Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Tag

Islay, Jura, Kintyre, Arran and Dumfrieshire, Scotland: 22nd – 26th November 2017   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our visits to Rosslyn Chapel, Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside. From Speyside we continued on to the Kintyre Peninsula in south-west Scotland and arrived at the port of Tarbert late in the day.

 

Tarbert from our hotel room.

 

Early the next morning we sailed for Islay from Kennacraig on Loch Fyle on the western side of the peninsula . The loch almost divides the Kintyre in two, there being just two km of land between the head of the loch and Tarbert. It was raining and conditions were very gloomy, although quite still.

 

As we emerged from Loch Fyle and into the open sea we left the rain clouds behind,

 

There was still some cloud cover as we arrived at Islay with a sprinkling of snow on the hills.

 

As we drove north from our disembarkation point of Port Ellen we encountered ….

 

…. heavy showers ….

 

…. which resulted the most intense rainbows.

 

Quite a number of seabirds were seen, Great Northern Divers. Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders and this flock of Scaup.

 

Scaup, more correctly called Greater Scaup, were once a regular wintering bird in Dorset but now we seldom see any, so a flock of 50 just offshore was a real treat. The grey flanks and backs of the males and white crescent on the faces of the females were clearly visible.

 

Our main reason for going to Islay was to see geese and there were geese aplenty.  As many as 45,000 Barnacles winter on Islay and surrounding areas.

 

Most were Barnacle Geese, the population that winters on Islay has been shown to breed in Greenland whilst the population that winters on the Solway Firth breeds in Svalbard

 

Flocks of geese were seen in flight both against pastel blue skies ….

 

…. and against stormy ones.

 

Barnacles weren’t the only geese species present, many Greenland White-fronted Geese were seen too. Islay holds about 5,000 of the estimated 19,000 world population of this threatened taxon. The other main wintering sites are in Ireland.

 

Larger and longer-necked with an orange bill and more strongly marked belly, the threatened Greenland Whitefront is sometimes considered a different species from the (Russian) White-fronts that winter in England.

 

Greenland Whitefronts and Barnacle Geese. Generally Whitefronts are larger and stockier but the frontmost Barnacle in this picture seems to buck the trend.

 

Almost all Barnacles seen in the south of the UK are from feral stock so it was a delight to see these birds that have flown all the way from Greenland against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains.

 

Good as these geese were there was one species I particularly wanted to see – Cackling Goose. The RSPB information centre at Loch Gruinart was not manned but you were invited to phone the local office with enquiries. The warden I spoke to confirmed that there had been no sightings of Cackling Goose for a couple of weeks but then said he had some unopened emails in his inbox. A minute or so later he announced that a Cackling Goose had been seen yesterday at Loch Kinnabus in the far south of the island. We returned to Port Ellen and continued on minor roads to the loch. Highland Cattle were there to greet us ….

 

…. but so too were flocks of Barnacles and Greenland Whitefronts.

 

It took a bit of scanning through the somewhat distant flocks before the Cackling Goose was found. Photography was attempted but the bird only showed as a brown blur in the pics. I have included a photo from http://www.lloydspitalnikphotos.com taken in the USA. This photo is quite informative as it shows a Cackling (left) alongside a wild Canada Goose. For a long time the Canada Goose complex was a conundrum, the many subspecies covering the largest size range of any bird. Subsequently the four smallest Canadian/Alaskan tundra breeding races were split off as Cackling Goose. Of these four only the nominate race hutchinsii, the so-called Richardson’s Cackling Goose, is a potential vagrant to Europe, the others being short distant migrants from Alaska to the USA and Canadian west coasts. However it is likely that the last word in Canada Goose (senso lato) taxonomy has been written and they may be further splits or they could even be lumped back together again.

