Sunday, October 31, 2010

Craigievar Castle

Craigievar Castle is a pinkish harled castle six miles (10 km) south of Alford, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It was the seat of Clan Sempill. The setting is among scenic rolling foothills of the Grampian Mountains. The contrast of its massive lower story structure to the finely sculpted multiple turrets, gargoyles and high corbelling work create a classic fairytale appearance.

  The great seven-storey castle was completed in 1626 by the Aberdonian merchant William Forbes, ancestor to the "Forbes-Sempill family" and brother of the Bishop of Aberdeen. Forbes purchased the partially completed structure from the impoverished Mortimer family in the year 1610. Forbes' nickname was Danzig Willy, a reference to his shrewd international trading success. The Forbes family resided here for 350 years until 1963, when the property was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland.

This building could be metaphorically compared to a Marine in dress uniform, as it is totally ill-equipped for battle, though it certainly does look polished and regimental.  The pink harl was overhauled recently and the color is closer to the original than the previously ill-fitting coat, done in the 1970s.  I don't know exactly how the historians were able to determine the exact shape of pink, though it is reminiscent of the coral colored harl that is prevalent in Bermuda.  For some reason, I think that Forbes' fantastical vision may have been better suited for a tropical island than the foothills of Scotland.  Nonetheless, am sure that the women and children loved it, even if the local clansmen thought of him as a bit queer.

Falkland Palace

The Scottish Crown acquired Falkland Castle from MacDuff of Fife in the 14th century. Between 1501 and 1541 Kings James IV and James V of Scotland transformed the old castle into a beautiful royal palace: one of the finest Renaissance palaces in Scotland. The story of King James V is defined by his bethrothal and to 2 Frenchwomen whose fortunes were needed to reinforce his fragile reign over the kingdom.  In order to past muster with the French court, James employed a French master-mason, Moses Martin, and his French masons to construct a palace in the styles of the French court.  The palace was laid out on a square plan around a central courtyard.  The main street frontage (shown above) has a serious Late Gothic facade in contrast to a resplendent courtyard, hidden from the native townspeople who certainly would have held the entire structure in contempt.   

Falkland became a popular retreat with all the Stewart monarchs. They practised falconry there and used the vast surrounding forests for hawking and for hunting deer. Wild boar, imported from France, were kept in the Park, within a fence made by the Laird of Fernie.
After the Union of the Crowns, James VI and I, Charles I, and Charles II all visited Falkland. Cromwell's invading army set the palace on fire and it quickly fell into ruin. In 1887 John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute started the restoration of the palace.  The only element of the building that has remained unchanged is the chapel.  I found the chapel painting to be intriguing as it featured passages of scripture reinforcing the concept of divine right, a doctrine facing an uphill battle in Britain that would end in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 with the establishment of a constitional monarchy.  There must have been some doubt in the mind of James about his own credibility to the Scottish people and perhaps he needed the help of God to reinforce his sense of purpose in courting the French.  Although photography was prohibited, I managed to sneak in one photo of the tapestry gallery which was stunning. 
The history of the royals is far to vast of a subject to undertake here, but suffice it to say that Falkland Palace remains a distinctly French building in a Scottish landscape, a landscape that unquestionably dominates the temporal pretentions of kings with its lasting character.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dalmeny Church

The name Dalmeny is of Scottish Gaelic origin, being now Dail Mheinnidh or Dail M'Eithne in the modern language. This may refer to an ancient ecclesiastical settlement, dedicated to an obscure (female) saint Eithne; the local parish church may have been dedicated to her, but is now dedicated to St Cuthbert. It is at least a thousand years old.

The present church building is recognised as the finest Norman/Romanesque parish church still in use in Scotland, and one of the most complete in the United Kingdom, lacking only its original western tower (rebuilt in a sympathetic style in 1937). The aisleless nave, choir and apse survive almost complete from the 12th century.
Outside the elaborate south doorway, including the signs of the zodiac and an "agnus dei", enlivened with blind arcading above, is a rare 12th century sarcophagus carved with 13 doll-like figures (possibly Christ and the 12 apostles) in niches (now very weathered).
Most early Scottish churches were destroyed either wilfully during the Reformation; or by "improvements" made following the Reformation to accommodate the very different physical needs of Presbyterian worship; or by alterations made, or rebuilding undertaken, to increase the size of churches as parish populations grew in later centuries.  The survival of this church is understood to be a result of its proximity to a nearby area of population growth, South Queensbury.  This area became its own parish in 1636 and was appropriated the improvement income from St. Cuthbert's for its own purposes, leaving St. Cuthbert's in relative obscurity.

