Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Legend of Bannockbourn..

A quick stop at the airpot to pick up the car we hired and we were on our way to Inverness.
The drive was beautiful. Not quiet in the driver's seat, I turn navigator, Satnav in hand paying attention to every turn and every exit..
We discover that there are a few places maintained by the National Trust that we could stop by on our way.

Bannockburn: what lies in front of us are green fields , the grass merrily dancing in the wind.
The site of an epic encounter between 5500 Scots, led by Robert the Bruce and a 20000 strong English army; A pitched battle spanning over two days, which saw the significantly smaller Scottish army victorious.

Inside the heritage center, we read the account of how the war was won. A very long time ago I read the story of Robert the Bruce. For me as a child his lesson from a spider which refused to give up as it slid down a cave where he had taken refuge, was inspirational. Somewhere along the way, I just assumed the story was a story and nothing more. Remember what Tolkein says in Lord of the Rings.. :)
"History becomes legend and legend becomes myth" 
And so I came face to face with the legend of Bannockbourn.

The stories unfold... "Try Try Try Again.."

The castle at Sterling was under seige from the Scots. The advancing English army sought to end the siege. Large in numbers, an English victory seemed almost certain. The arresting painting by Jim Proudfoot stands at the center of the narration, splendidly detailed in its account of the battle; transporting me instantly to that time in history when Edward King of England proudly surveyed his massive army, confident that victory would be his...

That this battle would happen had been forseen a couple of months ago and Bruce undeterred, put his army into training. For every scot there were 4 English soldiers and it was imperative that every man be put to use the best way possible; The Scottish answer to the English challenge was a war formation called the schiltron- a shield troop, standing in an hedgehog formation, they stood their ground , spears spread outward resisting the onslaught of the English infantry....

Bruce's men positioned themselves along the Falkirk- Sterling road, blocking off Edward's advance to the Sterling castle.  They say, A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the English largely overlooked that their large army lacked co-ordination. Bruce led from the front. The initial English charge seeing the king, charged- a confrontation which Bruce deftly evaded , but it cost him his good battle axe..
the first day saw the Scots capture some key prisoners , denting the English morale..

The English finally crossed the Bannockburn; described by Sir Thomas Grey, the son of one of the knights captured by the Scots as 'an evil very deep tidal stream';  Their advance observed by the Scots, Bruce contemplated guirella warefare to overcome their superior numbers; but Sir Alexander Seton part of a small Scottish contingent fighting with the English arrived with news of the plummeting English morale and wise counsel

"Now is the time and now is the hour"...

The site of the battle..

And so on June the 24th , Bruce and his men moved in early, high in spirits; They were blessed by the Abbot of Inchaffray and they knelt in prayer, prompting Edward to remark "Ha, they kneel for mercy!" .  Was it safety in numbers that prompted this error in judgement? The English were totally unprepared for the early Scottish assault, and suffered early casualties. The Scots pressed ahead. With the river behind them, the English were on the back foot, and were being forced into a stretch that became narrower with the Scottish advance. An attempt by the English archers was thwarted by the Scots, who attacked under Keith , the charge of the cavalry saw they scatter...
Edward finally took refuge in the Castle of Sterling...

War is never kind. May perished in the swirling brown waters of Bannockburn. But this was a Scottish victory, heroic in every sense...

We walk out into what was once the battlefield. The exact site of the battle is still debatable, but two locations seem likely Dryfield and the Carse. As we walk on a little boy fights his sister .."I am Robert the Bruce", he says; summing up the importance of this pitched battle in childish eloquence.
The winners don't just get to write history, they also get to write pop culture :).
We leave with a sense of elation, something about this particular encounter with history leaves us happy..
As we drive on we would have a sadder date with history , in Culloden...

Meena Venkataraman

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Around Edinburgh..

It was late in the evening. We caught the bus from the airport and arrived to a mild drizzle and a chilly breeze. Well, rain is nothing out of the ordinary here as most of the locals would tell you.
Our hostel was in the middle of town, very conveniently located. Edinburgh is just as grey as London and every bit as beautiful. But they are sisters in contrast, the latter a sprawling metropolis, while Edinburgh, is much more friendly in terms of distances to the pedestrian.  We could walk to our hearts content through the wet rainy streets, gusts of wind wrecking my newly acquired umbrella.

A cold rainy day in Edinburgh 
Our first day saw us walk the Royal mile to Edinburgh castle.  One Scots mile long, this stretch is full of colour and history from street performers, to restaurants and pubs lining the streets, to offers of tours on ghosts and gauls, to narrow alleyways. Art and Literature converge and some of the greatest Scottish writers and Poets stand immortalized, in stone.

