Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland: http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB22459

Round Tower: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/brechin-cathedral-round-tower/

Brechin Cathedral: https://brechincathedral.org.uk/about/

 

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Montrose sculptures

Montrose sculptures, James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

Great men – and others

The town and port of Montrose, on Scotland’s north-east coast, has a fine collection of sculptures waiting to be discovered by the open-eyed visitor.  (The seagulls, inevitably, have already found them). Some are of local figures, others made by locals, and still others haven’t even a tenuous connection to the town.

Two of the Montrose sculptures stand very close together either side of the junction at Peel Place (the southern end of the High Street).  The first is the famous – some would say infamous – local man James Graham, 1st Marquis* of Montrose, who lived from 1612-1650.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose

Born in the town in 1612, Montrose went on to become one of the greatest soldiers of the time of King Charles 1st.  Charles 1st wanted to impose the English brand of Protestantism on the Presbyterian Scots.  They weren’t keen on either the Bishops or the rites that Charles proposed.  The Presbyterians signed a Covenant upholding their right to worship in their own way and took arms in defence of their chosen religion.

At first Montrose supported the Covenanters but later he supported the King.  Many people therefore see him as a turncoat who followed whichever course would be most advantageous to him.  Others say that he turned against the 1st Marquis of Argyll, leader of the Covenanters, thinking he was trying to usurp the King’s power in Scotland.

Soldier-poet

No-one, however, disputes Montrose’s skill as a General; this complex man won many battles for whichever side he was supporting.  He was also a fine poet, probably best remembered for the poem he wrote to his wife.  The most famous lines from it are inscribed around the statue’s plinth:

“He either fears his fate too much,

Or his deserts are small,

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Montrose did both win and lose it all.

His loyalty to the monarchy was his downfall.  After Cromwell had King Charles 1st beheaded during the British Civil War, Montrose pledged his support to the exiled Charles 2nd and tried to raise an army to restore the monarchy.

Montrose was defeated in 1650, and executed as a traitor in Edinburgh by being hanged and quartered.  Charles betrayed him, denying all knowledge of the plot.  A tragic end for a gallant man who fought for what he saw as right.

The statue marked the 350th anniversary of Montrose’s execution.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s stuck outside the Job Centre on a bend in a busy road.

Sir Robert Peel

The man on the plinth opposite him was very different, though also a doughty fighter in his way.  Some might see him, too, as a turncoat.  Montrose sculptures, Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel was not local.  He came from Lancashire and had nothing at all to do with the town.  So what did he do to earn this fine statue?

Peel has two main claims to fame – three if you’re a Catholic.  The first is that, as Home Secretary,  he founded the Metropolitan Police force in 1829.   (That’s why policemen are still called “bobbies”, Bob being short for Robert; they were also originally known as “peelers”.)

Police forces weren’t an entirely new idea.  Glasgow had had one since 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary was founded in 1822 (partly also thanks to Peel).  But this time the concept spread right across the country, which hadn’t happened with the earlier forces.

Women and children first

Peel was also responsible for passing the Mines Act, which banned the employment of women and children underground, and the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours they could work.

He also got the Railway Regulation Act through Parliament.  This required railway companies to provide regular affordable trains, every day, with seats and roofed carriages even for third-class passengers.  At 1d a mile they still weren’t cheap but they did help people move around to find work.

Although originally so anti-Catholic that he was nicknamed “Orange Peel”, Peel came to see that the danger posed by riots against Catholics was worse than the danger of religious freedom.   His change of heart helped to win repeal of the Test Act and pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

But that’s not how he earned a statue in a staunchly Presbyterian town!

His greatest legacy was forced on him by the Irish potato famine.  Peel was not in favour of free trade and most of the landowners in his Tory party strongly opposed imports of cheap corn.  But, faced with a spreading famine, Peel did something almost unprecedented in British political history.

He got the Opposition to support him against his own party to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and relieve the hunger of millions of people.  It took five months of bitter struggle to get the repeal through Parliament.  The day it became law in 1846, Peel was defeated on another Bill and resigned.  He died in 1850 after a fall from a horse.

Erected in 1855 to mark Peel’s political achievements, his statue now sports a plaque which, ironically, misrepresents them.  It mentions only the police force, the Corn Laws and the first of his two terms as Prime Minister, ignoring the rest of his surprising career.

