Friday, May 1, 2009

Day 6 From Oyne to St. Margaret's Hope

Sunday 26 April. This, our biggest travel day so far, took us through 5 regions of Scotland. Aberdeenshire, Invernesshire, Rosshire, Southerland and Orkney. We started in Insch in the shadow of Bennachie, the tallest hill in Aberdeenshire, drove through the Speyside region towards Inverness. A number of windmills dot the fields in this area. Scotland is dedicated to replacing two old nuclear power plants and reducing dependence on oil by focusing not just on wind power, but solar and tidal power.

We stopped at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre. This famous battles lasted just 45 minutes and was the end of the Jacobite uprising. The visitor center overlooks a flat field where on April 16, 1746, the Duke of Cumberland sent Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing. Not only were the Jacobite forces massacred that day, after the battle, Cumberland, know as "The Butcher" ordered all Jacobite supporters in the Highlands hunted down and slaughtered after the battle.

For a musical interpretation, listen to the McKassons "Culloden" on their recording "Tripping Maggie"

Clava Cairns lies several miles from Culloden but receives just a fraction of the visitors. This Bronze age burial site sits among pastures and fields. In the UK, the Bronze Age was the period from 2700 to 700 BC. The site is comprised of three stone mounds and some standing stones, trees, and a few interpretive signs. As the group strolled through the site, which isn't much larger than a football field, I think the atmosphere seeped into our beings and most talking ceased. How can we ponder something so old when we live in a time when a car is old after 3 years, a dress is out of fashion after one year, and buildings that are 80 years old are torn down to make way for modern structures?

As we headed to lunch, we drove along the Moray Firth. You are more likley to see dolphins in these waters, more than any other place in Europe. We lunched at The Storehouse at Foulis Ferry on Cromarty Firth. The storehouse is a "girnal" meaning "grain store." Girnals are unusual in the Highlands. They were built as close as possible to water transport in the 18th and 19th centuries, before there were railways in the area. This efficient eatery offers tasty food and excellent service. I can highly recommend the roast beef Yorkshire pudding.

From there the A9 winds north along the North Sea. Numerous oil rigs are visible off shore. Along the way, just a few miles off the main road along the River Brora is the studio of Joan Baxter, tapestry artist. Joan trained in Edinburgh and Poland and has been weaving tapestry commissions for over 30 years. Joan is inspired by the land and landscape. She and her husband live on a seven acre nature preserve. One can see the influence on the land in her traditional and mixedtechnique tapestries. Joan loves mixing colors, "Why use one colour when two will do?" She often works from a concept and loose sketches, preferring not to use a detailed cartoon, so the work can develop as she weaves. Joan also teaches tapestry to serious students.

Joan's husband, Steven Clark, is a bladesmith and musician. He apprenticed with a knifemaker and picked up the skill quite quickly. He likes giving old steel new life as a knife and believes knives should be functional, not just decorative. He likes using a variety of materials for the handles, but especially antler. Between caring for the land and creating things with their hands, there is rarely a wasted moment at Ford House.

Our final destination on the mainland was the ferry at Gills Bay. This is the shortest ferry crossing to Orkney at this time of year, just one hour. Prepared with motion sickness drugs and pressure point bracelets, the travelers boarded the new Pentalina ferry for a pretty calm crossing. Some of the group found the best way to sail to St. Margaret’s Hope is with the wind in your face on the open deck.

St. Margaret’s Hope is on the island of South Ronaldsay. A quiet, sleepy little town, it is a great place to spend the first night on Orkney. Many visitors to Scotland don’t travel to Orkney, and even many mainlanders have never been here. I discovered the barren, enchanting pull of these islands on my first trip to Scotland. Orkney and the Shetland Islands lie between mainland Scotland and Norway. The islands once belonged to Denmark, and the Nordic influence in the place names (St. Ola, Stenness, Brodgar) is especially strong. Orcadians pride themselves in their heritage and not being mainlanders. Of 65 islands in Orkney, 17 are inhabited with a total of 20,000 residents. However, more and more folks are discovering this magical place. This summer over 60 cruise ships will dock in Kirkwall. One more reason I like to tour off-peak.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Day 5 Dundee and Oyne

Saturday 25 April

To go from Edinburgh to Dundee, you cross the new Forth Bridge. The old Forth Railroad bridge, a cantilever bridge, is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. Completed in 1890, it was the world's first major steel bridge and still carries many trains a day. The bridge has only been closed down 5 days in its history for repairs.
Dundee lies on the River Tay and is known for 'jute, jam, and journalism.' It was once known as “Jutopolis.” Over 50,000 workers worked in the jute mills. Verdant Works Jute Mill, built in 1833 , was the 16th largest of 61 milles. The last of the jute mills closed in 1997. Verdant Works is now a museum depicting the days when jute was king in this

Jute fiber was brought by ship from India. Large bales were brought to the factories where it was processed, spun into yarn and woven into cloth. Boys only worked in the mills until they were 18, when they were made redundant. Women comprised the majority of the workers in the mills and had a lot of power. We had an excellent guide, Earl Scott, who led us through the interpretive displays.

