Sunday, 26 February 2012

Roger Ackling

I'm aware that many people have an idea of what constitutes art and that a great many things, portrayed as art, fall outwith the bounds of it. I suspect I may be throwing one of these at you right now. For me, if the artist has applied his mind to think about what he's making and how it appears (or sounds - perhaps even smells or feels) then he or she has produced a piece of art. Sometimes my mind wavers about a bit and I just cannot see what the artist is on about but sometimes I pick up on the thread of thought of the artist - often in a way that's difficult to describe.

So it was with Roger Ackling's latest exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh (it's on till the 21st of April if you want to pop along and try it out on your mind). Occupying the entirety of their main room, it is a collection of garden shed odds and ends that have been incised with lines made by a magnifying glass and the sun. I don't think The List website were so convinced (read their review here) but I liked it.

Around three walls or the room was a blackened line hanging with incised half clothes pegs at irregular intervals

Monday, 20 February 2012

Castle round up

Last year seemed to have more than it's fair share of castles in it, not all of which have been mentioned in previous blogs. It seems a shame to get to far away from last year without giving these three, very different, castles a mention.

Most of the castles I've been to have a long and often bloody history but not so Comstoun castle, just outside Kirkcudbright - I doubt all that many of the towns residents even know it exists. It is tucked in a wood behind a large manor house also known as Comstoun. The name makes it's first appearance in history when Walter fitz Walter de Cummstun swore fealty to Edward I and makes no appearance after that till the 15th century. It would appear that the castle was built by Sir John Kennedy around 1500 (I read that the architecture matches this suggestion). The most exciting thing to have happened here is that in the late 1500s one of the leading Scottish poets of his age, Alexander Montgomerie, rented the place. The new mansion that stands today was completed in 1828 but it appears that the castle had already fallen into disrepair by that time - in 1794 it is described, "the remains of an old building.

It's interesting to see that a castle can get through it's history without a suggestion of intrigue or the clash of swords ringing though the centuries. The potential source of it's name is also quite interesting. The two most likely suggestions to me are that it comes from the Norse for a war badge, Kulm, and the Norse for a stone, Steinn, or from the Saxon, Kemp,e for a soldier which is very near the Norse, Kempa, meaning warrior.

Nothing could be further away from Cumstoun castle than the stately pile below. It's Fyvie castle, built in the 13th century but, as you can see has been extensively renovated and expanded over the years. I was there because I had an appointment in Aberdeen the day before I was due to go to work and it was only a short drive away. It's well worth going into as it had a good collection of paintings, tapestries, arms (as in swords etc, not what you keep up your sleeves) and all those good things that you expect to find in a castle. The National Trust do not let you take pictures inside it's buildings or else this would have been a blog all on it's own.

As with the best castles, it's got it's fair share of ghosts and a couple of curses. The most famous is supposed to have been made by Thomas the Rhymer when he was old, towards the end of the 13th century. As he was approaching the castle the wind blew the castle doors shut in his face and he took offence and issued the following curse.

Fyvie, Fyvie, thou’s never thrive
As lang’s there’s in thee stanes (stones) three
There’s ane intill (one in) the oldest tower,
There’s ane intill the ladye’s bower,
There’s ane intill the water-yett (water gate)
And thir three stanes ye never get.

It is thought to relate to three stones removed from church land. The stones are supposed to be wet when those about them are dry and visa versa. One stone has been located and often is found to be wet for no good reason. Since the curse was issued, no firstborn son has lived to inherit the castle from his father.

The castle has a large walled garden, mainly laid out with fruit and vegetables

The day I was there was a bit damp but when I was in the garden the weather decided to up itself a gear or two - it chucked it down and I had to hide under a beech tree for a while.

When it eased off, I went for a walk round the large pond at Fyvie where a mist was rising from the water.

Good weather for..... sorry just been stopped by the cliche police

A little later in the year I dropped in on Mr McK for a visit and we went to see Blackness Castle a few miles outside Edinburgh on the Forth with the young McKs.

It was built in 1440 by Sir George Crichton, it soon, in 1453, became the property of the crown and remained so for the rest of it's existence. It was strengthened in the 1500s but when Cromwell turned up in 1651, gun power had overtaken the strength of the walls and it fell. After repair it was used as a prison for covenanters. Later during the wars with France it was used for prisoners of war. During the better part of the 19th century it was an arsenal and briefly a barracks again until in 1912 it was turned over to the Office of Works as an ancient monument.

I was surprised at how uneven the ground was inside the castle.