 

My experience with Cackling Goose has been checkered. One was seen by others when I was on Islay in 1984 with a large flock of Barnacles, but I failed to get onto it before it disappeared behind a rise, I saw one on Wrangel Island, Arctic Siberia with a flock of Snow Geese in 1996, undoubtedly an overshoot from Alaska, I saw two so-called Cackling Geese, one in Norfolk in 1999 and another in Suffolk in 2002 but further research showed they were wild Canadas of the smallest race parvipes which approaches Cackling in size, I have seen two undoubted Cackling Geese in the UK but one was clearly of captive origin and the other (seen above) may have been, I have also seen a small wild flock in Nebraska. Until this trip I hadn’t seen a definite Cackling that was definitely wild anywhere in the UK. The photo shows the Cackling Goose that I saw with feral Canadas in Somerset in 2012.

 

Further along the track to the loch was this large flock of Twite involving perhaps 100 birds.

 

Although these lovely relatives of Linnets and Redpoll are common in the Northern and Western Islands the population that used to breed on the moors of northern England seems to have declined and it is this population that used to winter on the east coast. As a result few are seen away from the Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland these days.

 

Twite are particularly rare in Dorset, but I was lucky to catch one in November 84 when I was ringing Pied Wagtails at roost. A small flock used to occur at Dibden in Hampshire but in recent years I have only seen them in Scotland.

 

We were now on the RSPB’s reserve on the Oa (pronounced ‘O’) so it made sense to drive down to the Mull of Oa and look for Choughs and Golden Eagles.

 

My plan was to walk around the headland to the American Memorial which commemorates a number of American servicemen who were killed here during the war.

 

From the coastal footpath the shoreline of Antrim in Northern Ireland could be seen in the distance.

 

From the cliffs you could also get good views of the south-west peninsula of Islay.

 

Unfortunately the plan to walk to the American Monument had to be abandoned for two reasons, the sky turned very black and it was clear that another downpour was on its way and I slipped and fell on the rain-soaked grass and landed on top of my camera bruising my ribs which are still painful over two weeks later.

 

I just got back to the car just as the heavens opened. A few Chough were seen briefly from the car park but no eagles.

 

The following morning we drove to Port Askaig on the north-west shore of Islay. Here you get a good view of the island of Jura. The two most prominent mountains are known as ‘the Paps of Jura’ for obvious reasons.

 

Once again the sunshine was short-lived and whilst we waited for the ferry to Jura the heavens opened ….

 

…. but at least we had the shelter of the car.

 

The ferry was very small and there was only room for two cars and this lorry.

 

We really hoped that he wouldn’t roll back when we docked. Note the layer of hail on the car.

 

Jura is about 50km long but it only has one road and only 150 inhabitants.

 

Red Deer were common along the roadside.

 

We soon reached the little town of Craighouse.

 

There was still a lot of Jura ahead of us but we still had somethings we wanted to see on Islay and we had to be back at Port Askaig at 2pm for the ferry to the mainland so we backtracked to the inter-island ferry at Feolin.

 

We had hoped to see White-tailed Eagle, which we did, but it was quite distant and the photos were poor. Here is one I photographed on Skye in 2012.

 

Our return to Islay was as dramatic as our departure with another hail storm …

 

…. but at least this time we had a nice hostelry opposite ….

 

…. where we could warm up with a nice cup of coffee.

 

So it was farewell to Islay. We departed that afternoon with Jura on our left and Islay on our right ….

 

…. leaving the snow-covered Paps behind ….

 

…. perhaps Eccentrica Gallumbits once visited Jura!

 

After docking at Kennacraig we spent the night back in the hotel in Tarbert.

 

We now had to make our way south, we had the choice of driving all the way north to Loch Lomond and then south via Glasgow or catching the ferry from Tarbert to the Isle of Arran and then on to Ardrossan on the Dumfries and Galloway coast. The former involved a lot of driving, much of the time backtracking on the route we took to get here, so we opted for the latter. This gave us much of the morning to further explore the Kintyre Peninsula, but not enough to get to the Mull of Kintyre and back. First we drove down Loch Fyle past where we had boarded the ferry to Islay two days earlier ….

