Archives for category: architecture

IMG_7748

There are not many places you can visit in Scotland that still feel like time has stood still. The little village of Culross (pronounced ‘koo-rus’) in the Kingdom of Fife is one such place, with narrow cobbled streets and charming 17th-century cottages nestled into a steep hillside by the Firth of Forth. At 5’4″ (163 cm) I felt like a giant next to the tiny front doors, and I had to fight the urge to peer into windows to catch a glimpse of history. In this town peering would be very rude, as real people live in these houses, which have been carefully restored by the National Trust for Scotland.

IMG_7754

The ‘jewel in the crown’ of this historic port town is Culross Palace, a mansion complex built by wealthy coal and salt merchant Sir George Bruce. The first house was completed in 1597, and when Sir George needed more space to accommodate all his important visitors he built the north wing (above) in 1611.

Sir George Bruce was Laird of Carnock, and he made his fortune first in salt production (which involved boiling salt water in large, shallow pans to evaporate the water) and later in coal mining. He was trained as an engineer and in 1595 he established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea with a tunnel deep under the Firth of Forth. Sir George exported coal and salt by sea to other ports on the Forth, and to Dutch and Swedish ports as well. His ships returned with Dutch ceramic roof and floor tiles and window glass as ballast, and these were used in the construction of Culross Palace.

Culross palace interior

Thanks to much painstaking restoration of the interiors, visitors can get a real sense of what life was like in the 17th century for a wealthy Scottish merchant and his family. There is wood panelling in every room, with decorative murals adorning some ceilings and walls. Because these rooms are so well preserved, several episodes of the popular television series Outlander have been filmed here.

IMG_7765

In the first series, the town is known as Cranesmuir and the Mercat Cross above (minus the modern cars) is the scene of a 17th-century witch trial. There are so many beautifully preserved buildings that I’m sure very few changes were required for filming.

IMG_7757

Culross town hall

The Culross Town House above served originally as a court house and prison. Today it houses an exhibition gallery and gift shop. In the foreground of this photo you can see a stone plinth and a wooden post. These mark the spot where merchants brought their produce to be weighed at the Tron, the official burgh weighbeam as shown in the artist’s drawing below. You can see the Town House still under construction in 1625. The clock tower it has today was added some years later.

Culross info sign

Culross and its distinctive ochre-coloured palace are impressive enough, but even more surprising is the terraced garden that extends up the steep hill behind. This has been planted with flowers, fruit and vegetables that would have been grown in the 17th century.

Culross flowers

lilies

Thanks to a long, hot summer this year, the garden is flourishing! There are shady bowers, wooden seating, stone walls and crushed seashell paths. From the top level, visitors have a stunning view across the Firth of Forth.

Culross garden bower

Culross garden inscription

seedling shed

A small orchard has not only fruit trees but also a collection of Scots Dumpy chickens. Apparently these supply eggs for the palace cafe, where we stopped for lunch. And like everything else in this magical place, the food was outstanding!

IMG_7752

(Many thanks to Mark Rickards and Danae Apeiranthiti for the photos shown here.)

 

Advertisements

Othello painting

Lately I have been rediscovering the joys of iambic pentameter, blank verse and colourful Elizabethan insults. When I was young, Shakespeare was a part of my everyday life, as my dad was a professor of English and would regularly quote the Bard at the dinner table. A gilt and velvet-framed image of Othello telling marvellous tales to a rapt Desdemona and her father used to hang in our front hall. My first introduction to Shakespeare’s plays was in a Classic Comic (popular in the 1960s and ’70s) similar to this one:

Hamlet comic

The story of Hamlet was conveyed in a simplified form, and yet some of Shakespeare’s language was retained to give a sense of the original:

Hamlet comic inside

I remember the play-within-a-play scene had a powerful impact on me that lasted for years. It was the moment when Hamlet’s uncle pours poison into the ear of the sleeping king, murdering his own brother. From the day I read that, I was never able to go to sleep again without the covers pulled up high over my exposed ear! (Not that I suspected my younger sister of wanting to murder me…)

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and we were lucky to have a town called Stratford on a river Avon, just like the English one. A Shakespeare festival was established in the town in the 1950s and my dad was a young actor there in the early days, along with Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and William Shatner (the original Captain Kirk). The first festivals were held in a big tent, but eventually they built a beautiful theatre whose design reflects its modest beginnings:

