This journal covers places of interest to visitors in Kilmarnock and Edinburgh
by Drever on January 22, 2012
Edinburgh Castle the crowning glory of the Scottish capital stands on a plug of volcanic rock and makes a dramatic view from Princess Street. To enter the Castle cross the esplanade built in the 18th century as a parade ground. Here in August the area comes alive with colour and music with magnificently outfitted marching bands and regiments during the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. From here you see this historic fortification at its most dramatic. The curving ramparts give Edinburgh Castle its distinctive appearance from miles away. Walking across the drawbridge and through the gatehouse built in the 1880's statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce dating back to 1929 greets the visitor. Further on is the Half-Moon Battery where the one-o'clock gun that goes off with a bang every weekday at 1 pm, frightening visitors and reminding people to check their watches in an impressively anachronistic ceremony. Climb up through a second gateway and you come to the oldest surviving building in the complex, the tiny 11th-century St. Margaret's Chapel named in honour of Saxon queen Margaret (1046-93). She was born around 1045, into the royal family of England. After the Norman invasion of 1066, she fled to the court of Malcolm III of Scotland. They soon fell in love and were married. In 1250, Margaret was canonised as St Margaret of Scotland, for her many acts of piety and charity in her adopted country.The Royal Palace Built in the 1430’s was where the royal family stayed when in Edinburgh. It was not very comfortable. The royal family preferred Holyrood Abbey, at the other end of the Royal Mile, but the castle was more secure. It contains the Crown Room, a must-see. It houses the "Honours of Scotland" - the crown, sceptre, and sword that once graced the Scottish monarch. These date from the late 15th and early 16th century. These still play a vital role in Scotland’s ceremonial life. They are formally presented to each new sovereign; and the crown is present at State openings of the Scottish Parliament.On the Stone of Scone, also in the Crown Room, Scottish monarchs once sat during the crowning ceremony. In the Queen Mary's Apartments, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI of Scotland. The Great Hall built in the fifteenth century as the nation’s chief place of ceremony and state assembly is steeped in history. The parliament meetings met here until 1840. Its greatest state occasion was a banquet in honour of Charles I, the night before his coronation as King of Scots in June 1633. Although most of its present decoration dates from Queen Victoria’s the fine hammerbeam roof survives from the original construction. It is one of only two medieval roofs left in Scotland. The hall displays an extensive armoury.Foreign prisoners of war were brought to the castle at various times. French, Dutch, Spanish, Irish, Italian, Danish, Polish and American troops were held here during the Seven Years War (1756–63), the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) and the American War of Independence (1775–83). The exhibition in the castle vaults recreates the sights, sounds and smells of life in the prisons at that time and gives us some insight into the lives of these prisoners of war. Some of these were very creative. The Prisons of War exhibition includes artefacts they produced, from a detailed scale model of a warship to forged banknotes.Military features of interest include the Scottish National War Memorial opened in 1927 as a tribute to those killed in the First World War. It also now commemorates Scottish servicemen and women who died in the Second World War and later conflicts. The building incorporates scenes from the First World War in stone, bronze and stained glass.Other military features include the Scottish United Services Museum, and the famous 15th-century Belgian-made cannon Mons Meg. This enormous piece of artillery has been silent since 1682, when it exploded while firing a salute for the Duke of York; it now stands in a hall behind the Half-Moon Battery. The Governors house build in 1742 is now the tearooms - a good place to have a break during or after your tour if the crowning glory of the Scottish capital.