 

…. and we carried on southwards for about an hour seeing the wonderful scenery of the islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha to one side and the Mull of Kintyre and the Antrim coast in front of us.

 

The weather was predictably cold and windy but at least we had no rain, hail or snow.

 

About lunchtime we boarded the small ferry to Lochranza on Arran.

 

We had a beautiful journey across to Arran and even managed to add a few birds like Black Guillemot to the trip list.

 

On arrival we had about two and a half hours before our next ferry so we decided to take the minor road along the west shore of Arran.

 

As well as passing through many quaint villages we also had views of the southern Kintyre peninsula. We took a minor road over the centre of the island but it was snowing and we didn’t stop for photos. Late afternoon we caught the ferry to Ardrossan and arrived about 6.30 pm.

 

We stayed at a rather charming but cold guest house near Kirkconnel north of Dumfries and with a lack restaurants nearby we visited a typical Scottish small town pub for drinks.

 

Our final destination of the trip was Drumlanrig Castle. Margaret particularly wanted to visit as her grandfather had been brought up here. Unfortunately although the grounds were open, the castle itself was closed for the winter.

 

The story is that her paternal grandfather James Wright was born in South Africa, but at a very young age was taken back to the UK by his mother in 1869. His father intended to follow on a few weeks later but tragically died from a heart attack before he embarked. Weakened by recurrent malaria, his mother never recovered from the shock and died soon after. His siblings were sent to boarding school, but the infant James was raised by his aunt who owned the Drumlanrig estate. After he left school he returned to South Africa where later made a living transporting goods by ox wagon through the wilderness. His memoirs were later collected into a book which was privately published. Here he is seen in a hand coloured photo in the uniform of the Knights of Saint John. Date of photo unknown, photographer unknown.

 

We couldn’t visit the castle on this trip but one day we will return.

 

We both had developed chest infections and my bruised side was giving me some grief, so although we had another couple of days available (which we were going to use to visit the Lake District) we decided to cut the trip short and return home.

The return trip from north of Dumfries to Poole went quite smoothly and we were home by late afternoon. It had been a very interesting trip with good birds and great scenery, the weather was against us but there again it was late November. I’m glad we didn’t leave the trip until later as the area has received considerable amount of snow recently and indeed we just avoided heavy snow ourselves by leaving Speyside when we did.

 

 

Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside, Scotland:   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our stops at Martin Mere in Lancashire and the Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian that we took on the way to visit Margaret’s brother Duncan in Aberdeen.

This post covers our time in Fife along the north coast of the Forth Estuary, our visit to Aberdeen and our stay in Aviemore in Speyside.

 

We left Roslin and skirted Edinburg on the ring road and crossed the Firth of Forth on the new Queensferry Crossing. Only opened this August at a cost of £1bn it is already (as of early December) undergoing closures for resurfacing. Of course it was Margaret who took this photo and not the driver.

 

The weather improved as we drove along the north shore of the Forth estuary. In the distance is the now uninhabited island of Inchkeith.

 

We skirted the large bay between Leven and Earlsferry on the lookout for flocks of seaduck.

 

A few Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Redshank were seen on the rocky shores ….

 

…. and we encountered a number of distant flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Eider and Common Scoter. Velvet Scoter showed well and I was able to capture this passing flock. However we didn’t find seaducks in the numbers I encountered on a visit to the same area in April 2000, where a single flock contained 2000 Common Scoter and 500 Eiders.

 

We drove to Elie Ness lighthouse and looked back towards the pretty town of Elie.

 

We stopped in Anstruther ….

 

…. had lunch in this cafe ….

 

…. and in spite of the bitter wind that had sprung up, went for a walk around the harbour.

 

This proved to very worthwhile with stonking views of a Grey Seal ….

