Archive for the Edinburgh Category

Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Posted in Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , on October 9, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My last post featured a return visit to the lost gardens of Penicuik, a wonderfully wild park designed in the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. On the same day that I visited Penicuik, I also took the opporturnity to explore nearby Mavisbank, another house and garden created by Sir John which now lies in ruins. Just like Penicuik, Mavisbank is currently emerging from years of ruin and neglect, but still retains a remarkably magical atmosphere.

The easiest route to Mavisbank is along the river Esk, where a footpath has been created which leads from  the outskirts of the village of Polton along to the house and estate. The approach to the house itself leads up an old, overgrown driveway which is rather magical itself, giving just a hint of the faded grandeur to come.

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House

The magical overgrown driveway leading to Mavisbank House, Loanhead

Built (and largely designed) by Sir John during the 1720s, Mavisbank was once a beautiful country retreat, with one eighteenth-century visitor exclaiming that it was more like Tivoli in Italy than Scotland. Since the nineteenth century, however, the house’s fate has been less happy – sold by the Clerks in 1815, it later became an asylum. By the 1950s the land around it had become a scrap yard, and in the 1970s the house was gutted by fire. Now it is a sad and fragile, but undeniably picturesque, ruin.

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House

The sad but picturesque ruins of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

You don’t have to be a structural engineer to see that the ruins of Mavisbank are in a pretty bad way. Subsidence caused by mining in the area has taken its tool, which huge cracks snaking across the house’s buckling walls. In fact, parts of the building looks like they are only being held up by the network of scaffolding that pokes out from its windows and roof. On the rather damp afternoon that I visited, the place felt lonely and abandonded, empty apart from me and the flock of noisy rooks that seem to have taken up residence in Mavisbank’s shattered shell.

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A fragile wing of ruined Mavisbank House, Loanhead

A trust has been set up to rescue Mavisbank, however, and work has already been done to clear the land around it of bushes and trees and allow more public access. High on the hill behind the house can be seen the earthworks of what enthusiastic antiquarian Sir John believed to be a Roman camp, but is more probably some sort of medieval fortification. Out in front are the swampy remains of an ornamental pond that once sat at the centre of a carefully landscaped garden, and in the distance is a pretty pigeon house.

My favourite part of the house was the south side, which I suspect contained the service quarters. Featuing a deep basement, now filled with undergrowth but still retaining its wooden window frames, this wing was tantalisingly shadowy and eerie.

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

The gloomy south wing of Mavisbank House, Loanhead

At one point it looked like Mavisbank would be lost forever, its ownership contested for years as it slowly crumbled. Now the Mavisbank Trust are working with Scottish Heritage and the local council to secure the future of the house and grounds, and preserve it for future generations.

In the meantime, it remains a marvellously evocative ruin with a uniquely magical aura.

For more details of the Mavisbank Trust and their work, click here.

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Posted in Cemetery, Church, Edinburgh, Ghosts, History, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2014 by mysearchformagic

If there is one place you can be pretty sure of finding magic, it is in an old graveyard, and my visit to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh this week certainly didn’t disappoint. The graveyard is situated on the edge of the city’s Old Town, and has been in use since the 16th Century, so there are lots of wonderful old tombs and carved stones to look at.

A packed corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard

A packed corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard

As I wandered around the graveyard, I noticed skulls and skeletons everywhere. A rather lively looking dancing skeleton welcomes you as you enter, and many of the tombs are decorated with carved Memento Mori, suitably macabre reminders of our own mortality.

A Dancing Skeleton near the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard

A Dancing Skeleton near the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard

As well as being the last resting place of many of Scotland’s most prestigious citizens, the Kirkyard has also witnessed some dramatic events over the years. In 1679 over a thousand Covenanters, Scottish Christians who were battling for a new style of worship and church organisation, were kept prisoner in a corner of the graveyard. They were left out of doors for over four months, surviving on scraps of bread and any extra food which kindly locals were able to sneak in to them. Not surprisingly many died, and more were later executed, and the melancholy spot now bears a memorial to those who lost their lives in this atrocity.