We reach the castle and check out options for tickets. We find ourselves a good deal, an explorer pass which allows us entry into a couple more castles along the way and valid for five days. For all else we are hoping the National Trust membership card proves handy and it sure did as we were to discover.
Exploring the Edinburgh Castle..
The Edinburgh castle is visible from a fair distance, silent watcher of the city and keeper of its secrets.
Having been in the center of much of Scottish history like the Scottish War of Independence and the Jacobite Raising, the castle is a beautifully preserved monument. From gorgeously lethal siege  canons with very amusing names(Imagine being called Mon's Meg), to pretty little chapels, stone structures and early prison systems, each section carries plaques telling the visitor where he or she is standing and its place in history.  Somewhere in between I stand transfixed , seeing the exquisite stained glass paintings inside St Margaret's chapel, believed to be the oldest building inside the castle..
We walk and walk and finally head to the restaurant in search of steaming hot coffee.
Inside the Edinburgh castle..
When we finally leave its almost afternoon and we walk down into Princess gardens. Where this public space now stands was once Nor Loch, a public drainage system, severely polluted. But in 1820 all that changed. The gardens are gorgeous, green and full of flowers, chilly from the morning rains. But we walk on. In a distance we hear the pipers play. We walk in search of the source of the music and find ourselves in the Edinburgh's Ceilidh Culture Street Fair. The rains are unrelenting. We cancel old plans and make new ones...
The castle, with its magnificent gardens in the foreground..
The storm clouds clear and we have blue skies. We are walking up the road when we read signs and decide to take a detour. Off regent road , we briefly get lost before finding the stairs which would take us up to Carlton Hill. Nelson's monument  (456 feet above sea level ) to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson who died serving his country in the Battle of Trafalgar(1805) dominates the skyline. It seems like the finish line standing tall and proud in the distance. All around its lush and green. It doesn't take too long for the stairs to give way to green grassy slopes.

Trekking up Carlton hill, Nelson's monument in a distance ..
We sit a while. All around we can see the city, still wearing shades of grey and terribly moody and sullen from the rains.

The unfinished Acropolis - 'National Monument'..
Right on top we see the Acropolis, a beautiful unfinished structure set in stone. It looks everybit like its original, 'The Parthenon of the Acropolis' in Athens. Built as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Napoleinic wars , its incompletion earned it the dubious nickname 'Nation's shame'. I think its beautiful. Stark against shades of green and yellow and with the blue sky in a distance, sunlight filtering through its many beams.
View of the city from Carlton hill..
We saunter back down unhurried, enjoying the views of the city spread out before us.
Scott Monument..
The Scott Monument, a steep flight of stairs to the heavens, is a beautiful structure in memory of Sir Walter Scott . It was 15 mins to closing time when we got there, so it turned out to be a race against time. The problem was we weren't the only ones in a hurry. From a distance I actually mistook the structure to be a church, its tall spire proudly held against the now blue sky. Mostly blackish, it is supposed to be of Victorian Gothic descent, the construction of which started in 1840 culminated four years later. It's architect who submitted the winning design in a competition to honour Sir Walter Scott, met a watery grave and therefore did not live to see its opening.
View from the top..
At some places the steps are so narrow, that traffic in both directions seemed impossible. We retreated to the balconies at each floor to decongest and allow people upstairs to walk down. At one point , I got too claustrophobic. We were one level below the top. But we ran out of time and heeding the call over the loudspeaker announcing closing time we climbed down.
'The World's End,' Edinburgh has loads of pubs with names alluding to its history and literature ..
The next day we are out early. Our destination is Hollyrood.  Sadly its shut , because we hade chosen a public holiday for the visit :(. Again we change plans. We take on of the routes which directly take us up the famed Aurther's seat. The climb is beautiful. Again we get to see a different side of the city, Nelson's memorial stands tall in a distance. Its a good hike up. We snack a bit, and sit a while discussing history and politics, before deciding which route we woud take down. The hill some believe is the location of 'Camelot' , the home of King Auther and the Knights of the Roundtable.
From  atop Auther's seat..
We head in the direction of the lake. We see specks of white. We would later discover that they are swans.
The lake on the other side of Auther's seat..
We walk round the late. We are famished. Our quest for a pub lunch is thwarted , as the clocks dont think its lunch time yet and most places arn't open. Finally we settle for something on the way.
A beautiful sunny day..
Edinburgh's food is among the best I've eaten. From the delicious cream teas in Deacon House, to the exquisite Peshawari Naan of Kebab Mahal, to the totally yummy hand backed Pizzas from Mama's Pizza , we did not hold back when it came to the food. What was fascinating for me was that some of these places were allusions to Edinburgh's rich literary and historic past. Sitting in Deacon house we uncover the legend behind Dr Jekyll and Hyde; Broody was an exemplary citizen by day , even serving public offices , but was a burglar by night. He finally was sentenced to death and where his workshop once was is not the cafe. The freshly baked scones , and the fresh cream are to die for. I lost count of the times ,we yielded to temptation and made our way up Royal mile to get one of their famous cream teas.
Kebab Mahal is a small place serving the yummiest food form the Indian subcontinent. Sometimes the place is spilling over with people, but their hot biryanis and wonderful curries make the wait totally worth it. We rarely have Indian when we are out traveling, but with Kebab Mahal we had to make an exception.  As I write this , I wish I could have them deliver their Peshawari Naan and Bhindi Baaji here :). Oh well!

The legend of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde..

The super menu at Deacon's house

The National Gallery of Scotland, stands right outside the Princess Gardens and is a lovely place to get lost in the exhibits. As always my favorites were the impressionists.
Since admission is free, we went there a couple of times.