 

…. and a few hundred (Common) Eider.

 

We had great close up views of the dapper males ….

 

…. the well camouflaged females (female Eiders of course pluck their breast feathers to line and insulate their nests, the original eiderdown) ….

 

…. and the variable and somewhat scruffy first-winter males.

 

We continued on to the easternmost point of Fife, Fife Ness. From here you could look northwards to Arbroath and Montrose or south to East Lothian. We continued northwards through St Andrews and Dundee but arrived at Aberdeen at rush hour on a Friday. In a set of extensive and very poorly signed road works to the south of the city we took the wrong turn and ended up in the city centre. Frustratingly it took an hour before we emerged and carried on to our destination.

 

Margaret’s brother Duncan and his wife Wendy moved from South Africa to the UK about 10 years ago, first to Edinburgh and then to Aberdeen. The climate must be a bit of a shock after living in Durban. We haven’t seen them since 2012 so it was good to meet up. This photo was taken in 2008 when their sons Darren and Sean were still living at home. L-R Darren, Margaret, Sean, Wendy, Duncan.

 

Early in the morning I popped down to Blackdog a coastal site to the north of Aberdeen and close to where Duncan and Wendy live. Offshore were many anchored ships from the oil industry. Whether they are moored up because of the downturn in the oil business or due to a lull in the need to supply the rigs is anyone’s guess. Blackdog is famous for its huge flocks of summering scoters and eiders, with several rare species often being present. I enjoyed this spectacle in 2012 but found out on this trip that this gathering doesn’t occur in the winter.

 

A little bit to the north of Blackdog lies the Trump Golf Course. The Scottish Government let his empire destroy a nationally valuable, wild and totally protected stretch of unspoilt coastal dunes when he promised a multi-million pound investment, thousands of jobs and a huge leisure complex. He has reneged on all of this except for the building of the course, which now operates at a loss. So now we have the destruction of a precious ecosystem, hardly any new jobs and just a bit of manicured grass.

 

We hoped to pick up one or two rare birds during our stay so having heard of a Snow Goose at Loch of Skeen a few miles east of Aberdeen, we headed out there one afternoon. It’s not that difficult to see Snow Geese in the UK but most are feral or direct escapes. Seeing one in the company of wild Barnacle or Pink-footed Geese or Whooper Swans greatly increases the chance that the bird has really come from Arctic Canada. We arrived at the lake before dark and carefully scanned the few hundred Pink-feet on the loch without sucess. As darkness fell thousands, well probably tens of thousands, of Pink-feet flew in a long skeins until the entire surface of the lake looked black. It was too dark to see when we left yet still you could hear them flying in. We never saw a white one though.

 

After a final morning with Duncan and Wendy we headed inland for Speyside. It was a lovely day, if rather cold and the sun lit up the autumn colours a treat. The route from Aberdeen to Aviemore is not straightforward but we negotiated the many changes of highway with ease ….

 

…. and arrived at the quaint village of Carrbridge just as it was getting dark (hence the lacklustre look of the photo). We continued onto Aviemore where we had booked an apartment (it was actually bigger than our house) for the next three nights.

 

The Aviemore/Cairngorms area (or Speyside as it sits on the banks of the river Spey) is one of the most outstanding areas for birding in the UK and one that all British birders should visit at some time. Most notable are the stands of ancient Caledonian forest, which has in places remained unchanged since the end of the Ice Age. Mature forest is made up of Scots Pine with birch and oak in places with an understory of juniper, rowan, blaeberry and heather.

 

Birdwise this area is famous for both Red and Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Ptarmigan, three species of crossbill, Crested Tit, and in summer Dotterel. Other goodies (in season) include Snow Bunting, Long-eared Owl, Osprey, Golden Eagle, Dipper and a multitude of other more widespread birds. We first headed to the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten but the visitor centre is shut at this time of year. This lady was feeding birds in the car park and they were tame enough to feed from her hand. They were mainly Coal Tits but we did also see ….

