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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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!

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

 

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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!

I will let you in on a little secret. That photo I use at the top of my blog was taken some years ago on the isle of Iona. It’s a beautiful place which I have visited several times, and each visit is special.

Lynne and Anna IonaNow you can see the whole picture, including my daughter who was about eight at the time. She is now almost twenty and a few inches taller than I am!

I use another photo of Iona on my Twitter account. This one shows my son (now seventeen) walking along the road across the island to a big beach on the western side.

Cam on IonaRecently I was invited to come back to Iona as part of the Summer Gala Fun Day on the island. Apparently my puffin picture books are very popular there, so the people who run the Martyrs Bay Shop kindly asked me to do some storytelling and book signing for them. Naturally I had to accept!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

In the run-up to the event I was delighted to see a poster up in the shop window, kindly supplied by my publisher, Floris Books. The shop has a special puffin corner, and this was where my three puffin books were prominently displayed!

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

Photo ©Lindsey Fraser

On Saturday I read stories with a lovely little girl from Cork, Ireland. She was full of story ideas of her own, too! Then I spoke to a number of tourists from England, Australia and America, and signed books for all their grandchildren.

Iona book signingOn Sunday I had a very enthusiastic crowd of small children, parents, grandparents and a few dogs! We read all three books and then the children were each allowed to choose one. It was interesting to see which book appealed to which child. Some already had Harris the Hero at home, and many were surprised to hear that Lewis Clowns Around was the first book.

I had a lovely time meeting people from all over the world, and I think the children enjoyed it too. The warm and friendly staff at Martyrs Bay Shop made the whole experience a great pleasure, so many thanks to all of them!

Iona rowboatIn between storytelling sessions, my husband and I wandered around the island taking photos of the beautiful scenery. We walked the same road as my son to the other side of the island, and my husband actually went swimming in that clear but c-c-c-cold water!

Iona footpathI preferred to stay on dry land, and while I was sitting on the beach I saw a long black animal run past across the sand. (I thought it was a weasel or a stoat or something, but then I heard a woman say, “Did you see that mink?”) I’m always spotting weird wildlife when I go on holiday…

Iona east beachThe beach was beautiful, and almost deserted. When we got back to our hotel (the Argyll) we enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine out in their garden. It looks out on the water between Iona and Mull and has lots of wooden benches bleached by the sun.

Iona boatsSuch a lovely view to look out on! It’s hard to imagine a more relaxing holiday. I do hope they’ll invite us back next year!

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Every few months, our local Botanic Gardens hosts a weekend Cactus and Succulent Show. Growers bring a wide variety of prickly cacti and smooth succulents, from pin-cushion size to almost shrub proportions. At the last show, my daughter found the little ones irresistible, and came home with six tiny prickly things in pots. Given her busy student lifestyle, these are perfect on her window sill, waiting patiently until she remembers very occasionally to water them.

cactus n aloe veraBecause I live in a flat two floors up, and our shared north-facing garden is damp and uninviting, I do all my gardening on my kitchen window sill. As it faces south-west, I have the illusion of being a brilliant gardener because everything flourishes happily there. The spiky Aloe Vera you see above was once the size of my hand, but several pots later it is now taking over the kitchen! Next to it is my Christmas cactus, which bursts into riotous pink bloom every November. Now that spring is on its way I can see some new pink buds developing…

money treeI had a very old Jade plant for several years but it was getting tired, or so I thought. Then I noticed it had snuck one branch into a neighbouring pot and sprouted a new plant! When the sprout got to be about 8cm tall I took it out carefully and put it in a new pot. In no time at all it grew into the giant tree you see above. All it took was a little watering now and again. You can see why I’m a fan of these amazing regenerating plants!

jade plant flowersI discovered recently that a Jade plant (official name Crassula ovata) can have pretty white flowers like the ones above. I must find out how I can encourage my plant to do that!

At the last cactus show I stopped to chat with a grower about a tall, pink-tinged plant I quite liked. He explained how easy it was to start a new plant from a cutting or even just one leaf. He broke one off the tall plant I was admiring and gave it to me. Hurrying home, I found a pot and planted the little leaf. I placed it in the sunny kitchen window next to my Jade plant and waited.

baby cactusAnd waited. And waited. After about six months I could tell that the leaf was more firmly rooted (like a baby tooth becoming less wobbly). Then a few days ago, a tiny sprout appeared! My husband is dubious, and thinks this may be a weed, but I am not so pessimistic. It is growing bigger every day so we’ll soon see what sort of plant it is. I am convinced it will be a glorious succulent like the one I admired at the show.

If you’re looking for tips on how to grow cacti and succulents indoors, there are some good pointers HERE in an article by Heather Rhoades. I also found all sorts of interesting facts about cacti and succulents on a Texas website where these plants are native and grow outdoors. It even includes some cactus recipes!

And now for an update on my little plant’s progress. You’ll be pleased to learn that the sprout was not a weed, and five months later, this is how it looks:

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The original leaf withered away and the healthy new plant is doing beautifully!

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?