Category Archives: Scotland

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

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There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

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Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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