- Transportation to and from Inverness airport
- Accommodation in a house in the Scottish countryside
- Catered meals
- All work and safety equipment
- On-site training and supervision by a specialist in Scottish conservation
- A 2-day tourguided excursion to the Isle of Skye (during the second week)
Restoring heritage is always about more than just the buildings. While we might get caught up in questions of authenticity, of style and architectural purity and period-accurate method, at the end of the day, I think anyone who preserves heritage does so with the conviction that doing so ultimately makes the world a better place. Even if it’s just in a little tiny way – one building, a doorway, a chimneypiece, a stair-rail – there’s a satisfaction in knowing that you’ve concretely improved one tiny corner in a measurable way. Sometimes its difficult to see just HOW improving heritage improves the world… But then again sometimes it’s really very simple.
At Burgie, Mr. Hamish Lochore is using his historic building to save Scotland’s trees. He’s spent the past 12 years creating an enormous arboretum on his estate, where he grows both endangered Scottish species, as well as exotic species that a huge international network send him from all over the world (legally, of course!). He’s realised that all eight of Scotland’s native surviving species have already been negatively affected by climate change, and are increasingly vulnerable. He’s realised, as many at the Forestry Commission refuse to acknowledge, that the future of Scottish forestry might just require investigating alternative species. Despite the milder microclimate of the Moray coast, tiny seedlings of exotic varieties need a little help in their earliest years before they’re ready to brave the Scottish weather. And this is where the “so what” of the historic greenhouse comes into it.
Hamish has done an amazing thing with his ancestral estate. In the grand tradition of country estate owners everywhere, he has moulded and crafted his land into something better than itself. He has made it productive as well as decorative, educational as well as functional – and the same is true for his greenhouse.
The glasshouse was originally built in 1912, and it belongs to a world that no longer exists. The social structures of Edwardian Britain eroded after the First World War, and the rural economy and lifestyle changed forever. The glasshouse was built for a household that was designed not just to function, but to impress, with a staff of household servants as well as landscapers and gardeners to keep things running inside and out. The Burgie glasshouse speaks eloquently to this division between those who serve and those who are served; it has separate entrances for staff and visitors, as well as extensive sheds “behind the scenes” that are plainer and clearly meant for the dirtier staging-work of the paid gardeners. And one can just picture the wee coal-monkeys who were sent down into the lowered boiler-room to keep the water-pipes heated. Meanwhile, family members or meticulously-dressed visitors could come in from the walled garden to a gleaming fantasy of crisp, white timber, translucent glass, and of course a well-maintained riot of exotic plants and flowers.While this might not be every person’s ideal, with great divisions in wealth and privilege, it cannot be denied that such divisions wrought beautiful objects, buildings included. But the world has moved on, and the societal structure and purpose that appreciated greenhouses as status symbols and works of art no longer exists. And, like most buildings nowadays, century-old greenhouses are finding that they too must earn their keep to survive.
How fortunate then that Hamish’s interests find more than enough uses for his broken-down old greenhouse! Hamish values his land and his heritage. As he said himself, “Who are we if we don’t leave things better than we found them?” But at the end of the day, he needs a working greenhouse for his eco-conservation work; whether it’s historic is in some respects neither here nor there. If he’s got one already on-hand, all the better! But in the state that it’s in… the Burgie greenhouse can’t exactly be said to be “working.” Most of the glass in the roof has fallen out over the centuries, and just to keep the water out Hamish put up some fibreglass sheeting. It keeps the inside relatively dry, but the essential function of a greenhouse – the capture and storage of heat and light through glass – is utterly lost. Right now it’s essentially just a glorified shed, and Hamish’s plants are suffering for it: shaded species are fine, but every year he loses dozens of carefully cultivated plants because they simply can’t get enough light and heat.
One of Hamish’s dedicated volunteers also has a love of historic buildings, and she saw the need – and the solution – right away. She reached out for help and enlisted the support of Adventures in Preservation, an American organisation that pair travel and tourism with heritage volunteering and conservation work. In June they brought 18 volunteers from the US and Australia (almost all women, as it happens!), and Hamish ripped the dirty sheeting off, freeing the beautiful wooden skeleton from its fibreglass prison! Over two weeks, the team sanded, chiseled and cleaned the entire wooden frame of the central house, then primed and painted it until it just glowed – literally, so white!