 

…. a few Crested Tits. These forests are the only place in the UK where this species can be found. I have made many excuses for not using my own photographs in the past but this time it was a good one, I’d left my camera behind in the apartment! So here is a photo of Crested Tit from highlandphotography.co.uk

 

It had rained all morning but suddenly the skies cleared, I glanced up from the car and saw this bizarre upside down rainbow directly above us. By the time I had got my pocket camera out the 3/4 full circle had shrunk to a crescent but it still looked remarkable. This phenomenon is known as a circumzenithal arc or an upper tangent arc (‘upper’ as it is above the sun) and is caused by light refraction through ice crystals.

 

It was perfectly still and nearby Loch Garten was like a mirror.

 

Summer visits have revealed lots of breeding Goldeneye on this lake but today it was birdless.

 

We also took a drive to the Cairngorm Mountains 13 miles south of Aviemore. The road goes straight to the ski centre car park and the funicular railway which takes you up to 3600ft asl.

 

You pass through beautiful areas of heathland studded with areas of natural Caledonian Forest and modern plantations.

 

Way in the distance to tops of the 4000ft (1200m) high Cairngorms peek through the clouds. Whilst not very high by the standards of the Alps, Rockies or Andes, at the latitude of Scotland the Cairngorm plateau is a true alpine-arctic wilderness home to many species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the UK. The Cairngorm National Park is the largest wilderness area in the UK and the largest National Park.

 

By the time we reached the car park cloud had descended and we saw no point in going up the funicular railway to the Ptarmigan Restaurant. To prevent those unprepared for hiking in arctic conditions from wandering about the plateau and getting lost you are not allowed to leave the restaurant at the top and if you want to explore you need to walk up. I did hike to the neighbouring peak of Cain Lochan (left in the photo) in June 2012 and saw Ptarmigan (see below) and Dotterel but I have never seen breeding plumaged Snow Bunting in the UK.

 

In spite of the weather we saw other good birds during our stay, a flock of crossbills, most likely the endemic Scottish Crossbill, plus Dipper and genuinely wild Greylag Geese, but pride of place goes to this distant male Black Grouse seen on the climb up to the Cairngorm car park. It might have distant but it looked really good in the scope.

 

At least the Red Grouse (a endemic British subspecies of the Holarctic Willow Ptarmigan or Willow Grouse, which doesn’t change to white in winter) showed well. This is a female ….

 

…. and here a male.

 

As we returned to Aviemore we stopped at Loch Morlich where the mountains formed a perfect reflection on the water ….

 

I have camped by this lake a number of times in past; in the early 70s with two friends (I well remember having to walk back from Aviemore at dawn after a very memorable night on the town) and in the late 70s with Janet when we tried to go sailing and I realised far to late that I couldn’t remember what I learnt on sailing holidays ten or more years earlier!

 

All in all I’ve made about 18 trips to Scotland and most of them have brought me here. These days I just enjoy the magnificent scenery and wildlife and avoid adventure activities and all-night parties!

 

So that was it for Speyside and we drove from the rich autumn colours around Loch an Eilein ….

 

…. straight into winter. We had heard that heavy snow was on its way and it was time to leave anyway, so we planned an early departure and only met a small amount of snow on route. We drove south over the eastern Cairngorms and onto Braemar on Royal Deeside, favoured by the royal family since 1852.

 

We then climbed another pass at Glenshee in the hope of seeing the Ptarmigan that we missed on Cairngorm. I had seen Ptarmigan at Glenshee in April 2000 but had to climb quite a bit to see them. It was cold and windy and I didn’t fancy the climb so we scanned the slopes from the car park. Initial attempts drew a blank but after warming up in the cafe we had another go and found a flock of 11 white winter plumaged birds high above us. Yes, the six white blobs in the photo are Ptarmigan, its a dreadful photo but they were a considerable distance away and it was starting to snow.

