Thursday, 29 November 2012


Strangely disconcerting things masks are. The museum on Chamber Street has a great pile of them from around the world.

This little number hails from the Tami Islands in Papua New Guinea.

A Gle mask of the Dan (or Gio) people from Liberia. The Gle are powerful forest spirits who would tell the maker of mask what it should look like in a dream. He would ask the elders for permission to make the mask which would then be used  for the dance of that particular Gle. The style of these masks are very diverse but, then again, there are many Gle.

This mask from Cameroon has been made by the Bafu tribe.

This is a mask worn by members of the Ekpo society which exists for men of the Ibibo peoples of Nigeria. It's not known how long the society has existed but elders will tell you that it is as long as there has been ancestors. The ancestors are the spirits of people who have once lived and the word Ekpo itself means ghost.

The last few masks have all been from the 19th or early 20th century. This one is much older. It's a Greek terracotta theatre mask from the 1st or 2nd century BC.

Perhaps the sinister overtones of this mask are down to the associations we have with a white version worn by a certain organisation of the southern United States. The hood is actually one worn by participants in Spanish Easter processions. Mind you when you see the picture inset here, I'm sure they look pretty sinister without the associations.

 This is a mask of Ravana used in an Indian Battle dance called a chhau. This particular mask was made in Edinburgh. Ravana was a bad un, he's the ten headed demon king from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. He kidnaps Sita the wife of Lord Rama, which is distinctly not on, and gets his comeuppance.

This mask from Indonesia is used for a Topeng dance. The dancer holds the mask in her teeth while a gamelan orchestra plays the characters words. Here is an example from youtube.

This is an Okuyi mask from Gabon. Okuyi is a rite of passage practiced in several central African countries.

The next two masks are from Sri Lanka for use in Kolam dancing.

The museum label doesn't relate this mask to Kolam dancing but when looking it up for the previous mask, I found this clip which is awfully like this mask.

This is not the kind of costume I had imagined to be part of Tibetan Buddhism and I had never heard of their Cham dance until I saw these. This costume if of the Deity Yamantaka.

This skeleton costume and the one before it are both from Darjeeling in 1919. A Cham dance with costumes not unlike these can be seen here.

Another dance from the same culture is the Black Hat Cham, where a Buddhist monk dressed in the black hat and robes of a magician defeats and oppressive king through the power of dance. 

And if you thought some of the early ones were scary.....

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Scone Palace

I must have been quick off my mark when I camped at Perth Racecourse last month. Tent pack and two cups of tea into the morning and I still arrived at Scone (that's pronounced Scoon) Palace in time for opening at half past nine. Even better, I was nattering to the chap at the ticket booth and he gave me a discount because the campsite ground belongs to the same estate as the palace.

Scone Palace was originally an abbey but came a cropper in the Reformation in 1959, when a riotous mob set out from Dundee to pillage and burn it, despite calls from John Knox himself for them not to. The lands were given to the Ruthven family in 1580 but they were caught up in a conspiracy against King James VI so their tenancy was very short. In 1600 the king gave the lands and palace to the Murray family (who have been the Earls of Mansfield since 1776), who still own it to this day. The building as it appears today was remodelled, rebuilt by the sounds of it, under the stewardship of the 3rd Earl of Manfield in the early 19th century.

There is much to see inside the palace, some superb portraits, sculpture and in particular a huge collection of ivory statuettes. Well worth a visit but I'm afraid I'm unable to find any pictures from the net to show you.

The history of the building as a palace and of the Earls of Mansfield is interesting but the real significance of Scone dates back to when it was a abbey and further back through Scottish history to before Scotland existed. The Picts set up their capital at Scone and it was in the 7th century while the area was still in Pictland the the abbey was established here. 

Today a small chapel stands on a hillock known as Moot hill - a moot is a meeting or gathering. The hill is also sometimes known as Boot hill. Once a new king would have to travel the lands to accept the homage of his lords but this could be dangerous and time consuming. Instead the lords would come to him and each of them would carry some of the earth from his area with him in his boots, so the king would officially have greeted each lord on his own ground. Thus the hillock could have been made up of the earth from all over Scotland.

In 843 Kenneth Macalpin defeated the Picts and became ruler of what is most of modern Scotland - he is generally regarded as the first king of Scotland. He brought with him what came to be known as the Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny. It is reputed to be the stone on which Jacob laid his head when he had his dreams (Genesis chapter 28). From Kenneth Macalpin onwards every king of Scotland was crowned on the stone until Edward I of England stole it in 1292. There after every king of England and latterly Britain was crowned on the stone. On Christmas day 1950 a group of Scottish students broke into Westminster Abbey and took the stone back to Scotland, breaking it in the process, although it was shortly recovered. The stone was eventually returned to Scotland in 1996 and it now resided in Edinburgh Castle. Kings of Scotland continued to be crowned here after the loss of the stone, most famously Robert the Bruce.

A replica of the stone now sits on Moot Hill. It is likely that the stone that sits in Edinburgh Castle is also a replica. The Monks at Scone may have switched the stone and fobbed Edward I off with a fake back in 1292. What we currently have is certainly about the size of a building block at the time. It's likely that Edward was given an old weathered brick instead (a rejected one at that, which may be why it broke in two in 1950 - although being 800 years old probably didn't help). Just to help the story along, geologists have identified that it looks awfully like sandstone quarried near Scone. Now, what happened to the real stone? Nobody knows and it's not been seen since 1292.