More about the amazing things we discovered during our work – and a few unsolved mysteries we uncovered – in a subsequent post.
But for now, Hamish’s beautiful greenhouse is roofless and gaping open to the elements, and Adventures in Preservation and I are working hard to get a group back in the autumn to get a roof on it before the winter weather sets in – a scenario that would be bad for the greenhouse, and bad for Hamish’s trees!
Registration for the September-October session is live, and will involve cutting and laying the glass for the roof! Visit http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/ to register!
The Western Isles of Scotland are a magical place. Although many were once heavily populated, famine, migration, and clearances have left them peopled mostly by ghosts, and the structural remains of past peoples.
For me, it is the archaeology of remote places that create that particular “magic of the desolate” that was so beloved of Romantic poets and painters. From undateable cairns to Iron-Age broch forts, all the way up to the roofless stone crofts of the past century, remote Scottish islands like Rum, Barra, Orkney, Shetland, and the world-famous St. Kilda are littered with evidence that for a long time these places were of great importance to a great number of people. Important enough to fight great sea-battles over, pitting Norwegian Vikings against fledgling Scottish kings; important enough to defend with castles and hill-forts and brochs, expensive and labour-intensive statements of dominance and power; important enough to erect cairns, stone circles, and massive burial mounds for figures whose long-forgotten names are commemorated only in the remains of structures that required an astonishing feat of labour, engineering, and social cooperation by the “primitive” peoples who build them.
For whatever they can tell us about history, to me such remains ask a question that thrums in the insistent western wind, and repeats with the waves that pound inexorably at the barren coast: Where did everyone go?
The Isle of Skye is hardly the remotest of the islands, and is by far the most visited by tourists (on account, I have always suspected, of its beautiful name), but its not difficult to find places on Skye that evoke that same feeling of poetic desolation, particularly if you can manage to turn off the well-traveled road that takes the ubiquitous coach tours from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.
At the very south of the island on the Sleat peninsula, a rough single-track with a constant obstacle course of sheep leads seven miles to a small cluster of houses called Tokavaig (in such places, a collection of three or four houses is enough to earn a name on a map), just past which, on an outcropping of rocky coastline, are the remains of a castle.
Dunscaith Castle (or Tokavaig Castle, in honor of the village) was originally a stronghold of Clan Donald (or MacDonald), but there is no definitive beginning date for the structure, the earliest terminus ante quem being sometime in the 14th century, when the castle is already referred to as changing hands (ergo, already built in some form) to the MacLeods.
But it’s not the history of the castle that continues to fascinate me – it’s how little we know of it. Other than its capture by James I in the 15th century, its abandonment in the 17th century, and its designation as a protected scheduled monument in 1934, almost nothing is known about it.
And the question that obsesses me is, How can that be? How can a place that has been continuously inhabited for at least the past millennium forget its own history?
Now of course I speak from a particular place: the severing effect of warfare and emigration means that I only have four generations to keep track of since my ancestors came to America from Poland and Austria-Hungary, and any knowledge of or ties with family who still live in the Old Country are mere luck. The astonishment I felt when I found out that my Polish relatives have equally little idea of our ancestry beyond a few generations – despite living in the same village for centuries – was enormous.
I am a historian (if only a fledgling one), and so I understand the forces that lead people to lose their own history: lack of documentation, indeed of literacy means that for most people in most places, preservation of history must be oral – how many families do you know that maintain a formal oral memory, like the King Lists of Ancient Ireland? Even today the surest way to preserve family history is orally. Sure, if you wanted to know the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather, there are many resources to hand that can give you the answer, with a little digging. But even this requires a kind of “re-discovery” of genealogy, not to mention requiring an interest in the first place. Whereas if you were told from a young age that your great-grandfather’s name was Stefan and he was born in Detroit… The knowledge is that much more able to play a part in your cultural consciousness and self-identification. It is known, rather than learned or studied.
Dunscaith Castle has a manifold allure. Its situation on an almost-island connected to the mainland by a particularly treacherous bridge makes it exciting – you can vividly imagine the castle defending itself under siege, rival clansmen trying desperately to take that bridge.