Dalmeny is a suburban village in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is located on the south side of the Firth of Forth, 1 mile (1.6 km) east-southeast of South Queensferry and 8.3. miles (13.4 km) west-northwest of central Edinburgh; it falls under the local governance of the City of Edinburgh Council.
One cannot visit Dalmeny without seeing the Forth Bridge.  The cantilever railway bridge was built between 1883 and 1890 and was first major structure in Britain to be constructed of steel. Large amounts of steel had become available only after the invention of the Bessemer process in 1855. Until 1877 the British Board of Trade had limited the use of steel in structural engineering because the process produced steel of unpredictable strength. Only the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process developed by 1875 yielded steel of consistent quality. The 64,800 tons of steel needed for the bridge was provided by two steel works in Scotland and one in Wales.  At 1.5 miles long, the Forth Bridge is the second longest cantilever bridge in the world.

Scottish Parliament Building

This building is one of the most difficult structures to capture in photographs ever.  There are so many angles and aspects that it almost stands defiantly against unity.  This article, Scottish_Parliament_Building, discusses its storied and controversial construction in some depth.  It is described as a non-hierarchical, organic collection of low-lying buildings intended to allow views of, and blend in with, the surrounding rugged and symbolise the connection between nature and the Scottish people. As a consequence the building has many features connected to nature and land, such as the leaf shaped motifs of the roof in the Garden Lobby of the building, and the large windows of the debating chamber, committee rooms and the Tower Buildings which face the broad expanse of Holyrood Park, Arthur's Seat and the Salisbury Crags.

I happened to be visiting during some sort of gathering of politicos, many of whom I suspect were MPs. If there is one generalization that can be made about the Scottish, is that they are very hard to define.  Fiercely independent and individualistic throughout their history, it is almost paradoxical to consider a diplomatic forum filled with such a group.  So, it is not surprising that developing a consensus on a project meant to symbolise the people would be frought with conflict, and even casualties, including the architect and its leading political proponent.  I found the interior to be impossibly complex structurally and hard to grasp visually, leading to my final opinion that it is more or less a gigantic cluster f..k. 
The chamber was impressive, but I wouldn't call it beautiful aesthetically.  In reading about the construction, many top contractors were turned off by the project even though it was design/build.  Relentless pressure from all sides you can be sure made managing this job a living hell.  Technically superior, yes.  Aesthetically superior, no. 
You can't not be impressed by it, nonetheless.  For 430 million pounds, it damn well better be impressive if nothing else.

The Edinburgh Balmoral

As I arrived in Edinburgh on the train in Waverly station at nearly 11:00 pm without a lodging for the evening, I felt a bit desperate.  Edinburgh has so many hotels that I didn't want to commit to anything until I had read reviews and compared locations on the internet.  This plan backfired when in Inverness I realized that I had to catch the 6:45 train or be stuck in Inverness for the night.  So, there I am in Waverly searching for lodging at 11:00 pm and not finding any place that would accept booking at such a late time.  I have been reluctant to stay at 5 star hotels throughout my journey, but the North British hotel was too convenient to pass on.  Just steps away from Waverly at 170 pounds a night and most importantly, they allowed late check in.  The formerly named North British Hotel History has a storied past that documents its notoriety and unequivocal snobbery.  My room was OK, but typical of these types of high end establishments, absolutely without charm and devoid of any real style. 

I stayed on the fifth floor and had a castle view.  I must have been in the Sean Connery suite, because the bathroom was illuminated by these two photographs of him which was kind of cool (even though James Bond is definitely not a Scot though Sean Connery is...).
The bathroom was clad in marble and had a very powerful shower and had mirrors everywhere, and could be considered the best feature of the room.  The staff practicallly bent over backwards to handle my luggage, which I thought to be a bit ridiculous.  Snob appeal and convenience are the two things that this establishment has going for it, and for wealthy patrons, that may be sufficient.