 

Here’s a lot closer pic of a pair of Ptarmigan in grey and white summer plumage taken in Cairngorm in 2012. Remember they are ‘P’tarmigan, a bird with a silent P (like in ‘swimming pool’).

 

From Glenshee we headed south and then west via Loch Tay on the long drive to the west coast. We arrived at our hotel at Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula just before dark. On route we passed these falls and paused briefly for photos.

 

…. but I’ll conclude the post with another couple of views of Loch Morlich.

 

By leaving Speyside when we did we managed to avoid the worst of the snow but there was plenty more wintry weather waiting for us at our next destination, the west coast islands of Islay, Jura and Arran, which will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland: 17/11/2017   Leave a comment

Like many people I have to admit that I had never heard of the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel until I read Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

Margaret and I paid a visit to the Chapel in April 2010. We had a planned trip to Portugal cancelled at the last-minute due to the infamous Icelandic ash cloud, so we set off in the car on an impromptu trip visiting old friends and tourist sites all across northern England and southern Scotland and Rosslyn Chapel was one of many historic sites we stopped at.

Unfortunately then the Chapel was undergoing a much-needed renovation and Margaret said ‘we must come back when all this scaffolding comes down’ – so this year we did.

Dan Brown falsely claims that the names Roslin/Rosslyn originate because the Chapel sits on the ancient Paris Meridian, a French alternative to The Greenwich Meridian (which it doesn’t), which he names ‘the Rose Line’ and then (again falsely) associates it with the Rosicrucians and the supposed bloodline of Mary Magdalene.

The Chapel is situated on a rise above the town of Roslin. Behind is a wooded gully and even in mid-November many of the trees were still sporting their autumnal colours.

 

This is what the exterior of the Chapel looked like when we visited in 2010, there was also scaffolding inside the Chapel.

 

Here is an elevated view (taken from Wikipedia) of the chapel during the restoration process.

 

This is what the Rosslyn Chapel looks like today. Much of my information on the history of the chapel has been taken from Wikipedia or  https://www.rosslynchapel.com/about/rosslyn-chapel-timeline/

 

The Rosslyn Chapel was commissioned in 1446 by William St Clair (the family now know as Sinclair). It is thought that it might have been planned as part of a much larger building, but work ceased after William’s death in 1484. The endowments for Rosslyn Chapel were seized as the effects of the Reformation began (this was the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries). The Chapel’s provost and prebendaries were forced to resign as a result and in 1592 Oliver St Clair was ordered to destroy the altars of Rosslyn, it being described as a ‘house and monument of idolatrie’. After the altars were destroyed, the Chapel ceased to be used as a house of prayer and subsequently fell into disrepair.

 

In 1630 (another!) William St Clair was pronounced Grand Master of the Masons in Scotland. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s troops sack Rosslyn Castle. The Chapel was spared, although it was used for stabling the troop’s horses. In the same year, Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn died at the Battle of Dunbar. He is believed to be the last knight buried in full armour in the vault below the Chapel, said to be the family custom. The chapel falls into serious disrepair for 150 years until limited restoration occurred in 1736. Between 1780 and 1850 visits by the likes of Robbie Burns, Dorothy Wordsworth and Queen Victoria brought the chapel to the nation’s attention as a place of romantic association and mystery, something that was enhanced by the enigmatic nature of the carvings. In the 1950s a major restoration was carried out but cladding the stonework with a concrete like material (which gave the interior its current grey colouration) but it sealed the moisture in and the chapel continued to deteriorate badly. It’s inclusion in the 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the 2006 film brought worldwide attention and visitor numbers increased ten-fold. This along with a £4.9m lottery grant has allowed a full-scale restoration.