The Covenater's Prison, Greyfriars Kirkyard

The Covenaters’ Prison, Greyfriars Kirkyard

The tomb of the man largely responsible for these terrible events sits just a few yards away. Sir George Mackenzie (1636-1691), later known as “Bloody Mackenzie” for obvious reasons, now rests in a rather grand, if slightly overgrown monument, designed by famous Scottish architect James Smith.

The tomb of "Bloody" MacKenzie

The tomb of “Bloody” Mackenzie

I say that he rest there, but in fact recent reports of ghostly events near the tomb suggest that Mackenzie is not resting at all, with hundreds of unexplained events in the graveyard in recent years being blamed on his malevolent spirit. If you really want to be creeped out, then ghost tours of the Kirkyard are held every evening. Check it out, if you dare…

A Memento Mori in Greyfriars Kirkyard

A Memento Mori in Greyfriars Kirkyard

The Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Landscape, Ruins with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Nestled at the feet of the Pentland Hills not far from Edinburgh, Penicuik is a fairly quiet, unexceptional town, not the kind of place you would expect to find magic. But on its outskirts lies the estate of Penicuik House, a grand mansion which is now a stately ruin. The huge gardens which surround it were once some of the most impressive in Scotland, but since the house was gutted by fire in 1899 they have been slowly returning to nature. The result is a wonderfully wild and picturesque landscape now known as the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”.

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

Penicuik House has long been the home of the Clerk family, and indeed they still live in the imposing stable block near the ruins of the late 18th Century house. Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, the famous antiquarian and politician who lived here until 1755, was responsible for much of what we see in the gardens today. A huge fan of ancient Rome, he littered the grounds with picturesque neoclassical fountains, and even built a dramatic cave leading to a lake based on the famous grotto at Pausillipo near Naples.

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

In the 18th Century the gardens at Penicuik were compared to the romantic landscape of Tivoli near Rome, famous for its huge waterfalls and rugged cliffs. Nowadays the place is rather overgrown, and on the day I visited the Pentlands were cloaked in heavy grey clouds, but this sense of brooding neglect only added to the magical atmosphere.

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

Some areas of the garden, including that ‘Roman’ cave, are still off limits to visitors, and in need of restoration. The opulent terraces are hidden in the overgrowth, the once proud gates are rusted and its crumbling walls covered in moss. The impressive ruins of Penicuik House itself are currently being consolidated, and a new project has also recently been launched to revive the large walled gardens which sit close by. It’s good to see the gardens of Penicuik being brought back to life, but I hope they still retain their wild, overgrown magic.

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

The inclement weather on the day of my visit prevented me from fully exploring the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”, but you can be sure that I will be back there soon to soak up its unique, enchanting atmosphere of elegant, magical decay.

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Posted in Art, Edinburgh, Fairy Tales, Legend, Photography, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

Roslin Glen, Midlothian

Posted in Castle, Caves, Edinburgh, History, Landscape with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by mysearchformagic

You will probably have heard of Rosslyn Chapel, an ancient and sacred place near Edinburgh. It has been well-known for years, centuries even, but ever since its appearance in the mega-blockbuster book and film The Da Vinci Code, visitor numbers have gone stratospheric. The sad result is that, with a modern visitor centre tacked on to the side and coach loads of visitors turning up every day, the Chapel has now all but lost its unique magic.

Roslin Glen, which lies just a short walk from the Chapel, is a different story altogether. For while the wild and dramatic scenery of this rocky gorge has long attracted attention from lovers of Romantic landscapes, including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, the Glen still retains a magical atmosphere like nowhere else I have ever visited.

Beginning the journey into Roslin Glen

Beginning the journey into Roslin Glen

The best place to begin a journey down Roslin Glen is at the foot of the craggy ruins of Roslin Castle, which rise imperiously above the wooded valley floor. The air here is thick with the heady stink of wild garlic and the incessant rush of the nearby River Esk. The going is easy, although sometimes rather muddy, but the sinuous sandstone cliffs which line the edges of the river give hints of the drama that is to come.

The imposing walls of Roslin Castle

The imposing walls of Roslin Castle

Further along the Glen the path becomes steeper and more treacherous. There are rocks to be climbed over, and fallen trees to squeeze under. At one point a huge landslide has recently taken place, taking many of the tall trees with it, the slippery remnants of the path still passable, but only just. Further on again the path all but disappears, replaced by a thin stone ledge along the water’s edge. 

