Monday, 28 April 2014

Mountquhanie Castle

Mountquhanie Castle is a ruined 16th century tower house north-west of Cupar in Fife. Mountquhanie was held by the Balfours from 1459 until c.1600. One member of the family Sir Michael Balfour, a favourite of King James IV was killed with his monarch at Flodden. Others were involved in the murders of Caridnal Beaton and Henry Lord Darnley.

In c.1600 Mountanquie was sold to the Lumsdens of Innergellie. Major-General Robert Lumsden, a veteran of the Gustave Adolphus wars fought against Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, and was governor of Dundee in 1651. He surrendered to a Roundhead army led by General Monck, but was murdered by the English troops and the town was sacked and looted, and many of the inhabitants were slaughtered.

 Mountanquie was sold to the Crawfords in 1676. They replaced the castle by Mountanquie House, which stands nearby and dates from 1820. One wing of Mountanquie Castle remains inhabited.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Balcarres Folly

After 21 years in India, the  Hon. Robert Lindsay returned to Scotland and spent part of the fortune he had amassed there by buying the family estate of Balcarres from his elder brother, the Earl of Lindsay and by building an eyecatcher on Balcarres Craig.

He built his archetypal Gothic folly sometime between 1790 and 1820 .He created the perfect sham castle with a ruined arch and walls, built in the local dark stone with the crenelations, windows and doors highlighted in white. There is a flagpole, arrowslits, pointed arches, and a round window. The Craig above Balcarres House is where the Conventicles had held their meetings to be closer to God, in the 17th century.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Amisfield Mains

Amisfield House near Haddington in East Lothian was the first orthodox Palladian house to be built in Scotland and it was demolished in 1928. However the Amisfield Mains ('mains' derives from demesne, and is the Scottish term for a home farm) survives.

The farm has pyramidal gables with exaggerated castellations and pointed arches designed to catch the eye from the policies of the house. In all probability this is the 'Castle' that Robert Mylne recorded in his diary of 1766 as being built for the Earl of Weymss. (It is therefore contemporary with Mylne's tower for Thomas Farr at Blaise Castle near  Bristol.

Amisfield Mains is still owned by the Earl of Weymss and March and now forms part of the Gosford Estate.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is the most famous ancient city in Southern Africa. The ruins are located 150 miles from Harare on a high plateau in the south-east of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was once the capital of a powerful kingdom whose hinterland reached across a vast area of the sub-continent. The city was built by ancestors of the Shona people beginning in the 12th century and continuing until the mid 15th century.The ruling elite who lived there appear to have controlled their society through trading gold and the ownership of cattle, which formed the main diet at Great Zimbabwe. Archaeological excavations have unearthed glass beads and porcelain from Persia and China, and gold and Arab coins from Kilwa off  the coast of East Africa; finds that testify to the city's place as an important centre in a global trading network.The ruins of Great Zimbabwe fall into three distinct parts, known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure and together they cover a bucolic site of eighty hectares. 

Great Zimbabwe's most spectacular feature and its most enduring remains are its exquisite stone walls. These dry stone walls were constructed from blocks of granite gathered from the exposed rock of the surrounding kopies. This rock naturally exfoliates into even slabs which can be broken easily into a size convenient for transport and construction. Great Zimbabwe's walls are beautifully constructed, without the use of mortar, each layer slightly narrower than the last to provide great stability. Over time the wall builder's craftsmanship reached new heights with fantastic sinuous curves and bold chevron and chequered wall decorations. 

The Great Enclosure is a huge elliptical structure that  comprising an inner wall enclosed a series of smaller domestic structures that were made from daga bricks and thatch, the whole surrounded by a more recent outer wall. Inside is a  Conical Tower 5.5 metres in diameter and 9.1 meters high built between the two high walls. Archaeology has revealed that the Great Enclosure was occupied from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The spectacular walls of the Great Enclosure were conceived as a powerful symbol of royal power. The Great Enclosure is believed to have been a royal residence, the walls concealing the royal family and symbolizing their power and prestige.