Montrose sculptures trail

Two men separated by two centuries and very different ideals stand within yards of each other at a busy road junction, where few passers-by give them a thought.  But they are by no means the only statues Montrose boasts.

A couple of hundred yards further up the High Street, for example, stands a Montrose man who knew Peel in Parliament and fought for many of the same things.  He’s Joseph Hume (apparently one of the worst speakers in Parliamentary history: the sight of him standing to speak could clear the Chamber within minutes).

Beyond these three, there’s a whole trail of Montrose sculptures; there’s a link below to download the guide.

They include a bust in the Library of Dr. Robert Brown, another Montrose native.  He’s the man who discovered Brownian Motion (you know, the thermal movement of molecules in liquid) and plant cell nuclei.

There are also several works by local sculptors David Annand and William Lamb.  You can visit Lamb’s studio in July and August on Tuesday-to-Saturday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement with the Curator of the Montrose Museum.

As well as statues of people, there are sculpted drinking fountains, swans and geese (Montrose’s tidal Basin is famous for its water fowl) and even a famous naval dog.

But I won’t spoil the surprises.  Download the guide, slip on your comfy shoes and go and find them for yourself.  They should keep you entertained for several hours.  You’ll also discover the lovely old town of Montrose, with its hugely wide High Street and tiny hidden wynds.  It’s worth a visit.

When you’re done, please let everyone know what you thought by leaving a comment!

Find out more:

You can download a map of the Montrose sculptures trail at www.montrosesociety.co.uk/Sculpture%20Trail%2005.pdf

For details of William Lamb’s studio: http://www.angus.gov.uk/directory_record/177/william_lamb_studio_montrose

* ‘Marquess’ or ‘Marquis’?  Either form is correct but ‘Marquess’ is the currently accepted spelling.  According to Chambers Dictionary ‘Marquis’ is “a variant spelling used esp. by holders of pre-Union titles”.  As James Graham lived between the Union of the Crowns (1603) and the Act of Union (1701), I’ve used the old spelling, as does the statue plinth.

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The Silver Darlings

 

Nairn Fishwife with silver darlings
The Nairn Fishwife with her speldings

The east coast herring bonanza

In Nairn Harbour stands the statue of a Nairn Fishwife holding a handful of what look like kippers.  They’re Nairn speldings, one of the many ways the silver darlings (herring) were cured.

Unlike kippers, which are smoked, Nairn speldings were split open and dried in the sun.  The name comes from the Scots verb “speld”, meaning to spread out.  Most herrings weren’t turned into speldings, they were salt-cured and packed into barrels for transport to markets far from where they were caught.

Herring fishing  was a huge industry all down the east coast of Scotland, from the early 19th century until the First World War.  The west coast got in on the act later in the 19th century.  Their season was later too.  Boats from the east coast would make the difficult journey through the Pentland Firth to take part when their own season had ended.

At its height, the industry employed thousands of men at sea and women on land. The boats got bigger and the herrings dwindled.  By the 1970s, catching them was banned and stocks are only now recovering.

The fishwives

The women worked in teams of three, two gutting and one salting and packing.  They also kept house, looked after the children and the aged, found bait and attached it to the hooks and helped mend nets.

Around Arbroath, and possibly elsewhere, they also piggy-backed the men out to the boats so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip soaked.  I’m not sure how effective that would have been; my experience of small boats is that you get soaked anyway.

The women also sold fish locally, walking miles inland with their creels on their backs to hawk the fish from house to house. The word “fishwife” now has a rather derogatory feel to it, but these women played a very important part in the local economy.  The one in the statue stands tall and strong, sure of her worth.

The statue is interesting in another way.  The sculptor seems to have clothed his clay model in real clothes before casting it.  You can feel the texture of her cardigan and see the weave in her skirt.

The ice-house

Across the Moray Firth from Nairn, at Cromarty, we found an old turf-roofed ice-house built to supply the fishing industry.  Freezing the catch helped preserve it longer and extended the selling season, as well as providing unsalted fish for those who preferred it.

Cromarty ice house
Cromarty ice house

Half built into the bank, the building would have been filled with ice harvested from fresh-water lochs through the winter.  The semi-dungeon construction would have kept the ice cool enough to last until the herring season in May and June.

The Silver Darlings

If you want to get an idea of what the herring fishery meant to the north-east of Scotland, I strongly recommend Neil M Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings.  Published in 1941 and made into a film in 1947 by Clarence Elder, it gives an only-slightly-romanticised view of life in the early years of the industry.

