 12th century Fortrose Abbey, Erchelss Motte (a museum of archaeological sites). The guide had much to tell about one of the Beauly Priory early abbots who amassed a great fortune for himself (not easy in the 15th century), robbed his nephew of what was due him, and left the first endowment for the present University of Edinburgh. Frontose Abbey, a later 17th century building was in much better shape; it was one fought over in the Civil War, Cromwell had meant to destroy it and didn’t but I find I did not take any photos. I did not get to Ercheless Motte: it was one of those places where a choice of place was given and I chose a walk by a lake (loch).


Beauly inside — we were shown where the prior is said to have made very comfortable quarters for himself; I kept asking about some stones dedicated to mid-20th century people but the guide would not answer (not in his remit?)

Blair Castle is notable because of its continuous existence as working place and political linhpin where a family connected to the most powerful in the UK lived, or some which was used by some institution got-up for the moment (it was a hospital during the two world wars) from before the time of Robert Bruce until today. The family members appear to have had no interest in art (mostly sportsmen and women having babies and social lives), but the family included Lord George Murray (he was deeply against fighting that day at Culloden) and a couple of other highly controversial (and sometimes executed) people; the place was burnt down more than once; it contains relics of its Balmorality period, of the empire the younger sons traveled to. The place is nowadays painted white (which seemed to me ludicrous somehow, it made the building unreal, like a piece of cake). This entrance hall shows typical sets of guns, fireplaces, mahogany.

I saw intelligent faces on the people, sportsmen and women alike, a interesting nursery recreated. A fascinating recreation of a ship during Nelson’s time — by one family member. In the shop, there was a slender biography on sale of a female member of the family who spent her life embrodering exquisitely; more interesting (but no biography) plaques and photos in the house showed a woman who was among the first women MPs and a fervent supporter of the labor party. Like Longleate, the place is today supported by the tourists (there are summer gardens with sculptures in them), by having on places for picnics, racing and shows of horses, working and tenant farms. There is a generosity of social spirit: local people come to walk with their dogs. The usual sheep and cows in the fields.


Not the band lodged at Aigas House, but instruments they are using are what was used, and they sat close together

Thursday night after dinner was great fun. We as a group were invited to get up and speak, sing a song, tell a story. I was the only one of the 16 to stand and read aloud some lines of poetry I thought in the spirit of place. I quoted some of it as the epitaph to my first blog. There are many beautiful pastoral passages in John Lister-Kaye’s books: “All deep thought leads to the spirit” is his; give the natural world a chance. Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.” “Reserves of strength” in the beauty of the earth and living things. A couple of the guides stood up and talked of how they felt about their work. The musicians then said they’d bring the “tone down a bit” and gave us some rollicking and melancholy songs. Bag-pipes much used. I remember tonight some of the most enjoyable passages from Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours are evenings of dance, song, and drink.

I haven’t got a text from that night to share so hope this poem by a 19th century Scottish woman poet will do: if it’s not jolly, it’s not as desperately sad as so many of the Gaelic songs’ lyrics originally were. It comes out of that tradition as a Scottish woman’s poem:

Who hath not treasured something of the past
The lost, the buried, or the far awav
Twined with those heart affections , which outlast
All save their memories? these outlive decay:
A broken relic of our childhood’s play,
A faded flower that long ago was fair
Mute token of a love that died untold.
Or silken curl, or lock of silv’ry hair,
The brows that bore them long since in the mould.
Though these may call up griefs that else had slept,
Their twilight sadness o’er the soul to bring.
Not every tear in bitterness is wept.
While they revive the drooping flowers that spring
Within the heart, and round its ruined altars cling.
— Isabella Craig-Knox (1831-1903)

I come back to the house. The next day I was told one of the musicians was blind (I hadn’t noticed) and he and the woman among them lived on the estate, she in the Lister-Kaye gatehouse lodge with her autistic son. The son was said to come to the great or central house frequently to talk to people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was this place, Aigas house and its surrounding lands. It upstairs and behind the scenes. Its show spots.


Dining room (aka Baronial Hall where most of us ate — also in the nearby small library)

It was like living in a version of Downton Abbey vastly updated and kept up for quite different reasons, but the connections were clear: one can see the Granthams becoming tour masters to keep their estate and income flowing in. All the people stay in cottages around the estate; the “staff” who come and go (including bus drivers and all sorts of people like tour-bus drivers) stay in the house in the turrets and other tucked-away places. I didn’t walk around the estate half-enough: it was cold and at night dark. I was told the remains of the iron-age fort were a few rocks.

It was easier to cuddle into bed, rest and relax in the bedroom in the cottage I was in with Winston Graham’s Poldark novel, The Angry Tide. My roommate had a copy of Outlander, which some evenings she read too, probably much more appropriate. I’ve listened to this fist of the novels read aloud very well by Davina Porter, and have now finished watching the second season of Outlander, the mini-series, and will probably listen to Dragonfly in Amber read aloud by Porter too.

What I mean to end on is the familiar comfortable intelligently done hospitality of Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye was crucial. When we left on another big bus, she and he (Sir John had both hands up and was waving away) and all the staff on hand at that moment came to the door, lined up and waved us goodbye. Just like in Downton Abbey.


Photograph in the house

Ellen

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