The Hill Ruins are the oldest part of the complex at Great Zimbabwe and were occupied from the 9th to the 15th centuries. They surround and incorporate massive granite boulders with granite walled enclosures of varying size connected by narrow partly covered passages.The West Enclosure is thought to have been a royal residence.While the Eastern Enclosure on which the carvings of the Zimbabwe Birds once stood is believed to have served a ritual purpose.There is a high balcony that overlooks the Eastern Enclosure and a massive granite boulder that in shape resembles a Zimbabwe Bird.

The Valley Ruins scattered across the valley  date mainly from the 19th century.

Great Zimbabwe was  abandoned around 1450 not as a result of violence or invasion but because the surrounding country could no longer support the population with food and deforestation meant that there was no supply of firewood. Political ascendancy then passed to the city of Khami near Bulawayo. There are more than 300 similar complexes in Zimbabwe but none of them ever reached the scale or the grandeur of Great Zimbabwe.

No one who have ever seen the ruins of Great Zimbabwe can fail to be impressed with their magnificence. When Cecil John Rhodes saw them he saw  an indication of the riches that would await the colonial conquerors. The settler regime of Rhodesia disputed that the ruins were built by African people suggesting foreign builders were responsible and censored archaeologists who dared to dispute their racist theory.

To Zimbabwean nationalists the ancient city was a symbol of the great cultural achievement of black Africans.When Zimbabwe became an independent nation in 1980 the new country was named for the site and its famous soapstone birds became the national symbol with a place on the new flag. The Shona word Zimbabwe means the house in stone.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni

The Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni in Malta, is without hyperbole, one of the most extraordinary  archaeological sites on Earth, and it is unique.Excavated from the living rock the temple descends into three successive levels deep under the ground and comprises four sets of caverns and galleries. The large number of flint and stone flakes and implements that were discovered discovered, but no metal objects, indicates that it dates from the late Neolithic era,  (3000-2500 BC).

The Hypogeum was 'discovered' in 1902 when builders broke in during the course of excavating cisterns for new houses. There had been a Neolithic temple on the surface but this had been cleared away to build the new houses. The Hypogeum was found full of rubbish and the lower levels were under water.The original entrance was by a slope in Hal Saflieni Street. The modern entrance is by a staircase that leads to the middle level of the complex.

The Hypogeum was most likely excavated as a place of worship as  its architectural features so closely resemble those of the temples above ground.  Over time niches and rooms were excavated close to the shrine for the storage of votive offerings.  Later it seems that people wished to deposit the remains of their dead in sacred ground close to the shrine.

Main chamber

Perhaps these temple builders believed that their entry into the earth for religious rites symbolized a temporary return to the womb of mother Earth,  from which all life derived, and to which all life was destined to return, at the end of life.

Ceiling painted with red ochre designs.

Red ochre spirals

As a result of the moisture deposited by visitors breath, the painted walls began to deteriorate rapidly. The site was closed for four years between 1992 and 1996. Now visitors number are limited to sixty per day.

When  these photographs were taken in 1990, the lights were switched off for fifteen minutes, every fifteen minutes. I waited in the dark, on my own,.........  (with a torch).........and can testify that the Hypogeum is the most atmospheric Neolithic temples in Malta. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Jupiter Artland, "The Light Pours Out Of Me"

An underground chamber of amethyst surrounded by obsidian in its natural state,

protected by gold barbed wire.

Jupiter Artland, "Stone House - Bonnington"

Stone house made from locally quarried stone by Andy Goldsworthy.

"Houses are usually places of security, shelter and comfort. There is something unnerving about entering a building in which nature is the occupant."

Monday, 14 April 2014

Hagar Qim

The extraordinary temple of Hagar Qim ( pronounced Hajar Eem) stands on a rocky plateau about a kilometer above the temple of Mnajdra on the west coast of Malta. Both temples date from the Tarxein phase (c 3600-3200 BC) which constitutes the high point of temple building on the islands. Together these temples form one of the most spectacular sacrilized landscapes in Malta and are among the oldest known religious sites on Earth.