And the setting is spectacular – surrounded by sea on three sides, with majestic views of the sun setting behind the mountains of Rum.
But even though it’s a scheduled monument under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it has this overwhelming air of forgotten-ness. Through warfare and clearances, the people of Tokavaig have survived in an unbroken line from the people who built and lived in this castle. Where is their self-history? How did Dunscaith Castle go from the fiercely contested regional stronghold, to “That old run-down thing? The clan hardly uses it any more,” to “Wow, what an amazing old pile of stones. I wonder who built it, and why?”
And that, in a nutshell, is my castle quandary. How do we come to forget what’s been right in front of us all along?
Somehow, despite all the things I’ve ever heard about Venice, I never quite understood this incredibly basic fact: there are no cars. Only boats.
So you can imagine my reaction when I walked out of the train station expecting to splurge on a taxi to my hostel… and instead of a road, there was a river. Whaaaat? I was halfway in a water taxi before the driver kindly informed me it would be 60 euros to my destination. I didn’t know I could move so fast wearing a 40 pound backpack, I hopped right out of that thing. (I ended up taking public transportation, which was… another boat. Sorry, the novelty of it all never really did wear off…).
So, most of my posts have managed to focus on one aspect of a city, but in planning what to write, I’m finding that almost impossible with Venice. Impossible to focus. Which, I think, is actually the overarching theme. Venice is too busy, too varied, too exciting. I really think it’s like the Italian Vegas, except about 2000% more legit, and with fewer skyscrapers. Also the strippers are classier. I mean… what?
Maybe it’s because it’s isolated – a 45 minute boat ride, or a 20 minute train ride – but there’s definitely a certain freedom about Venice. And it’s historical as well – there’s a reason Casanova was Venetian (I’m reading his memoirs now).
I think it all comes down to the masks. You’ve heard of the Venetian masquerades; they’ve got the only Mardi Gras celebration (just called “carneval”) in the world cooler than New Orleans’.
The masks are the physical embodiment of the idea that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice boasted one of the most rigid social hierarchies in Europe, which is why the masks proved so useful. According to a mask-maker I talked to (who was trying so hard to sell me one – sorry buddy!), Carneval lasted 70 days at its height. Eventually, laws were put in place restricting it to 3 months, so this was clearly a lot more than just a pre-Lenten binge-fest. There were a multitude of laws restricting the wearing of masks at other times of the year, so it seems that it was somewhat of a problem. For instance, you were not allowed to wear a mask while gambling. Nor were you allowed to wear a mask while entering a nunnery. So clearly, people were wearing masks to allow anonymity, and impunity from illegal activities, like defaulting on gambling debts, and seducing nuns (oh Casanova, you so naughty). But it went the other way too – people were required to wear masks when voting in certain legislative bodies, to preserve anonymity.
So it seems like masks are the answer to a hyper-restricted society. In a mask, you are aristocrat or peasant, married or unmarried, upstanding citizen or outlaw, male or female… The mask-maker was explaining to me the shape of the white mask you see next to the Guy Fawkes mask: because people would be wearing these masks for weeks and months at a time, this type of mask (the most basic, called a bauta) allowed the wearer to eat and drink without removing it, allowed him to speak freely, but also changed the voice slightly in order to disguise it.
The mask culture is old, celebrated, and absolutely fabulous. Here we have a mask of San Marco cathedral:
And the costume jewelry is TO DIE FOR:
Sorry, I’m a girl and also a princess. I get distracted by shiny things. Back on topic.
There’s great artifice in everything about Venice. For instance, the simple fact that while I was there, I never saw a single food store or supermarket. Aka, the things normal people who live there would need. Conclusion? No one actually lives in Venice. It’s all just tourists. Of course that’s not quite true, I’m sure some people live in Venice, but I thought this was a pretty telling thing. Stores exist to make money, and if everyone is eating at bistros and hotel restaurants (aka tourists), nobody’s going to be selling groceries.
All this just further confirms the Vegas-Venice connection. Vegas has that same freedom and anonymity – no one is actually from Vegas, and after all, who actually lives in Nevada?!
And to conclude, more pretty pictures of the masks of Venice (including several that are obviously not mine):
And of course, what discussion of masks would be complete without a POTO reference?