Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles


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The Nature of Glasgow

2018-06-04 03:03:18

Though Glasgow is a busy city it’s easy to escape the bustle and find a quiet place to walk where nature thrives.

The Canal tow path of the Forth and Clyde Canal can be accessed from Anniesland Cross or Maryhill Road and many other points along its length. This green corridor stretches across Scotland from Bowling in the west to Edinburgh in the east

Another haven for wildlife near Gartnavel Hospital is Bingham's Pond, or Jury’s Pond as it is probably better known. It can be reached easily from Great Western Road.

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Caithness Flagstone Industry

2018-05-17 07:13:08

On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.

Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.

Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.

James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.

Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.

The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.

Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.

Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.

Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.

Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.

By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.

There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.

The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.

The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.

In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.

The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.

So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.

If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!

On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.

While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.

Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.

Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.

Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.

Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.

The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.

The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.

However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.

The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.

The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.

Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.

On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk

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Paisley Food and Drink Festival

2018-04-30 09:04:53

Once again, the Paisley Food and Drink Festival at the end of April 2018 proved a great attraction for a very large number of people over the course of two days.

Numerous food stalls lined both sides of Abbey Close - a setting made magnificent with Paisley Abbey providing the backdrop. Visitors passing the last of these food stalls came to a row of craft stalls, carousels and the other fairground delights of a carnival.

A variety of bands performed throughout the day on a covered stage set back from Abbey Close. Placing a few deck chairs in front of the stage may have been a bit optimistic considering Scotland’s changeable April weather but they were well used nonetheless.

An ever changing audience took advantage of the chairs and picnic tables. On the grass, large piece dominoes and board games of chess and snakes and ladders added to the entertainment.

In the impressive Town Hall across from the Abbey, the Paisley Beer Festival organisers, back here for a 31st year, had set up a very long bar with a range of some 250 beers from breweries throughout Scotland and the rest of the U.K. A hint of the exotic was added with a food stall offering German sausages and French crepes.

Back on the Close, a pop up gin bar in a marquee tempted aficionados inside. Promoters from different Scottish gin distilleries offered tastings and gave information on their particular product.

Prosecco fans were not forgotten and glasses were filled from a bar fitted in the back of a small van.

The food stalls were plentiful and varied. As well as burger and chips outlets there were stalls selling fine cheeses, smoked salmon and seafood and a whole range of baked goods.

People queued at different stalls for a bewildering selection of filled wraps, garnishes and sauces.

The cookery demonstrations proved popular. One chef cooked a dish of pieces of halibut topped with brioche. Tomatoes and foraged wild garlic fried in butter were added and the dish was topped with a few nasturtium leaves. It took minutes. The chef was entertaining and made it look so easy. The plateful, laid out to be tasted, didn’t last long!

There were hands on cookery sessions for adults as well as for children who, given this opportunity, seemed delighted to help with spoon and mixing bowl.

It’s no secret that Paisley lost out on its bid to be a future U.K. City of Culture. Initially there was great disappointment. However, various organisations involved in the bid have stayed together and are keeping the earlier momentum going with added enthusiasm.

The Paisley Food and Drink Festival, as well as being a great family day out, is part of this drive. There’s a lot more to come.

For further information: www.Paisleyis

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A Path with Poetry and Sculptures - near Dunkeld

2018-03-28 02:43:47

The A9 running north from Perth roars with traffic for much of the day. If you are ever driving the section of this road near Dunkeld and feel the need of a rest, you might consider giving the usual stopping places a miss and instead, find the turn-off for the A822, signposted for Crieff.

Some eight miles along this quieter road and just past the hamlet of Trochry, there’s a small car park with an information board and a directional arrow pointing to the start of the Corbenic Poetry Path, a circular walk of around 3.57km. The gradients throughout the walk are fairly easy while the immediate scenery is always interesting and varied.

The path was created by the Corbenic Estate team and numerous volunteers, from home and abroad, who dug out the route and used wheelbarrows to move tons of material. Underfoot the path has been formed with gravel in places, wood chippings in others and where the walking surfaces may become wet and muddy, a variety of wire covered boards. That this work was all done by hand is most impressive.

The path meanders through farmland and areas of different tree species including ancient larch and new plantings of birch. On the day I strolled along its length there was plenty of birdsong, colourful patches of wild flowers poking through leaf litter and sightings of butterflies.

Poems along the path - there are already thirty two with more to come - can be found incised into slate and stone and carved into slabs and rounds of wood. Other poems have been etched on glass, while the poems on paper are sealed in blocks of resin before being secured on top of way markers along the path.

The poems showcase the work of some of the best poets currently living and writing in Scotland. From time to time, they give readings at events held in specially created performance spaces along the path.

One poem written in praise of Douglas Fir trees is attached to the wire cage protecting a single sapling.

Douglas Fir

(Pseudotsuga douglasii)

This long lived giant

welcoming the mountain winds,

the snow, the mellow light.

Youthful freshness

is undiminished

through a thousand storms

and century after century.

The primary branches

whorl around the axis,

and stretch like words

far into other times.

There are also a number of sculptures along the path. The renowned sculptor Gezia Sollai was invited to create works here along with six sculptor students from Budapest. Some of the works have been sited to entice walkers into quiet corners along the route. Other sculptures are on show where the background views of the hills of Perthshire are expansive. Like any other works of art, some of the sculptures on display such as the hollowed out log drums – drumsticks provided - may have a particular appeal and become favourites.

Stone carver Michael Reilly is another gifted artist who has created pieces which are now sited along the path. Under his tuition, other members of the Corbenic Community are learning to carve.

Nearing the completion of the circuit, the path runs alongside the River Braan rushing white between rocks and large boulders. This end of the Poetry Path is especially lovely and walkers will find spots where they can enjoy a picnic before climbing a flight of stairs for the last short walk back to the starting point.

Further Information: Corbenic Camphill Community situated in beautiful Strathbaan a few miles from Dunkeld is based on the principle of living and working together with those who have special needs.

Respect and concern for the dignity of each person are actively fostered at Corbenic as is ensuring a stable and secure physical, emotional and social environment.

The Poetry Path is used regularly by those who live in the Corbenic Community.

www.Corbenic Camphill Community

www.corbenicpoetrypath

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