Each time I come to the museum there is something new and this year it was an excellent film showing the history and the current jute industry in India where most of the world’s burlap is woven today. Now there are no jute mills left in Dundee. Some of them have been torn down, others turned into housing and others refitted for other industry. But no industry since has matched the success of the jute mills in the 19th and early 20th century. A number of songs tell the stories of working in a jute mill. My group, Straw into Gold has recorded 2 of them, Sheena Wellington’s “The Weavers o Dundee” and Mary Brooksbank’s “The Jute Mill.” You can listen to this second song at, by clicking on the revolving musical symbol on the home page.

A beautiful three-masted, 30’ x 128” ship, the Discovery, sits in the Dundee Harbor. Built in 1901 as a research vessel, it was designed for the artic with a 27” thick hull comprised of 3 layers of pine, oak and fir. You can see the saltboxes in the hull that were filled with salt and pushed into the hull, like drawers, to absorb any excess moisture between the hulls. The ship was powered by a double expansion engine, made in Dundee, which was powered by two boilers. These boilers were fed coal. For the first Antarctic voyage, 400 tons of coal was stored in the hold and 40 tons on the deck.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott led an expedition of 47 men to the Antarctic to attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. The crew included 37 sailors, 5 officers and 5 scientists. The scientific study focused on the five areas of geology, meteorology, magnetism, zoology and biology. With space for only 18 sleeping hammocks in the crew quarters, the men worked and slept in 12 hour shifts. The main meal was as noon. Each crew member was given 1 glass of rum with lunch. In New Zealand the ship took on 40 sheep that were slaughtered and hung frozen on deck. The diet was supplemented by penguin, sea birds and seals. 100 pounds of dry mustard was in the ship’s pantry to disguise the bad taste of the penguin and other birds. Every person was given a dose of lime juice each day to prevent scurvy.

Officers had a finer sleeping and galley area, but it was also the coldest place on the ship. The officers would wake up with their blankets frozen to their beds. When the ship reached the Antarctic, they became frozen in sea ice and remained there for 2 winters. While scientists conducted research, Scott and 2 others attempted to reach the pole via foot. The 19 dogs brought on the journey to pull the supply sled all died. The mission was unsuccessful. In Feb 1903, the pack ice broke up freeing the Discovery to sail back to Scotland. Scott died on his second attempt to reach the pole which was finally achieved by Roald Amundsen.

We dined tonight at Gadies, the new restaurant attached to Touched by Scotland gallery in Oyne. Robin and Jan offer food that looks beautiful and tastes delicious.

After dinner, G&T entertained us with songs of the sea and songs of Scotland. A local duo, they are known for their harmonies and light-hearted presentation style. Trish Norman and Gaye Anthony travel around the UK and Europe performing at festivals. Their voices blend in sweet harmonies while trading off the lead. Trish’s high, clear, lilting soprano is grounded by Gaye’s rich, round alto voice. They accompany themselves with guitar. They sing songs about the sea, fishing, and even taught us the chorus to their famous haggis song! Their stories and banter interspersed between songs kept us all smiling and laughing and singing along. Gaye and Trish have made 3 recordings. You can hear their joyous sounds at

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Day 4 Edinburgh

Friday 24 April
Dovecot Tapestry Studios sports a dynamic new location. A few blocks off the Royal Mile and just down from the Museum of Scotland, the city pools sat decaying since the 1990’s. The Victorian building, designed by Robert Morham, was constructed in 1885 and housed two pools, one for ladies and one for men. After a complete renovation designed to retain the Victorian architectural features, the building now houses two galleries on the ground floor, Dovecot Studios and offices on the first floor, and two additional floors of rental office space.
Except for a break during WWII, the studios have been weaving tapestries for commission since 1912. After the war, they began collaborating with well-known artists, a tradition that continues through today. One walks into the weaving studio flooded with natural daylight and colors of yarn cones vibrating from the walls and is dazzled. A viewing gallery rings the perimeter of the large open studio at second story level. Work of past and present Dovecot weavers is displayed here. The studio/gallery, former site of the large pool, feels like a warm, inviting sanctuary.