The dramatic cliffs which line Roslin Glen

The dramatic cliffs which line Roslin Glen

As you venture deeper into the valley, it’s easy to forget that you are only a few miles from Scotland’s capital city. There aren’t many, if any, people around. The cliffs and crags become more misshapen and bizarre, formed from millennia of water erosion into the strangest of shapes, the gnarled and knotted tree trunks which sprout from them twisting into picturesque forms. I even came across a small naively-carved face in the rockface of an outcrop known locally as Lovers’ Leap; curious and most definitely magical!

A mysterious carved face in Roslin Glen

A mysterious carved face in Roslin Glen

I had hoped to visit Wallace’s Cave, a large rock cavern with a neatly chiseled doorway, reputedly used by William Wallace at the time of the Battle of Rosslyn, which took place nearby in 1303. Unfortunately I found myself on the wrong side of the gushing torrent, with no access to the other side, so had to make do with a distant view of its temptingly shadowy entrance. The steep path down to it suggests that any future visit will require stout shoes and a lot of courage.

A dark doorway into Wallace's Cave, Roslin Glen

A dark doorway into Wallace’s Cave, Roslin Glen

At the far end of the Glen you will find another castle. Hawthornden sits atop a rock riddled with caves, most of them apparently man made, but as the fine house is now a private writers’ retreat, these are not currently accessible to the public. The origins of the caves are unknown, although they possibly date back to the Bronze Age and have been linked to Robert the Bruce. Like Wallace’s Cave, Hawnthornden will have to remain a distant, tantalisingly magical mystery, for now at least.

The distant rooftops of Hawthornden Castle

The distant rooftops of Hawthornden Castle

Traprain Law, East Lothian

Posted in Edinburgh, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on April 22, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Any regular visitor to East Lothian will know Traprain Law. A huge mound of volcanic rock which sits dramatically amongst the rolling hills around Haddington, it is hard to miss this imposing mass. Few however will be aware of its long history, and the many myths linked with one of South East Scotland’s most fascinating landmarks.

Traprain Law from the south

Traprain Law from the south

Archaeological investigations of Traprain Law during the last hundred years have revealed centuries of habitation, with the first signs of human involvement dating back as far as 1500 BCE. The Law seems to have been the site of a major settlement, and has long been linked with the Votadini tribe who inhabited the region during Roman times. In 1919, a team of historians discovered the famous Traprain Treasure here, an incredible hoard of silver plate dating from this era, thought by modern scholars to have been a bribe paid by the Romans to the local people to buy their cooperation.

Nowadays there are few signs of this extensive history visible to the naked eye. The day that I visited the Law was cold and windy, with dark clouds sweeping in threateningly from the west. The climb up to the summit was steep and soggy, the path often resembling a boggy mountain stream.

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The muddy path towards the summit of Traprain Law

The view from the top made it all worthwhile, extending for miles over the surrounding landscape. No one else was around, just me and the stubby-legged, barrel-chested little horses that now make the Law their home.

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

The tiny horses which live on Traprain Law

Traprain Law has been linked in legend with St Mungo. A story is told that his mother, Thenaw, was thrown from its precipitous cliffs by her father King Lot when he discovered that she was pregnant by Owain Mab Urien. She miraculously survived, and following a journey across the Forth to a place near the town of Culross, she gave birth to Mungo, now the patron saint of Glasgow.

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

The view north east, towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock

An even more bizarre story suggests that the huge rocky outcrops known as the Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, which dominate the summit of the Law, have magical properties. Women, and perhaps men too, who want to improve their fertility are encouraged to squeeze their way through the narrow crevice between the two rocks, preferably performing this feat naked, not the most appealing prospect on a cold and drizzly afternoon.

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Lwa

The mysterious Maiden Stone and Mother Rock, Traprain Law

In recent years the Law has also been linked with UFO sightings, with unusual lights appearing here and at nearby North Berwick Law. I didn’t spot anything untoward on my visit, although the atmosphere at the top of the great mound is certainly rather special. The Loth Stone, a huge monolith said to be the gravestone of mythical King Loth and which sits in a field not far from Traprain Law was also on my agenda, but as I began my slippery descent the heavens opened and I was forced to hot-foot it back to my car. The Loth Stone, it seems, will have to wait for now.