Two wickerwork deer have been placed on the hill.

When I was there, they were having some work done to an arch in the grounds.....

Because back in September 2010 a workman's van completely misjudged the height of the arch. Since my visit the work has been finished and the arch reopened. Here's a little film from the BBC about it.

There's no better way to set of a huge lawn then by getting some peacocks.

Though not on the lawn, highland cows always take a good picture.

A maze in the grounds, how could I resist.

That's the centre with a fountain in it over there.


I got out. It really wasn't that difficult. There was a map at the entrance which I had a good study at before I went in or else I may still have been in there. Here's a few shots from around the grounds to finish of with.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A quick stuffed look at British wildlife

I have confidence in the country's museums, that on finding a gap in it taxidermy exhibitions, it no longer dispatches a hitman out into the wild to bag the absentee. I would like to think that the exhibits shown here are either old or come into the museums hand in some ethical manner. This little lot are to be found in the McManus art gallery and museum in Dundee.

First up is the red squirrel (this particular chum was donated to the museum way back in 1972). The plight of the red squirrel has become rather desperate since the introduction of the grey squirrel (a native of North East America) into the country in 1874. 2008 figures from the BBC website put the UK population of grey squirrels at 2.77 million while the reds are only 211000. Scotland fare better since better, having most of the countries reds (121000) but still more greys (200000). A great deal of effort is being taken to try and stem the spread of the grey squirrel and save the red but only last year an article in the Guardian suggested the red squirrel may be gone in 20 years.

Behind the squirrel is a Scottish Wildcat, once found all over Britain but now contained to the Scottish Highlands. They are genuine indigenous wild animals of the country, having been here for thousands of years, and not domestic cats gone feral. I certainly wouldn't recommend you try to test this by risking your hands in some friendly contact.

This is a goldcrest. I once saw one sitting on a railing of an oil rig in the North Sea. They are occasionally migratory so it's not completely unexpected. Oil rigs are not their natural habitats and I would much rather have seen one sitting in a tree on one of my wanders - time enough yet.

A long eared owl, to be found in most of the country at any time of the year, if you're very lucky.

Pine martins are mainly to be found up in the Highlands, but after being thought extinct in England and Wales  they are starting to reappear there too.

This wee bruiser is a bullfinch. Easy enough to see at the edges of woodlands and hedgerows.

The black grouse can be found in much of Scotland and Northern England. In 2005 there were about 5000 displaying males (I expect they're easier to count) in the country, a drop from 25000 in 1970.

I'm not good on identifying birds of prey - down here in Galloway we've a great pile of buzzards and an increasing red kite population which I can identify without any problem but when it comes down to the smaller birds of prey you see sitting on branches or hovering over fields, I really am rather clueless - they're just a hawk to me. Here in the museum, things have labels, so I can say with confidence, that this is a merlin, Britain's smallest bird of prey.

The bird in the foreground is a wheatear - it takes it's name from neither wheat nor ears but from a corruption of it's earlier name whitearse. It's friend behind it is a whinchat.

Here's a stoat. I almost squashed one of these with my car the other night. I only noticed it as it was dashing out from under my wheel - crazy devil!

The dipper - delightful bird to be found in British waterways up and down the country for anyone that cares to go and look.

I've only seen otters once. It was late at night on a remote road in Dumfriesshire. Not just one but a mother and cubs - made my day. It was quite safe from being knocked down, perhaps because I wasn't driving.

The iconic bird of prey of Scotland, the golden eagle. They are mainly to be seen in the Highlands but apparently there are some to be seen down our way and in Cumbria.

The red deer is Britain's largest resident deer. They can often be seen in large numbers while driving around the Highlands and in previous years I've found it can be quite alarming how suddenly one can appear at the edge of the road through Glen Coe at night. 

There were a number of stuffed animals that had once lived in Britain but have long since gone. The beaver disappeared from our shores in the 16th century. In 2002 nine beavers were reintroduced in Ham Fen in Kent. Since then other reintroductions have taken place as well as two releases on private ground in Scotland.

Extinct in Britain by at least the end of the 15th century the wild boar has also been reintroduced into the country.

It's not as long ago as you might think that the wolf became extinct in Britain. Officially the last wolf killed in Britain was killed at Killicrankie by Sir Ewan Cameron in 1688 but there were still reports of wolves in Scotland into the following century. There have been several calls in the last few years for the reintroduction of wolves in order to keep the red deer population down naturally. Farmers are rather taken aback by this as they think a wolf might prefer a sheep or two from time to time instead. I tend to agree and quite like the fact that when I'm wandering about the country, nothing is likely to eat me.

There are even some dafties out there that want these things back. We've been bear free for about a millennium and while death due to bears in North America are not huge, the best way of keeping them at nil in this country is not to have any. Anyway, I get worried enough by fields of cows.

We've been without lynx for about 1000 years too. For a short time in 2002 we did have a wild population of one down here when the local wildlife park's lynx went walk about.

Badgers have been at the centre of something of a controversy in recent months, suspected of spreading TB to cows, the government was planning to bump a load of them off in an attempt to reduce the disease. It'll not make much of a difference to this fellow, who's been in a glass case for 34 years, but I'm sure he's happy that the cull isn't going to go ahead for now.