The main characters were victims of the Clearances; fishing became a life-line for many such people, displaced in favour of sheep.  These were tough folk fighting a hard land and a capricious sea to make a living; they earned every penny the hard way.

Find out more

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn (ISBN: 9780571090419)

http://www.historyshelf.org/secf/silver/coull.php

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Cromarty’s Good Samaritan

James Thomson plaque, Cromarty
James Thomson’s blue plaque, Cromarty

James Thomson MD, hero of the Crimea

Embedded in the weathered sandstone wall of the antique shop at the corner of High Street and Church Street in Cromarty is a blue plaque.  It says “Birthplace of James Thomson MD, 1823-1854.  A Good Samaritan to wounded enemy Russians at the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War”.  Who was this medic who died, aged just 31, saving wounded soldiers on a battlefield?

James Thomson was born and brought up in the house now occupied by the antique shop.  He must have been a bright child and either came from a well-off family or was supported by one, because he trained as a doctor and joined the Army Medical Department.

Malta

He must have joined up almost as soon as he qualified, as by February 1848 he was Assistant Surgeon to the 7th Dragoons.  In 1850 he moved to the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot and was posted to Malta, where a cholera epidemic was raging.

Cholera, a vicious diarrheal killer, was common in places where people were crowded together with poor sanitation.  Military hospitals were no exception.  The epidemic wiped out all the other medics working there but Thomson survived.

The website Regimental Surgeons of the Malta Garrison quotes the Roll of Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army.  “The skill, fortitude, and humanity, displayed by him in arresting the progress of that disease, gained for him the praises of the Commander-in-Chief”.

From Malta he went to Gibraltar for three years, then in April 1854 he left for Turkey on the way to the Crimea.

Crimea

The Crimean War arose because Britain and France were trying to prevent Russia gaining territory and influence in Turkey as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.  The allies wanted control of the Russian Black Sea port of Sebastopol, in the Crimean region of the Ukraine.  Crimea has recently in the news again, of course: it’s still strategically important to Russia.

The Battle of Alma, the first major battle of the Crimean War, was a British and French victory.  When the allied armies left the battlefield, Thomson volunteered to stay behind.  With just his batman to help, he looked after 700 desperately wounded Russians.  Despite the dangers of marauding Cossack soldiers nearby and lack of food , within days he’d managed to save some 400 of them and ensure they embarked for Odessa and home.

He moved on to the military hospital at Balaclava, where Florence Nightingale also worked.  Either because of a lack of available doctors or becauseThomson was considered immune after his experiences in Malta, he was assigned to work on the cholera ward.

Sadly, he wasn’t immune.  After just 34 hours on the ward he caught the infection and nine hours later he died, 15 days after the Battle of Alma.  His batman buried him on the shores of the Black Sea.

Thomson was acclaimed in Parliament for his bravery and his work was celebrated by William Russell, The Times’ war correspondent, who also made Florence Nightingale’s reputation.

And back to Cromarty

The blue plaque is not Thomson’s only memorial.  In true philanthropic Victorian style, a bursary was set up in his name to help children educated and living in Cromarty.

And Thomson’s friend Sir James MacGrigor, Director General of the Army Medical Department, erected an obelisk to him at Forres.  He had wanted to erect it in Thomson’s birthplace but the local landowner didn’t approve the chosen site.  So he built it across the Moray Firth instead, where people can see it from Cromarty.

The obelisk makes no mention of the cholera, stating that Thomson died “from the effects of excessive hardship and privation” – which may indeed have contributed by lowering his resistance to infection.

It describes him as an officer “whose life was useful and whose death was glorious”.  That’s a good epitaph for a young man – or, indeed, anyone.

Find out more:

https://www.maltaramc.com/regsurg/t/thomsonj.html

http://www.forres-gazette.co.uk/News/Letters/Forres-fascinating-Crimea-connection-25032014.htm

http://www.cromartyhistory.scot/index.asp?pageid=511913

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The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

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Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness

Hugh Miller's cottage, Cromarty
Hugh Miller’s cottage, Cromarty

Three Firths and a Loch

Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness sound like an old-fashioned firm of lawyers, don’t they?  And the Black Isle adds a touch of intrigue to the proceedings…  The reality is slightly less dramatic.