 

Photography inside the Chapel is no longer allowed. This and the following photos have been taken from the internet either from the Rosslyn Chapel website or via Wikipedia. Those photos that were credited were taken by either ‘Guinnog’, J McInnis, Joe Ellis, Jeremy Atherton or ‘the Lothians’. Although this photo makes it look quite spacious the chapel is quite small inside ….

 

…. but is very high. Of course the stained glass windows are a later addition.

 

A wide angle view of the fantastically ornate roof.

 

The chapel is covered in ornate carvings, many of which would have had deep meaning at the time when the chapel was built. Of note are the many ‘Green Men’, about 100 carvings of a pagan symbol of fertility and regrowth that seems curiously out-of-place in a Christian place of worship.

 

This image of the fallen angel Lucifer bound by ropes is said to be a motif of the Masons. Both the Masons and Knight’s Templar are said to have historic associations with Rosslyn. Legends associated with the chapel include that it is the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist or that of the Holy Grail.

 

The chapel was commissioned in 1446, building started in 1456 and ended in 1484, so how then were maize and aloe vera (North American plants that supposedly couldn’t have been discovered by Europeans until after Columbus’ voyage in 1492) depicted in the carvings? I don’t believe any of the superstitions associated with Rosslyn but I do believe that Columbus wasn’t the first European to land in the New World!

 

Many embossed carvings are to be found, some depicting scenes from the Bible, others life after death and still others whose meaning is greatly debated by both scholars and by those with a ‘mystical orientation’.

 

…. these include the 213 cubes carved into buttresses and architraves that have a variable number of dots on them. Some have interpreted this as a secret code, others as a musical score.

 

Perhaps the most spectacular carvings are to be found on the so-called Apprentice Pillar. The following is taken from Wikipedia: ‘One of the more notable architectural features of the Chapel is the “Apprentice Pillar. Originally called the “Prince’s Pillar” (in the 1778 document An Account of the Chapel of Roslin) the name morphed over time due to a legend dating from the 18th century, involving the master mason in charge of the stonework in the chapel and his young apprentice mason. According to the legend, the master mason did not believe that the apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing the original which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason travelled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column by himself. In a fit of jealous anger, the master mason took his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. The legend concludes that as punishment for his crime, the master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner to forever gaze upon his apprentice’s pillar. On the architrave joining the pillar there is an inscription, Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all”. The author Henning Klovekorn has proposed that the pillar is representative of one of the roots of the Nordic Yggdrasil tree, prominent in Germanic and Norse mythology. He compares the dragons at the base of the pillar to the dragons found eating away at the base of the Yggdrasil root and, pointing out that at the top of the pillar is carved tree foliage, argues that the Nordic/Viking association is plausible considering the many auxiliary references in the chapel to Celtic and Norse mythology. There are those who claim the Holy Grail is buried under the Apprentice’s Pillar! Of course I don’t believe any of these fairy tales but its fun relating them!

 

As I said before, although not know so widely before the publication of The Da Vinci Code, the chapel has always been a source of mysticism and wonder, as a drawing from ‘Heath’s Picturesque Manual’ from 1835 shows. Here on the left the Mason’s Pillar and the far superior Apprentice’s Pillar can be seen.

 

Near the chapel is Rosslyn Castle once the home of the Saint Clair family.

 

The castle dates from the late 14th or early 15th century and so predates the chapel. The castle suffered from a domestic fire and attacks in the ‘War of Rough Wooing’ in 1544, and by Cromwell’s troops in the Civil War.

 

The castle once contained a scriptorium containing many valuable documents some of which (including the earliest example of Scots prose) are in the National Library of Scotland. In a fire in 1452 valuable documents were said to have been lowered from the castle by a rope. Questions of the nature and current whereabouts of these documents adds to the mystery surrounding the Rosslyn (Roslin) area.

Needing to be in Aberdeen that evening we had to leave by late morning. We crossed the Firth of Forth and did some birding/sightseeing along the Fife coast. This and more will be the subject of the next post.