The name Hagar Qim means standing stones; before the site was excavated at the beginning of the 19th century, all that was visible was a large mound of earth from which large stones were protruding.

The facade of the temple at Hagar Qim is an extraordinary sight, for the gigantic size of the blocks of stone and for the skill with which it was constructed, but also for the elegance of the design.

The facade of Hagar Qim.

The main entrance to Hagar Qim in the centre of the south east facade is made of two characteristically large slabs on end facing each other. Originally the passage was covered with horizontally placed slabs. The entrance leads to six large oval chambers. The north western apse shows evidence that the building was adapted over time when it was subdivided into four smaller and independent chambers. A separate entrance leads to these rooms.

Chamber with a cylindrical pillar.

Features of the temple architecture at Hagar Qim indicate the builders concern with suitable accommodation or the sacrifice of animals, burnt offerings and ritual oracles. Niches have been found to contain the remains of animals. Excavations have produced numerous examples of decorated pottery and the famous 'fat-figure' statuettes of deities of which seven have been found at Hagar Qim as well as the more naturalistic nude figurine the so-called 'Venus of Malta'. Unique to Hagar Qim is the four sided altar with stylized vegetation decorating each face. These fabulous objects are on display in  the National museum  in Valletta.

Entrance to the north western chambers

Shrine inserted into the outer  wall.
In the centre a tall stone stands behind a triangular stone said to represent female genitalia.

Two mushroom or phallic shaped altars

The facade

Friday, 4 April 2014

Traquair House

Traquair House near Peebles in the Borders is one of the most romantic and atmospheric houses in Scotland. At the end of a long avenue of trees, Traquair with its high walls, steep roof and small turrets is almost French in its appearance. This is of course, no coincidence. Scotland and France were close allies during the 16th century. Mary Queen of Scots who had close connections with Traquair had a French mother and was for a time Queen of France as well as of Scotland. Even in the 18th century the Earls of Traquair sent their daughters to be educated in Paris. This is because they were Catholics and Jacobites, and Catholic schools were illegal in Scotland (and England).

The Catholic Faith and the Jacobite cause are integral to the history of Traquair. For two hundred years the family suffered for their loyalty to a forbidden dynasty and religion, they belonged to a persecuted minority w excluded from public office and were subject to high taxes. As a result there was never much money to carry out 'improvements'. So unlike at many great houses there was no major rebuilding, only incremental alterations and additions of a new room here or there.  Traquair subsided into a peaceful backwater and developed the atmosphere of mystery that is one of its best loved characteristics today.

The oldest parts of the house date back to the 12th century tower that belonged to the kings of Scotland. In the 15th century James III gave the house to his master of music, William Rogers. In 1478 Rogers was 'obliged' to sell  it, for a knock down price, to the king's uncle, the Earl of Buchan who gave it to his son, James Stuart. The present Maxwell Stuarts of Traquair descend from him.

The Stuarts of Traquair were loyal servants to their royal kinsmen, in good times and bad. James Stuart the first laird was killed alongside his king at Flodden Field. The fourth laird, John Stuart was knighted by Mary Queen of Scots who appointed him captain of her guard. In 1565 after the murder of David Rizzio he organised her midnight escape to Dunbar. In 1566 she and her husband Lord Darnley visited him and stayed at Traquair with their infant son during a hunting expedition. In the hall hangs an oak armorial commemorating the visit.

The Queen stayed in the King's Room. The bed was brought from Terregles House, home of the Maxwell family where it was used by Mary. The hand- stitched silk quilt is said to have been worked by her and her 'Four Maries' (ladies-in-waiting).

At the foot of the bed is the cradle used by her baby son, later King James VI, and James I of England.

The best-known and most controversial owner of Traquair was John Stuart, the seventh laird and first Earl of Traquair. Charles I had created him an earl in 1633 and in 1636 Lord High Treasurer of Scotland and virtual ruler of the country. He was however brought down by opposition to the king's religious policy and the Civil War that followed it and was dismissed as  Treasurer in 1641 and kept prisoner in England from 1648 until 1652. He died in poverty in 1659.