The Moray, Beauly and Cromarty firths almost completely encircle the Black Isle (we’ll come to Ness later). The delta of the River Conon does its best to finish the circuit to the north east, and the Beauly River does the same to the south west, but the Black Isle isn’t actually an island at all.  It’s what the French call a presqu’isle, a nearly-island: a peninsula.

The Black Isle

It’s an unexpectedly beautiful peninsula.  The “black” name (it’s the same in Gaelic: an t-Eilean Dubh) comes from the fact that, since it’s rather flat land and almost surrounded by water, snow doesn’t lie there in winter.  So it looks dark compared to the white hills ranged behind it.  No skulduggery involved.

In the soft rain of March it looked not black but very green across the Moray Firth.

Heading north from Inverness, it was a case of “Beauly to left of them, Moray to right, over the Kessock Bridge the car thundered” (to misquote Tennyson).  Shortly afterwards we thankfully left the busy A9 and headed east, across the top of Munlochy Bay.

Passing through Fortrose, a handsome, largely Victorian town with a ruined 13th century cathedral, we turned left at Rosemarkie.  Both places looked as though they’d repay a closer look – another trip for another day.

We were headed for Cromarty, the historic town at the north-eastern tip of the Isle.  It’s beautifully preserved, without having been set in aspic.  In fact, it’s very much alive, with all sorts of cultural happenings and events throughout the year.

Cromarty

We had hardly entered the town when the welcome sign “Tea, coffee and books” brought us up all standing.  A good cup of coffee surrounded by second-hand books?  It would have been churlish to drive on.

Later, abandoning our purchases in the car, we pottered down to the shoreline and found a couple of craft shops to spend more money in.  Walking along the green near the water’s edge we came across what must be one of the smallest wooden cabin boats ever built, and the old lighthouse, now a Field Studies Centre for Aberdeen University.

We also passed an intriguing grass-thatched building which bore a tiny plaque explaining that it was a 19th century ice-house – an important installation during the boom years of the “silver darlings”, the herring fisheries that briefly made these shores rich.

Sadly, one of the reasons for visiting Cromarty was closed: Hugh Miller’s cottage.  Miller was an early geologist and fossil-studier and his tiny thatched childhood home sits almost next door to the old Court House (also a museum; also closed).  Ah well, another reason to come back; next time in summer.

Arts, crafts and dolphins

We rather fell for Cromarty – as have all sorts of artists and crafters, drawn to the quality of the light, the (formerly) cheap property prices and the sense of community.  Perhaps also to the opportunities for dolphin watching.  We didn’t see any – just oil and gas rigs – but “you should have been here this morning” when they’d been cavorting in the bay.  Ain’t it always the way?

Following the coast round to the north west, we crossed the Cromarty Firth via the rather odd Cromarty Bridge: it’s about three miles long and flat as a pancake.  Most bridges rise a bit in the middle; crossing this one feels more like driving over a causeway.  Obviously they’re not expecting any ships to pass underneath.

Reaching the other side, we did consider heading north to Wick and Thurso, but we had to be back for dinner…  Instead we turned the car towards Dingwall, Beauly and Loch Ness, hoping to visit Urquhart Castle.

Loch Ness

It was not our day for visitor attractions.  Rush hour in Beauly (five minutes) delayed us enough that we arrived as they were cashing up – though they kindly allowed us downstairs in the visitor centre to use the loos.  So all we saw was the view over the stone wall from the car park.

It’s a good view and you can see why the Urquharts built their castle where they did.  In a fine defensive position on a small promontory, it has commanding views of both the loch and the road along the edge of it.  Probably very windy and damp, mind you; great views have their drawbacks.

Returning towards Inverness, we passed the first section of the Caledonian Canal, one of Thomas Telford’s great engineering feats.  By connecting Lochs Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe through the Great Glen, he created a route for ships that avoided the long and dangerous passage through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath.

It took longer than expected to build and cost over twice its original budget (of course) but it’s saved incalculable time, money and lives, especially during the two World Wars.  Not only has it survived to become a scheduled ancient monument but it’s never stopped carrying working boats, unlike most British canals.  One of these days I’ll take a boat along it.

“Another time”, “another reason to come back”, “one of these days” – I definitely haven’t finished with Messrs. Moray, Beauly, Cromarty and Ness.