by Drever on January 26, 2012
The redeveloped former Royal Museum, now part of the National Museum of Scotland, reopened its doors on 29th July, 2011. The new Entrance Hall in this magnificent Victorian building was originally a basement used to store the huge number of objects not on permanent display. With its vaulted ceiling and new Caithness stone flooring it provides a welcoming introduction to the museum, with a shop and visitor toilets. You ascend from here by stairs or glass lift to the Grand Gallery. This soaring, light-filled atrium rises over four floors, giving a tantalising taster of the museum’s collections.The museum contains 16 new galleries and 8,000 objects newly on display. These galleries tell the story of Scotland and Scottish people’s engagement with the wider world. The new Discoveries Gallery introduce visitors to the museum’s four themes: the natural world; art and design; science and discovery; and world cultures.Greeting visitors to the Natural World galleries is a full-scale skeleton of a mighty Tyrannosaurus-rex. The collection displays astronomy, geology, fossils and wildlife including the spectacular Wildlife Panorama, which features a hippo, a giant albatross and a great white shark.The new Discoveries gallery explores the stories behind some of the museum’s most treasured objects, linked to Scots' achievements in leadership, inventiveness and military prowess across the world and throughout the centuries. The 18th-century, the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, proved a hugely productive period of national creativity in terms of explorers, inventors, innovators and thinkers. One of them, James Watt (1736-1819), popularly linked to developing the steam engine, trained as a scientific instrument-maker and ran a successful instrument-making business in Glasgow. The Discoveries Gallery shows a cistern barometer dating to around 1760, the only surviving signed instrument made by Watt in his workshop.The museum also covers other well-known names such as John Logie Baird, Sir Alexander Fleming and David Livingstone. However, visitors can also discover lesser-known figures such as James Bruce of Kinnaird (1730-94), the explorer who became the first European to map the source of the Blue Nile. Illustrating his story is the silver-mounted coconut cup from which he toasted the health of George III on November 4th, 1770 ‘at the fountains of the Nile’, on the shores of Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia.Many Scots made their name outside their native land. One such was John Muir (1838-1914), regarded as the father of the United States National Park Service. A Scot from a modest background he emigrated with his family to the United Sates. He became the trailblazing conservationist that we know of today by dint of hard work and application. He promoted a passion for nature through his writings as he tirelessly campaigned for preserving some of America’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty.The gallery also illustrates the excellence of Scottish universities. Some of the world’s most influential scientists and thinkers have studied here. Charles Darwin (1809-82) attended the renowned medical school at the University of Edinburgh between 1825 and 1827, though the vast natural history collections of the university proved more interesting to the aspiring naturalist. However he learned how to observe, dissect and prepare specimens and took private lessons in taxidermy. The American historian Arthur Herman may be overstating Scotland’s case in his book How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001). But as visitors navigate their way around this redeveloped part of the redeveloped National Museum of Scotland they might ponder on the evidence that this small nation has punched well above its weight. The World Cultures galleries explore how people across the globe live their lives and express themselves through music, art and performance. An 11 metre totem pole, a Tibetan prayer wheelhouse and a Maori canoe sit alongside items linked to the Hudson’s Bay Company, Captain Cook and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as a host of present-day items. Younger visitors love the Imagine gallery where they encounter a whole world of hands-on displays inspired by objects from the World Cultures galleries. As well as adding these new galleries, the redevelopment includes refreshed older galleries containing a further wealth of displays. The Egyptian gallery contains a collection of mummies and other artefacts providing a unique insight into life-and-death in ancient Egypt. The Looking East gallery contains East Asian art, which explores the art of China, Japan and Korea.The Museum also contains recent developments. In the early stages of Space Exploration Britain ranked next to Russia and America. Britain still has a satellite up there launched with its own rocket. Its Black Knight research rocket designed to reach speeds of over 10,000 miles per hour first launched in 1958. One of the Gemini NASA space capsules built in the 1960s also features. Scotland has worked its way through the Industrial Revolution and played a huge part in mining, iron and steel production, Ships and railway building and cloth production. These industries are now much diminished. One that goes from strength to strength however is whisky production. A full size Whisky Still on display with story boards helps explain its success.The National Museum of Scotland is a must for those that want to know Scotland’s story and wider events.
by Drever on January 27, 2012
Hidden beneath the Royal Mile, lies one of Edinburgh's deepest secrets - Mary King's Close. Back in the 1600’s, Mary King’s Close and neighbouring Closes were at the heart of Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets, open to the skies and bustling with traders selling their goods to the Old Town’s residents. These Closes consisted of a network of four streets stretching down from the Royal Mile with houses reached up to seven storeys high.The Royal Mile sits on a spine of rock stretching from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. A series of lanes and alleyways falling away to either side of the street sprang up. These are the ‘closes’. During modernising of the old town in 1753, the lower floors acted as the foundation for The Royal Exchange, built in 1753 (now The City Chambers) to bring its floor up to the level of the Royal Mile. For over 250 years this warren of hidden 'closes' where people lived, worked and died, lay largely forgotten until during the war years they served as an air raid shelter. In 2003 they opened as a visitor attraction.Mary King’s Close provided a historically accurate example of life in Edinburgh