Stratford Ont theatre

Inside the theatre is a traditional “thrust” stage which is modelled on the Globe Theatre stage (where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed). This photo shows a 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet:

Stratford Ont stage

Photo ©Stratford Beacon Herald 2013

When I was a teenager we used to drive the hour-and-a-half to Stratford several times every summer to see a variety of plays. I was very lucky to be around during the 1970s and ’80s when famous British actors like Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford used to perform. One of the plays I went to was Much Ado About Nothing in 1980, with Maggie as Beatrice and Brian as Benedick:

Much Ado Maggie Smith

Photo from Cleveland State University Library

Both actors were brilliantly funny in the roles! Thanks to my trips to the Stratford Festival, I was familiar with Maggie Smith’s wry asides and arched eyebrow long before her Harry Potter and Downton Abbey fame.

When I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto (to study at the Ontario College of Art) and I took advantage of all the theatre on offer in the “big city.” I remember a fantastic production of Romeo and Juliet performed outdoors one summer in High Park. It starred a young and handsome Paul Gross as the wildly impetuous Romeo, and was perfectly timed for night to fall just as Romeo challenges and kills Paris in the tomb.

Paul Gross Romeo

Romeo and Juliet in park

Like my dad, my son is now interested in becoming an actor, and getting into drama schools requires mastering a Shakespeare monologue. Inspired by this, I have been exploring the plays as I dip in and out of my battered Shakespeare Complete Works. Unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t read much Shakespeare in university, as I chose to study French literature instead. My younger sister has become a Shakespeare professor too, so I have a lot of catching up to do!

The best way to enjoy Shakespeare is of course to see it, and if a live performance isn’t possible there is plenty of choice online. If you want to watch performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company there are some available on their website HERE, and schools can sign up to Drama Online. The Globe Theatre also has a wide selection of plays to buy or rent on their Globe Player website. The National Theatre broadcasts both live and pre-recorded films of Shakespeare plays (and many others) in cinemas across the UK and around the world through their National Theatre Live programme.

Al Pacino Shylock

And of course there are many Shakespeare plays that have been made into commercial films. One performance my son found particularly inspiring was Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice. This was a 2004 film which also starred Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and luckily it is still available on DVD. My son likes the speech in which Shylock points out that Jews are just like any other human being, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer” and therefore worthy of respect. You can see Al Pacino perform the speech on YouTube HERE.

The best thing about my son having to choose a Shakespeare monologue is all the great films we can watch! The hardest part is making that choice…

I’m looking forward to seeing an opera based on Macbeth next month, written by Giuseppe Verdi. And much like Proust’s famous madeleine biscuit, the thought of Verdi (whose handsome portrait you see above) brought memories of my youth flooding back!

When I finished university I moved to Montreal and rented a flat on the top floor of a small apartment block. The flat was small and bright with white walls and a skylight, and basically had three rooms: a bedroom in front, a long narrow living space, and a kitchen in the back. It was the first place I’d ever lived on my own, and I took great pleasure in furnishing it to my taste.

That striking portrait of Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini) hung on my kitchen wall (in poster form, not the original!) I have always admired the skill of the artist in capturing every whisker, those sparkling blue eyes, the velvety blackness of the coat and the sheen of that top hat. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Boldini worked in pastels, which I have never mastered. I just love this portrait and wish I still had that poster!

Another beautiful thing I miss from my Montreal flat is the bamboo bird cage that stood in my living room, under the skylight. I would never keep birds in a cage, but it was perfect for holding a trailing ivy plant which was very happy there. I have tried to find a similar cage online and was taken aback to find they are now called “vintage” (making me feel rather old!)

I lived on Rue Messier, which was typical of the area in Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. You can see the three-storey buildings with six flats in each, and the distinctive curvy metal staircases to reach the upper floors. I remember having to brush eight inches of snow off each step every morning in the winter!

I studied French and Quebec Literature in Toronto, and then moved to Montreal to live in a French-speaking environment. I had read the novels and plays of Quebec author Michel Tremblay and was a huge fan, so it was quite a thrill to move into the neighbourhood where he had grown up! Much of his work is set in those same streets around the Parc La Fontaine, and in one novel he mentions Rue Fabre, just a few streets away from my place on Messier.