Find out more at

http://www.black-isle.info/

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/urquhart-castle/

https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/caledonian-canal/

 

 

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HMS Unicorn

HMS Unicorn figurehead

A unique survivor

Dundee’s Victoria Dock is home to just two ships: the North Carr lightship and HMS Unicorn (also known as HM Frigate Unicorn).  She’s the sixth oldest surviving ship in Europe and the fourth oldest in the UK – the oldest still afloat – and has several claims to uniqueness.

Built in 1824, Unicorn never fired a shot and, indeed, wasn’t even fitted with masts or rigging.  But she still played an important role in the Royal Navy right up until the 1960s.

Her design is based on that of a captured French ship from the Napoleonic War.  By the time she was built, that war was long over: she was basically redundant before she was launched.  So she was never completely fitted out, but was kept in reserve or “in ordinary” and had a roof installed instead of masts.

The roof is still there and is the only surviving example in the world.  It’s helped to preserve the ship and also makes for a much more comfortable visit on a cold or wet day than an open deck would.

Naval service

Built at Chatham in Kent, HMS Unicorn was used as a naval gun-powder hulk (store) at Woolwich for some years.  She made the voyage to Dundee in 1873, where she served as the Navy’s Reserve Drill Ship.

Her trainees served in both world wars.  During the second world war she was largely “manned” by women, the WRENs learning Morse code and other communication techniques.

During WWII, Unicorn was the naval headquarters in Dundee and earned her second claim to uniqueness.  She’s the only wooden warship to have accepted the surrender of a German U-Boat.

Just think about that for a moment: an 1824 wooden sailing ship taking the keys, as it were, of top-of-the-range technology in 1945.  I wonder what the German crew felt about it.  (There’s a photo of one of them rubbing his head as he left the ship, having walked into the low doorway.  Maybe he wasn’t thinking abut much at all after that!)

Moving to a new berth

Unicorn had been berthed in the same place, in Earl Grey Dock, from her arrival in 1973 right up until 1962.  The dock was due to be filled in to make way for the Tay Road Bridge and the Royal Navy, thinking Unicorn wasn’t fit to be moved, decided to have her broken up.

Luckily some of the Reservists who had trained on board fought that decision and she was moved – with considerable difficulty.  She’d become stuck in the mud and had to be dredged and hauled clear of it.  As she came clear, part of her false keel stayed put and was left behind.

Some 20,000 people enjoyed the sight of HMS Unicorn being towed to Camperdown Dock.  A year later she moved again, to Victoria Dock.  Once she had been moved, the Navy decided she was fit for further service “for an indefinite period of years”.  That period ended a mere five years later, when the Royal Naval Reserve moved to a permanent base on shore.

Again, the Navy wanted to break up the old ship.  Again, her Reservists fought the decision.  They formed the charmingly-named Unicorn Preservation Society, got Royalty involved – and the result is that you can visit history on the water.

Visiting HMS Unicorn

There are four decks.  Start at the top, on the (roofed) Weather Deck from which the ship was steered.

Then there’s the Gun Deck, which is where you come aboard: HMS Unicorn carried 46 cannon.

Stern of HMS Unicorn
The Captain’s Cabin windows. Photo from marinequest.com

The Captain’s Cabin is also on this deck, comparatively luxurious and with a rather extraordinary arrangement of windows.

On the outside of the ship, the area around the gun ports is painted white.  This was Nelson’s idea, so that different types of ships could be recognised at sea by the number of gun decks they had.

Below the gun deck is the Mess Deck, where the rest of the officers and crew lived and ate.  Finally, down in the bowels of the ship, there’s the Orlop Deck and Hold where all the stores were kept.  (“Orlop” comes from the Dutch “overloop” or covering: the orlop deck covered the hold).

There are plenty of artefacts to see, including the daggers of the U-Boat officers, WREN uniforms and, of course, the guns.  There’s also a replica of the Unicorn figurehead – perfect for selfies!

You visit at your own pace, though you can arrange a tour in advance if required.  For obvious reasons, access to all but the gun-deck is limited to the able-bodied; and tall folk should watch their heads.

Visit soon, while you can still experience HMS Unicorn on the water.  Dundee’s Waterfront is being massively redeveloped and the ship may be moved to the old dry dock (itself a listed building) when Victoria Dock becomes a marina.  While this would help preserve the ship’s timbers and is probably necessary for her continued survival, you’d miss the gentle rocking under your feet that makes a boat feel alive.

Find out more at http://www.frigateunicorn.org/visit/.

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