Three of the four Dovecot weavers were in the studio today. All generously spoke with us. Douglas Grierson, head weaver, has been working at Dovecot for 48 years. A masterful weaver who is drawn to geometric forms, Douglas believes that “the (artistic) translation of tapestry only comes by the weaving of many, many tapestries.” A humble, soft-spoken man, his many tapestries hanging in studio, attest to his love and mastery of the art. Each of the weavers have been asked to create a piece to commemorate the new studio space. Douglas’s piece, “Bath and Bathers” depicts bathers from famous artworks in history. David is writing a book about the history of the studios for the 2012 centennial.

David Cochrane is working on speculative piece, a sample that hopefully will gain the studio a new commission. He showed us how he sews up the slits between the woven motifs while he weaves. David was an apprentice at Dovecot for five years and has been weaving tapestry there now for twenty-four years.

Jonathan Cleaver just joined the workshop in August. He studied at Edinburgh College of Art and did textile conservation before coming to Dovecot. Douglas and Jonathon are working together on Jonathan’s piece, which has the working title “Pool Sounds.” Often the weavers work side by side on a piece. Each tapestry woven at Dovecot has the weavers’ mark and the Dovecot symbol woven into the piece. Naomi Robertson was not weaving today but has been with Dovecot almost 20 years. By 2012, the 100th anniversary of Dovecot, the four weavers will collectively have one hundred total years of weaving experience amongst them.

This new venue will allow for classes to be offered and gives tapestry a much wider public exposure. The public can watch the weavers from the viewing gallery the first Tuesday of the month.

The two galleries on the ground floor are open to the public Wednesday –Saturday. The small gallery is showing an exhibition based on the paintings and graphic works of Barbara Rae. The tapestries and tufted rugs express the energetic, colorful, and outspoken character of the artist. She particularly likes her paintings translated into the rugs because the rugs both absorb and reflect the light. Douglas creates these tufted rugs with a machine that looks like a hand drill. But the tool both punches the yarn through a polyester canvas and cuts the yarn creating the pile surface. Power tufting is a much faster process than tapestry weaving and allows for fluid motion and expression.

The large gallery currently hosts, the “Age of Experience”, a collection of textiles, glass, ceramics and jewelry by mature artists. The show includes woven work of the late Peter Collingwood, basket maker David Drew, and Ikat hangings by Mary Restieaux. The exhibition is brought to Dovecot by Innovative Craft, a new Edinburgh based organization for the promotion and understanding of contemporary craft.

Travelers were turned loose in the old town of Edinburgh for the rest of the day after a wee overview city tour from Richard our veteran driver of the past two tours. We bid goodbye to him tonight so he could return home to be with his wife and 17-week old son. Here is John, the hiker of the group, at the top of Arthur’s Seat. He's looking out over the Firth of Forth with the city in the background.

Annette and Max of Hotel Ceildh-Donia have hosted us during our Edinburgh stay. The beds are very comfortable and hospitality top notch. The house restaurant serves up tasty Scottish fare prepared by their chef/son. I lick my plate clean for his Sticky Toffee Pudding !

Monday, April 27, 2009

2011 Day 3 New Lanark and Selkirk

Thurday 28 April. Each day of the tour, I share a poem that is relevant to the place or area we are traveling. As we went to the Borders today, we passed the home of the poet known as The Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. His poem, "A Boy's Song" eloquently describes the rolling green hills of sheep and cattle pastures bisected by the rivers Tweed, Clyde and Yarrow. One stanza goes...."Where the mowers mow the cleanest, where the hay lies thick and greenest, there to track the homeward bee, that's the way for Billy and me..." This year due to the unusually high amount of sunshine and lack of rain in April, the growing season is 3 weeks ahead of normal. Daffodils are done blooming, the tulips are nearly done, and the flowering trees are starting to lose the blossoms. Scottish Blackface or Cheviot ewes, often with 2 lambs cover the pastures. These are cherry blossoms in front of the loo in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles.

New Lanark World Heritage Site is the site of a former mill where cotton was spun. Today, in one of the restored mill buildings, there is a small production of wool yarn being spun on a large spinning mule for the sake of education and for profit.