Architecturally, it is considered to be a monstrosity, an opinion that I tend to agree with.  It is worth noting, however, for its lasting place in the center of Edinburgh and for the brief experience I had with it on my pilgrimage.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness form an impressive Neolithic monument on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland. Various traditions associated with the stones survived into the modern era and they form part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. I took this photo during a full moonlit night and I couldn't help but think about the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey as Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" was pounding in my head.  It was awesome to imagine a tribe of neolithic people gathering here some 5000 thousand years ago and planning such an extraordinary and magnificent structure.  What is the most incredible aspect is that these stones are nearly plumb, truly a testament to the skill and ingenuity of "primitive" man.
The stones are thin slabs, approximately 300 mm (1 ft) thick. Four, up to about 5 m (16 ft) high, were originally elements of a stone circle of 12 stones, laid out in an ellipse about 32 m (104 ft) diameter on a levelled platform of 44 m (144 ft) diameter surrounded by a ditch. The ditch is cut into rock by as much as 2 m (7 ft) depth and is 7 m (23 ft) wide, surrounded by an earth bank, with a single entrance causeway on the north side. The entrance faces towards the Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement which has been found adjacent to the Loch of Harray. The Watch Stone stands outside the circle to the north-west and is 5.6 m (18 ft) high. Other smaller stones include a square stone setting in the centre of the circle platform where cremated bone, charcoal and pottery were found, and animal bones were found in the ditch. The pottery links the monument to Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and the site is thought to date from at least 3000 BC.  This is the oldest structure of its kind in the world. 
The Orkney Museum has a great collection of artifacts as well.  There are many unanswered questions about the history of these people that leave much to speculation.  Without empirical evidence, historians can only guess at how they were able to trade ideas and resources across vast distances and oceans.  One thing that is without question, these people were extraordinarily intelligent, adaptive and creative.

While in Orkney, I vsited many of the historic sites on the island, including Maehowe, Skara Brae, the Brough of Birsay and the Broch of Gurness. The Brough of Birsay is a small (21 hectare) uninhabited tidal island off the north west coast of The Mainland of Orkney, Scotland, in the parish of Birsay.
The island is accessible on foot at low tide via this walkway.
It is separated from the mainland by a 240 metre stretch of water at high tide: the Sound of Birsay.  Strangely enough, this island was first thought to have been inhabited around the 5th centtury AD which coincides with the founding of the monastery on Skellig Michael, another remote island 600 miles SW.  Defensively, this site has obvious advantages as it is only accessible for 4 hours every tidal cycle. 

Orkney has a lot to offer and was absolutely worth the visit.  I had the privilege of attending a ghost storytelling at Skaill House that provided a rich cultural experience.  There is nothing like listening to an Orkadian or a Shetlander tell a yarn.  The saga is in fact an oral tradition and one only has to try to follow the intricate plot, colorful imagery, and pagan symbolism to appreciate how complex these stories can be.  It was a great night and an amazing journey "off the beaten path".


Italian Chapel

The Italian Chapel is a highly ornate Catholic chapel on Lamb Holm in Orkney, Scotland. It was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II, who were housed on the previously uninhabited island while they constructed the Churchill Barriers to the east of Scapa Flow. Only the concrete foundations of the other buildings of the prisoner-of-war camp survive. It was not completed until after the end of the war, and was restored in the 1960s and again in the 1990s. It is now a popular tourist attraction, and a category A listed building.  When I visited this site, the sky was overcast and there was an overwhelming bleakness to the landscape that must have made this place rather unpleasant as a prison camp.  The building is evocative and clearly represents the power of artistic expression to overcome day to day hardship. 
The craftsmanship is exemplary, and the wrought iron work is outstanding.  To make such beauty with little or no money and without any material compensation is what impressed me the most.  These men labored in tribute to God and were rewarded with strength of spirit, essential to survival in such conditions.  

The chapel was constructed from limited materials by the prisoners. Two Nissen huts were joined end-to-end. The corrugated interior was then covered with plasterboard and the altar and altar rail were constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, a POW from Moena.  He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel and fellow-prisoners decorated the entire interior.
They created a front facade out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut and making the building look like a church.  Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish the chapel, even when his fellow prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war. 

Chiocchetti is remembered as having a composed serenity and his legacy is one of lasting political reconciliation and the peace that can be found from within.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Castle Kinloch

October 16
Kinloch Castle (Scottish Gaelic: Caisteal Cheann Locha), located in the Isle of Rum, Scotland, was built as a private residence for Sir George Bullough, a textile tycoon from Lancashire whose father bought the Isle as his summer residence. Construction began in 1897, and was finished in 1900.

The castle features an interior filled with an assortment of gadgets, trophies and art that only a man of substantial means could afford.
This building is really just a magnificent hunting lodge and a self-serving monument of excess and a showpiece of ego. I spent 5 days in the hostel, located in the rear of the building, rather by coincidence.  The ferry system from the islands to the mainland is by no means guaranteed, and travellers should be expected to accommodate their schedules to both the fickle weather and ferry operator's changing schedule as needed.  Needless to say, the experience was one of a kind. 
Whether walking the remote island roads, speaking to the residents of the island, viewing the wildlife, or eating the delicious meals prepared by Rachel, Rum left a lasting impression on me.  There is definitely a romantic aura here where strong spirits thrive and the chaos of urbanity seems a million miles away.

