Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

Edinburgh2014a

My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

Tantallon

The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

Bass Rock

Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

Sunhoney and Rain

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It has been a rainy summer and it seems it may turn out to be a wet, wet, wet autumn too. This made me think of Scotland, where there is beautiful weather too, don’t get me wrong. On last summer’s journey we got to see lots of stone circles and one of them was this, the Sunhoney, a recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire near the village of Echt. There are some good photos of it in that link and some journal entries too.

We parked our little car at Midmar Kirk which has a magnificent recumbent stone circle in its churchyard amid the Christian headstones. It’s not authentic, not in its original form as it has been landscaped as somebody put, but you get a good idea what a recumbent stone circle is: a mood calendar of a kind with one stone laying on its side between two fag-like ones. They are typical to north east of Scotland and are often on good farmland.  It was fascinating to see the old and the new cosmologies mingled together in Midmar Kirk’s churchyard.

From there we walked westward (I’m rather sure it was westward) along an overgrown road flanked by old elm trees that kept the rain out, then followed a paved road for awhile before arriving at the foot of the little hill that has the Sunhoney on top of it. We didn’t see any paths leading to the circle, and we hadn’t found one on the map, so we crossed the fields (the first harvest of hay had been collected, so we didn’t harm the crop) and climbed several fences to get to the stone circle. The Sunhoney is surrounded by a set of trees and a bank of stones. And cattle. They kept a keen eye on us. I’m glad we didn’t have to walk through their pasture. They seemed to be a lively bunch of young bulls with not enough to do.

I did mention that is was raining, right? By the time we got to the circle our hiking boots were wet. They just couldn’t handle the amount of water, the ground and the vegetation were so saturated with it. Even with the rain gear on it felt wet, but we were much better off than the two fellows that came by as I was sketching beneath an oak. They had an umbrella. Much good when most of the wetness gets to you from the waist high vegetation. Felt sorry for them, but they did seem to think it was worth it. And apparently there was a proper path leading to the circle from the other side of the hill.

But had we found it, we would have missed an adventure: the elm street, the deer dashing past our eyes, the four-horned Jacob sheep and a pile of stones that might be what remains of a third recumbent stone circle underneath an electricity pylon. And it would have been less of an adventure without the rain.

Pictish Stones and Tölting Horses

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I admit, I love ancient monuments and archeological sites. One favourite of mine are the Pictish stones. First of all, their design is superb. It’s clear they were produced by a culture that appreciated a good crafter, though it feels a bit silly to say so. Are there cultures that do not? Secondly, those Pictish stones that are still out there in the open, especially those that are still in their original site, are often interestingly situated in the landscape. You can find them in the middle of a field, right on the roadside, on the church yard, on some ones private yard. Just like standing stones, they just are there like unmoving poles around which the landscape turns as time passes by. Thirdly, they are puzzling. Who were the Picts that made them? Why were they erected? What do the symbols mean? How were their sites chosen?

Last summer we planned our journey so that we could see the Pictish stones around Angus, Scotland. Though many stones remain in their original setting, many have been moved to various museums. The Meigle Sculptured Stone Museum has, like Historic Scotland’s webpage says, an impressive collection: 26 stones altogether. It’s a bit tricky to find the museum as it is a rather like a chappel in the middle of a residential area and behind a church. Just follow the signposts as you arrive to Meigle, but slow down or you’ll drive right past it, but it is worth the trouble! Oh, and it’s chilly in side.

I drew few sketches of the horses, of course. They are not that detailed, partly because of erosion, and they are formal but the best ones are really a live with movement and intention. As I drew and thought about the Picts and their mysteries, I realised that the carved horses were familiar. Then it hit me: they are very similar to the carved horses on Viking rune stones! I had seen some less that two months before in Sweden on a trip for students of art history in our university. It’s not an exact match, not at least to the ones I sketched, but made me think about the horses’ gait. The Pictish horses seem to be moving in tölt which is one of the five gaits of the Icelandic horse (see here for info and pictures). Nowadays Icelandic horses are a breed of horses native to Iceland, but could their ancestors have been the common breed of horses during the Pictish era (in Scotland until ca. 860 AD) in the northern coastal regions in Europe? What kind of contact did the Picts and the Vikings have with each other? The Vikings occupied Scotland and a large part of the British Isles at one point, but what was there before that?

If there’s a book about it, I want to read it.

A View from the Top

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The hill fortifications on the White and Brown Cathertun near Brechin, Angus, were our first walk on our trip to Scotland last summer. We had the most beautiful weather that day, blue skies and rolling cumuli. It did rain the day before and it did rain the day after, so the memory is even more delightful. The view was magnificent, we could even see the sea.

The Brown and the White Caterthun are two hills sitting shoulder to shoulder between rolling fields and uncultivated higher ground. The hill fort on the Brown Caterthun consists of five or six concentric earthen banks but is not easy to pick them out as the hill is covered by heath, hence its name. The structure was build between 3000BC and 500BC possibly for ritual use. We had the classic experience of almost stepping on grouse chicks while on top.

The White Caterthun is the southern one of the two. It’s slightly higher, but what makes is more noticeable is the forth on top of it. The fallen ramparts remain uncovered by vegetation and their pale coloured stones form what looks something like a cap on the hill from the distance. You can still easily make out the layout of the forth once you get up there. The forth was probably built by Picts during the first centuries AD by which time the neighboring forth on the Brown was no longer in use. There is a cup marked stone on the westerly side of the fallen ramparts, but it’s not easy to find. I felt like Indiana Jones as we tried to locate it, and we did!

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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