The first novel in Tremblay’s chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal was called La grosse femme d’a coté est enceinte (The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant). You can see from the image above that my copy is well worn and well loved!

Photo ©Alchetron

Michel Tremblay is most famous for an early play called Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law). I have seen it performed in French, which is quite a challenge for a native English speaker since it is written in a working-class Montreal dialect called joual. The play has had such success that it has been translated into many languages, including Scots! It was a great pleasure for me to see a production of The Guid Sisters in Glasgow a few years ago. It took me right back to my youth in Montreal. And now an opera of Macbeth has done it again!

Recently my family and I had an amazing adventure on the other side of the world. We flew from Glasgow to Malaysia in the heart of Southeast Asia where the weather is always hot and steamy, even in December. From the capital city of Kuala Lumpur we took a four-hour train ride (with f-f-freezing cold air conditioning) up the coast to the island of Penang.

The main city on the island is called George Town, and it has a long history as a trading port. Today the city is a modern metropolis with high-rise office blocks and fancy hotels, but there are still some beautiful historic buildings that give a sense of the old way of life in Penang.

One of these is the famous Blue Mansion on Leith Street. It was built in the late 1880s by a very successful Chinese businessman and diplomat, Cheong Fatt Tze. Born into relative poverty in southern China in 1840, Cheong fled civil war and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he started as a shopkeeper before building an impressive business trading rubber, tea and coffee. He had three ships which travelled between Penang and Sumatra with trade goods, and soon he was rich enough to buy a bank.

Wealthy businessman Cheong Fatt Tze in the 1890s.

Cheong Fatt Tze was so well known and admired in Penang that the Chinese government appointed him as Chinese Consul, responsible for the wellbeing of all Chinese residents of Malaysia and Singapore. For this highly prestigious position, Cheong decided he would need an impressive residence as his base.

The Blue Mansion was built according to the principles of Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy linking architectural design with the elements of nature to ensure a lucky and harmonious life. For example, the house has five courtyards open to the sky, allowing rain to enter, as water is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The house is also built on a gradient which allows drainage and represents the upward steps toward progress and self-improvement.

The first courtyard features an ornate Chinese screen, imported cast iron columns and railings and a granite floor.

Because Cheong was an international trader, he chose the highest quality materials for his mansion from around the world. These included Victorian encaustic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and decorative cast iron from William Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow.

A view from upstairs shows the ornate cast iron columns, railings and brackets, as well as the decorative floor tiles, all imported from the UK in the 1880s.

Being a Glasgow resident myself, I couldn’t resist finding a Macfarlane imprint on one of the columns!

The floor tiles are typical of the time and the same patterns can be found in Victorian houses around the UK.

The exterior of the house is finished with a lime wash (mixing powdered lime – not the fruit – with sand and water) which is spread on the surface like plaster. Natural lime wash dries white, but because this colour represents death in Chinese culture, Cheong’s mansion has the addition of indigo dye which creates a beautiful blue colour.

At the eaves, Chinese craftsmen have added an amazing floral decoration in the Chien Nien style with pheasants, parrots, crabs and fish. These are made with red, yellow, white and green ceramic bowls which have been broken to create curved mosaic pieces. All very labour intensive!

The curved porcelain pieces make perfect feathers and flower petals.

Cheong Fatt Tze had eight wives and six sons. His favourite wife (number 7) lived in the Blue Mansion, and Cheong used part of the building as his office as Chinese Consul in Penang. He died in 1916 and his will stated that the mansion must be shared by his descendants and could not be demolished or divided up. Over the years it fell into disrepair, and was eventually inhabited only by drifters and rats.

In 1989 a group of Penang conservationists who saw the historic importance of the Blue Mansion bought the property and spent many years and a great deal of money (supported by UNESCO and other heritage agencies) restoring the building. It is now open to the public and has a museum installation on the first floor with guided tours three times daily. (We went on one and the guide is very entertaining!)

The mansion also houses a luxurious 16-room hotel and a restaurant called Indigo. It’s an impressive building with so many surprising details, not least of which is the fascinating story of Cheong himself. I think if we ever go back to Malaysia it will be my hotel of choice!

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?