This photo was taken from the castle's jetty and it's the nearest I come with my pictures to showing the castle's boat shape. It has often been called "the ship that never sailed"

A view from the castles jetty of the two Forth bridges. It gives an idea of the important defensive position the castle must have commanded.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Lewis Chessmen (and Chessladies)

We visited the National Museum of Scotland last week, where we go often, and it comes with my highest recommendation for anyone visiting Edinburgh. Though not the main reason for our visit that day, we spent a little time with one of the museum's most famous exhibits, the Lewis Chessmen.

The exact history of the Lewis Chessmen is a little dubious at either end. The common story is that they were found in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in 1831or a little before, and although there are a few conspiracy theories against this, it seems likely to me.

Their origins are much murkier. They were once thought to have been made in Iceland but it is now generally accepted they were made in Norway sometime round about 1150 to 1200 (the shape of the bishops' mitres are of a style developed around this time). It may be of some satisfaction to many of my collegues on the Foinaven that some experts think that they may have been crafted in Trondheim from walrus tusk and whales teeth.

What is definate is that there are 96 pieces, from at least four sets, most of which belong to the British Museum in London but 11 belong to the National Museum of Scotland - they must have one in a box somewhere as there were only 10 in the case when I took these pictures.

They are not in the style of chess pieces as we have come to know them today - they may have been used to play other games. The kings in the sets are seated on thrones with a sword on their laps.

The queens in the sets are portrayed with their heads on their right hand. Some look somewhat concerned, after all, there's hubby with his sword out and only able to move one square in any direction at a time, and some look...well...just a bit bored. Some are seen clutching a drinking horn - passes the time I suppose.

Pictures of the pieces usually shows them from the front but it's worth a look round the back as the backs of the thrones are elaborately decorated.

When they were found the absence of rooks was noted and there were a number of warriors which are now thought to be the rooks.

Some of the warriors are berserkers, biting the top of their shields in their excitment to get into battle.

The knights all seem to have rather undersized horses.

This seems to be a good time to go back a few years and show you some pictures I took of the pieces that are in the British Museum in London. You can see here a number of gaming counters and a belt buckle that was found with the chessmen.

Although these two fine institutions in Edinburgh and London are the permenent homes of the pieces, it is worth pointing out that they are often loaned out to other museums around the world, including the Nan Eilean Museum in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Last year I saw some of them in Aberdeen while on my way to work, so keep your eyes open in case they're heading your way.

The Lewis pieces have been used as the models for many sets now on sale like these fine fellows made by the Regency Chess Company in Bath.

They used laser technology to take a 3D scan of this berserker that appeared in an earlier picture to produce a full sized replica of the original. Have a compare and see how close you think they've come.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Culzean Castle

The middle of February seems a good day to revisit the height of Summer and the day I dropped in on Culzean Castle was one of the better days last Summer.

When I'm to write a blog about a castle, you might wonder why I have a picture of my car in a lay by first. This is the Croy Brae which I passed on my way to the castle. It's better known as the Electric Brae and is famous for the fact that things seem to roll uphill there. The car here is pointing uphill, though it doesn't look it and the hill is steep enough that when I took off the handbrake it rolled backwards. I was here as a lad, when there wasn't a lay by. I'm sure there must have been many an accident as people drove round the corner to find somebody stopped in the middle of the road playing. I had a look on Youtube and found a video of somebody else's visit here.

The castle sits in extensive grounds and as you approach, it is first viewed through this ruined (if ruined is the right word when it appears to have been built that way) arch. It offers a contrast against the grandeur of the castle itself.

As castles go, there's nothing particularly old about this one. It doesn't date back far enough to have been the scene of a battle or siege. Although there is mention of a tower here in the 15th century, the current building was built between 1777 and 1792 by Robert Adam (who is responsible for much of Edinburgh's wonderful Georgian building) for the 10th Earl of Cassilis.

You can go on a tour round the inside of the castle, which I did and found it a bit lack lustre to be honest (perhaps I'd been spoilt by Fyvie castle a few weeks earlier), but you can't fault the grounds and gardens, they're beautiful. I did pick the right time of year for these of course.

This battery of cannon was built by the 12th Earl in the time of the Napoleonic wars in case of a French invasion.

Culzean Castle may look good from the side I approached but it is best viewed from the sea side. This is the best I could do I'm afraid. I had to walk round the coast a bit and was dangling rather precariously from a tree when I took this.

The view of the castle from that side is such that it has found it's way onto the Royal Bank of Scotland's £5 note. This specimen, fresh from my wallet, is, rather like the Royal Bank themselves, a bit crumpled.

Looking out to sea at the Isle of Arran.

There's a large walled garden, which when I was there was at it's best.

This pagoda looks at it's best from this distance. Any closer and it gets a bit scruffy. Built in 1860, it is actually an aviary although it was once thought to have housed a monkey so is often known as the monkey house.

A heron, amongst the great variety of feathered friends on the Swan Pond.

A last look at the deer in the deer park before I went home.