between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Documents show that Mary King was a prominent businesswoman in the 1630’s. She was a widow and a mother of four, who traded in fabrics and sewed for a living. That the close bears her name indicates her standing in the town. With a costumed character tour guide based on a one-time resident, we explored the underground streets as he brought to life the many real stories behind the Closes.In 1645 a year after Mary King died the life of the close shattered. The plague struck this little community and there is a myth that the local council decided to contain the plague by incarcerating the victims by bricking up the close for several years and leaving those inside to die. During periods of plague those infected actually enclosed themselves in their house and signalled their plight by displaying a small white flag from the window. In response neighbours delivered bread, ale, coal and even wine daily, and a plague doctor would visit to drain bubos - the pus-filled lymph nodes, which threatened to rupture and kill the patient through septicaemia. Doctors dressed from head to foot in thick leather, gloves and wore a herb-filled, beak-like, mask to try to protect themselves when visiting plague victims but many died. However, the risks were not without compensation. Salary rose from £40, first to £80, and then to an incredible £100 Scots a month. Although doctors didn’t know the plague spread through flea bites, the leather prevented the patient's fleas from biting the doctor. They followed correct procedures but for the wrong reasons.The guide takes you back in time to experience the home of a gravedigger whose family died of the 'black death'. You see the workshop of the saw-maker Andrew Chesney, who was the last resident to leave the street, and the home of the famous Close's namesake, the wealthy widow and merchant seamstress Mary King.Visitors also get the chance to visit the 'Shrine Room' where you see the colourful pile of toys left for the wee 'ghost' girl Annie, who used to live there. She suffered from the plague and is heartbroken at losing her favourite doll. Generous visitors have left tens of thousands of pounds, dolls and toys for little Annie, which are every year donated to the Sick Kid's Friends' Foundation at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh.During the tour some real ‘live’ ghosts shatter the peace. It all adds to the experience. This tour is well worth while but book in advance for it was only by so doing that I finally managed to get on this ghostly tour.
by Drever on January 28, 2012
Gladstone's Land is a surviving 17th century high-tenement house in the old part of Edinburgh. "Land" is the old Edinburgh name for houses built on the sloping sides of the ridge supporting the High Street. Restored and refurnished by the National Trust for Scotland Gladstone's Land now serves as a popular tourist attraction. The building is the most important example of its kind to survive in Edinburgh. The cramped conditions of the Old Town left only restricted site space available for any additional houses, so an extension was only possible either through depth or height. As a result Edinburgh became home to the world's first high-rise buildings and, for a time, had the highest population density on Earth.The original house dates from 1550, but Thomas Gledstanes a prosperous Edinburgh merchant and burgess bought and started redeveloped it in 1617. The original house standing 23ft further back from the road than today's building had wooden galleries at different levels along its front. These allowed residents to take the air without the need to wade through the open sewer of a street. Gledstanes built an extra room on to the front of each of the six storeys moving its frontage out and narrowing the street. This must have been part of an officially sanctioned policy to increase accommodation within the overcrowded city. The merchant and his family lived in two of the apartments while renting the others to another merchant, a minister, a knight and a guild officer. The restored building allows an insight into the life of these different classes of people. In Edinburgh less status people occupied the lower floors and the people with the higher status occupied the higher floors further away from the stench coming from the street. In 1934 the National Trust for Scotland took over the building. Over the years since, extensive restoration has taken place to return the property to its former state. This has included stripping away three centuries of subdivision, of alteration, and up to fourteen layers of paint or other wall coverings. The restorers discovered the original superbly decorated ceilings still in place hidden beneath later coverings; and they returned the windows to their original pattern, comprising glazed upper portions, and wood shuttered lower portions.Today the restored property offer a glimpse of 17th century life, with open fires, lack of running water, and period decoration and furniture. At ground level, there is an arcade frontage and restored shop booth, complete with replicas of 17th century goods. This would originally have provided shelter for the merchant's customers. Above the entrance to the building are a hanging sign with the date 1617 and a gilt-copper hawk with outstretched wings. The ground and first floors are the main areas open to the public. One side of the front of the ground floor is the National Trust for Scotland reception area, while the other is a cloth merchant's booth, typical of the shops that would have lined the main street. Further back, an inner hall gives access to the rear stairs, which you use to climb to the first floor. Here a series of restored rooms present a unique slice of Old Town life. The highlight is The Painted Chamber, a bedroom that comes complete with some of the best original ceiling and wall decoration in Scotland. Nearby is the main living room, The Green Room, while elsewhere on this level is a kitchen, with a fold out bed for a servant, and other recreated rooms that complete the accommodation.Descent to the ground floor brings a surprise. You emerge in The Bar Parlour. When the NTS bought the building in 1934, they gained a sitting tenant in the form of a room occupied by the pub next door, The Robbie Burns Bar. This remained part of the pub until the latter closed at the end of the 1950s. Today the room contains reminders of its life as part of the pub, but serves as a second-hand bookshop.Artists let Gladstone's Gallery on the second floor to show their work during the peak summer season thus providing further interest for the summer visitor. This building is well worth a visit.
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