The National Gallery of Scotland..
Among others , The Royal Botanical Garden was a gorgeous morning out, with landscaped gardens and many interesting bits of information about the plant kingdom along the way. The cafe inside was great too and we did sit and laze around a bit when we thought we had had enough action.

Royal Botanical Gardens..
No matter where we were it was pretty easy finding our way back. Too tired to walk, the bus services were super convenient. The only hitch was that we sometimes did not have the exact change and had to get off :(.  Royal Mile was always alive with life and activity. We did try the Ghost tour which gave us many interesting insights into the city and its bloody past.

Sights and Scenes from the Royal Mile...

The famous sky-terrier - 'Bobby', owned by a night watchman. When his master Grey died, Bobby spent the rest of his time sitting by his grave and is today immortalized in stone

Savor the Sun.. Princes Gardens on a sunny day, people throng the grassy spaces..
Edinburgh was a bag of surprises. If there is some place where I would like to live here in the UK, apart from London it would definitely be Edinburgh. Have been hearing so much about the fringe that we are hoping to catch the Military Tatoo sometime next year. Luckily for us apart from the rains on the first day we were blessed with perfect weather. Now onto Inverness..

Meena Venkataraman

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hear the Pipers play...

The most beautiful moments happen between destinations. Often unhurried and then again not even wanting to be found. So we sometimes stumble, may turn into a blind alley, or sometimes even roam around aimlessly and find something precious tucked away.  One rainy morning in Edinburgh, our first complete day there we visited the castle and with this slice of history in our pockets wandered into the sprawling palace gardens. A steady drizzle accompanied us everywhere, keeping pace as we walked on. From a distance we could hear the pure sound of pipes. It isn't uncommon to see the bagpiper on a street corner playing on his pipes uncaring of tourists walking past, unoffended by their lack of interest, unimpressed by their show of support.. He plays on..
But this sounded different from the ones perviously seen and heard.

We crossed over into Castle street and there in front of us was the source of this beautiful music- What looked like about 20 pipers playing in perfect symphony was an beautiful amalgamation of the sweetest of sounds, strangely hypnotic and soothing to the senses... We stood transfixed , and if they had walked we would have followed much like the famous pied piper, legend for leading a village of children to the sweet tune of his pipes.. We were easily in their sway..

The pipes play on..
The hoardings there said we were at the 'Ceilidh Culture - Easter Fair' . The smell of coffee wafted gently through the chilly morning air. It was a beautiful day with all the drama of impending rains.
I hold my coffee in one hand and take pictures with the other. Before long I decide to test the camcoder on my new phone, the only feature of interest to me. It works beautifully.

The Drums..
They played on and on. Some lingered, some walked on. It began to rain again.  With umbrellas dotting the street, all we could hear was the music, gorgeous and strong, gentle in parts, clear in others.. When the pipes were lowered the drums played on.
The Edinburgh Castle in the background..
In the background stood the majestic Edinburgh castle. It seemed like even the castle seemed to be watching , proud of its vintage position.
Sharing a lighter moment..
It all built up into a crescendo of sounds. And then it stopped.
That look of Concentration..
Only to start once again in a few minutes. They kept beats with their feet and we could hear them count at the beginning before loosing ourselves in the music...
Clearly not to everyone's taste :)

We stayed for a while, watched  a few performances and then left...
What remains is the video in my mobile and I still play it sometimes for the sweet nostalgia of hearing the pipers play.

Meena Venkataraman

To know more about the Ceilidh culture visit  their site

Scotland Joyride..

Close to six weeks back, we hopped across to Scotland. Two long weekends and a couple of days in between meant we had a good eleven days. Landing in Edinburgh one rainy day, we fell in love with the city. The clouds cleared for us and we hired a car and drove down, visiting loads of places along the way.
Inverness,  Lochness, Aberdeen, before flying down to Lerwick the capital of Shetlands.
A very long time back I watched this programme called the Shetland diaries on BBC.  Ever since that program was aired , I've wanted to go , and finally we were here. Shetlands is gorgeous in every possible way. Its where we truly were in the the midst of nature and the wildlife and birds is something out of the extraordinary :)..
So here you go.. Scotland Joyride! 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The joys of summer..

For a while now I've been spying on garden activity. Officially summer is here and it has become a whole lot warmer. So warm that I can venture out without a coat and nothing can really beat that feeling. When I spy on my garden visitors its normally with a cup of tea in my hand , my mobile lying carelessly on the kitchen counter at which I gaze every now and then to make sure am doing okay on time. Of late my morning ritual has been super entertaining.
So the bird feeder is frequented by the likes of pigeons, magpies, sometimes even seagulls..
But I was pleasently surprsed when one day I found one of my furry friends stealthily make his way through the garden.

As I watched wondering what he was upto, he jumped across and got onto the bird feeder. :). You shouldn't be doing that Mr Squirril I though :).

My cheeky little friend then used his tail  as a grasp and swung himself upside down getting hold of all the seeds he could :). It was wonderful to watch.

When he was done, I left with a little chuckle. Ahh... The joys of summer!

-Meena Venkataraman


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