The earl had been a Protestant. His son married two Catholic wives in succession and the family have been Catholics ever since. This development was to bring great difficulties to Traquair. To say or hear Mass was illegal. So att Traquair it was celebrated in a small room at the top of the house, until in the more tolerant 19th century a chapel was made in one of the wings. The top room had a view of approach roads, and the house was searched frequently, and if the unexpected visitors were seen coming the priest could escape down a secret staircase concealed behind a cupboard in the corner of the room.

In 1688 when the 'Glorious Revolution' which brought William III to the throne had raised religious intolerance, a Protestant mob came out from Peebles and ran amok through the house destroying religious artifacts. From this time on the family were on the wrong side of another division, as Catholics and Jacobites. Their predicament is demonstrated by an engraved glass at Traquair:

                                                      God bless the Prince of Wales
                                                      The true-born Prince of Wales
                                                      Sent us by thee
                                                      Send him soon over
                                                      And kick out Hanover
                                                      And soon we'll recover
                                                      Our old libertie.

Traquair became one of the main Jacobite strongholds in the south of Scotland. At the time of the 1715 Rising the 4th Earl was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle as a Jacobite sympathizer. The 5th Earl spent two years in the Tower of London for his part in the '45, accompanied by his devoted wife who refused to be parted from him. One of the most famous legends associated with Traquair is that he entertained Bonny Prince Charlie there and closed the gates at the end of the avenue behind him and vowed that they would never be opened again until a Stuart king was crowned again in London. (See post: Traquair, The Bear Gates. Tuesday 20 August 20

Throughout these trials and troubles the earls continued to alter and add to Traquair. At the end of the 17th century the architect James Smith produced plans for rebuilding the entrance front. but a lack of money caused them to be shelved. None the less the fourth earl gave the house much of its present appearance by planting the avenue and adding the two wings and wrought iron railings to create  the forecourt.

 On the other side of the house he built a terrace ending in two small pavilions.Inside the house the 4th Earl panelled the principal rooms, including the 'high drawing-room' with the ant-room and the king's bedchamber beyond it. The high drawing room is so-called because it is on the first floor.

Following his two years in prison the 5th Earl made embellishments to his house. He engaged an unidentified artist to paint panels over the doors and fireplaces. in the high drawing room  ships in harbour are framed by pretty rococo scrolls painted in gold, with gilded trophies of fruit and arms over the doorways.

Some of the best work of this period is in the library on the second floor. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books. The cove that runs around the room is painted with the heads of classical writers and philosophers. In addition to being decorative these serve as a reference system and the books remain in their original positions.

The Still room has two shelves of painted books partly concealed by a painted curtain. In the 18th century it was known as the garden parlour. In the 19th century it became the housekeeper's room.

On the top floor of the house is the museum room above the high drawing room. Remains of 16th century wall painting were uncovered here in 1900 under the wallpaper. Here there are hounds chasing deer and wild boar through lushly intertwining foliage. They are reminders that in those days the hills and forests that still encircle Traquair were alive with game, including bears and wolves and wild boar which have long since been extinct in Scotland.

The whole house is rich in history and in the relics and mementoes of history.The Earl of Montrose banged on the front door of Traquair when he sought shelter after his defeat at the battle of Philiphaugh in 1645. The Earl of Traquair pretended he was not at home and was accused by Montrose of treachery. The Earl sought to preserve his own interests and the safety of his house from the vengeance of the Covenanting General Leslie who was in hot pursuit. The same door still hangs on its hinges with the knocker that Montrose hammered.

Traquair House is often said to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. Today it is lived in by Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Lady of Traquair and her family. 

No one interested in Scotland's past and in beautiful things should miss a visit this unique and compelling treasure house. But if more incentive is needed then the shop selling  home brewed Traquair Ale and  jams and preserves should provide it.