The community was built below three falls on the River Clyde in the late 1700’s by David Dale. The mill ran on power generated by the falls. Today New Lanark still produces hydropower that runs the community, with enough left over to sell back to the power grid. The mill was purchased and run by Robert Owen from 1800-1825. He was a social reformer and forward thinker far ahead of his time. He ideas were not popular with other mill owners. But his efforts gave him the title “father of trade unionist movement” in Scotland. He banned children from under age 10 from working in the mill. He started the first nursery school in the UK. Children from ages 2-9 went to school while their parents and siblings worked in the mill. Once children reached age 10, they worked in the mill and then attended classes at night. Mr. Owen treated his own 7 children no differently than he treated the children of the mill workers.

The school was built by money generated from the company store which was run as a cooperative. New Lanark was the first cooperative that lead to the foundation of The Co-op, a grocery store still thriving around the country today. In school not only were reading, writing, and arithmetic taught, but the children studied dancing, music, and nature studies.

The workers lived in buildings just across from the mill. A family of 10 may share one room, but they were warm, well fed, and had health care provided by the mill doctor. Here are John and Jenell listening with rapt attention to our guide. The work day started at 6 a.m with a breakfast break at 9 a.m. and lunch break in the middle of the afternoon. The work day ended at 7pm. The mill ran 6 days a week and was closed on Sunday. They produced 50,000 miles of cotton per week. The mill operated until 1968 when it could not operate profitably. The mill buildings sat empty and fell into disrepair from the elements and vandalism. A foundation saw the value in restoring the site and started the vast restoration of the mill in the 1970’s. The restoration still continues today. The newest addition is a roof on top of one of the mill buildings.

The site is a glorious example of public and private cooperation to preserve an important part of Scottish history and to educate generations to come. Today 150 people live on the site. Many visitors may only take the Annie McLeod ride. But I encourage you visit the school building, visit Robert Owen's house, spend time looking through the exhibits in Mill buildings 1&2 and the housing block, and take the hike to all 3 water falls. Above are Jere and Evelyn on the roof garden. Day 3 continued entirely sunny and warm, tropical Scotland so far.

I was very struck by this place on my first visit in 1997 and each visit deepens that impression. I think it is the most tasteful and educational tourist site in Scotland.

The first week of the tour we are traveling in tandem in two Rabbie's mini-coaches. Here is assistant leader Doreen and guide/driver Ally, who wore his kilt to impress us today!

Lochcarron of Scotland was the afternoon venue. One of the few weaving mills left in the Borders, this Selkirk-based company weaves tartans and fashion fabrics for designers and companies around the world. They are housed in a former mill building that was refurbished in Riverside industrial area and feature a huge showroom of their goods. The business is family owned with many of the workers long time employees. A guided tour starts with the dying process of the wool.

The process continues with cone winding, winding the warp and then tying onto the looms. If the current order has the same number of warps per inch as the previous job, a machine can tie on the entire warp in one hour. If an order has an unusual set, a worker has to hand thread the heddles, about an 8 hour job, just like us labor intensive hand loom weavers have to do in our studios.

The Swiss power looms the company used are 10 years old and cost 250,000 pounds each. But still much hands on work and checking is required to retain the high standard of quality the company demands of their cloth. The women in quality control handle and inspect every yard of fabric after it comes off the looms. If an error is found, they may have to hand needle in yarn to fix the problem for up to a 40-yard length. The finishing of the cloth is done in Galasheils. Locharron has their own in-house design team. The head designers spend half their time in New York and Japan. In addition to traditional and private tartan designs, the company weaves fabrics for fashion houses around the world. 4 different weights of tartan are woven by the company. Here Anne and Donna inspect a delicious drapey lightweight weave. When I asked the guide how Lochcarron has survived when most other mills have closed, he answered simply “quality. When companies buy from us, they know what they are getting.” Sadly these days, you can purchase cheap knock-offs of tartans made in India. Always look for the label “made in Scotland” to assure you are getting the authentic thing, made with quality and pride in Scotland.

For 2010 Paris Fashion Week, Lochcarron designers used plaid to create a display of tartan butterlies.

The night found us in Edinburgh scattered about the B&B's along Dalkeith Road. Maxx and Annette prepared at Hotel Ceilidh Donia served us a delicous meal of fresh and tasty Scottish food. Scotland excells in using as much produce, meat , and fish produced locally and around Scotland. Fuel is so dear, (current 1.50 pounds per liter for diesel) that eating local is not a fad but a necessity here. Extensive use of poly tunnels by farmers allows fruit and vegies early and late in the normal season.