An Turas

October 12
This link has a good article describing this unusual and highly acclaimed structure.

My first impression of An Turas was of disappointment, as I had expected something a bit more distinguished and conspicuous.  It is hardly functional as a shelter as it is quite far from the pier and disembarkation point to the ferry, and it is so inconspicuous as that most passengers do not even notice it.  I explored An Turas briefly and it did not leave me with any of the eye popping sensations that have been lauded by the architectural community.  It simply reminded me of a cattle chute with a view.  This building, however, was the reason that I came to Tiree, and it is no surprise that the island has so much more to offer than I ever anticipated. 
Tiree is a fantastically austere and simple place with gorgeous beaches and beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  To understand An Turas, one has to experience Tiree, as the building does in fact reflect the island's overall aesthetic, which could be called subdued purity.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hill House

October 12
Hill House in Helensburgh, Scotland is one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's most famous works, probably second only to Glasgow School of Art. It was designed and built for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902 – 1904.

In addition to the house itself, Mackintosh also designed most of the interior rooms, furniture and other fixings. Mackintosh's attention to detail even extended to prescribing the colour of cut flowers that the Blackies might place on a table in the living room, so as not to clash with the rest of the decor.

In 1982 the house was donated to the National Trust for Scotland which continues to maintain it and manage visitors.  The works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh are held in high esteem by the Scots, so much so that a new book with his work is being introduced at the grade school level to expose school children to the beauty of his designs.

This is such a great house.  I absolutely love the design, particularly the asymmetrical layout and the fantastic gardens.  Like the Glasgow School of Art, the fenestration is integral to the whole design, and there are windows of all shapes and sizes in the facade. 

The austere exterior qualities of the building are nearly the opposite of the warm, exotic, carefully decorated and smooth interior, which unfortunately, I did not have time to see.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Glasgow School of Art

Built in 1909 and designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow School of Art is one of Glasgow's most distinctive buildings.  The fenestration is key to the whole design as the intent was to bring as much natural light into the studios as possible.  I found this "off limits to the regular visitor" corridor to be exemplary of this.  Wood framed skylights and single paned square frames are typical throughout.  It is difficult understand from the outside of a building how important natural light is to creating an atmosphere on the interior.  

The importance of glazing is never just the effect from looking into the building, but the effect that is achieved by looking out. These are some extremely large window openings for a building of this era and I wonder what the original glazing on the front looked like.  These windows are modern aluminum curtainwall replacements, but the side windows appear to be the original wood sashes. 

Beautiful old windows.  We sure don't make windows or buildings like this anymore. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

St. Vincent Street Church

Designed by Alexander Thomson (also known as "Greek" Thomson) and built in 1859 for the former United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, this is an odd building.  For one, there are very few neo-classical churches for the obvious reason that Roman and Greek architectural forms are almost always secular. 

Another unusual feature is the clock tower that is strangely ornate.  The whole building is in need of restoration to clean the masonry, but it is still clearly one of the strangest churches I have ever seen, including the painted blue doors which I doubt are the intended color.  I have yet to explore the interior, which I understand is as eclectic as the exterior.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Crown

October 9
This pub, built in 1849, is the "jewel of Belfast".  I was given the complete history by one of the bartenders this morning before it opened and had a rare opportunity to take photos without an patrons.  Amazing details.  Much of the work was done by craftsman who moonlited from their day jobs for the Harland and Wolff ship builders, known for such great ships as the Titanic and the Brittanic.  It still has operational gas lighting and a distinctive ambience which includes stall type privacy seating where privileged patrons could cavort without being noticed.  There are cast iron columns, ceramic tile work, hand painted glass, wood carving and inlays all of which make for a uniquely preserved eclectic atmosphere.  There was one mirror that had been damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993, that the historic trust had pieced back together and reinstalled.  The fact that this building has survived in its practically original state is remarkable and makes it truly special and one of a kind.  Each stall is designated with a letter and has a bell ringer when service is required. 

Certainly must have been something to be a patron back in the glory days of the late 19th century when manufacturing had brought great wealth to the city.  The original owners were apparently Catholics, but the wife had decided to name the bar "The Crown" to offer deference to Queen Victoria in particular.  The street in front of the bar is after all named "Great Victoria Street" and the royal cortege once proceeded down it.