Scotland is filled with small towns. Sometimes the towns have multiple sights to see, and sometimes only one sight, but each town has plenty of character to offer: streets of old stone buildings in the Scottish baronial style, winding cobblestone streets lined with two-story row houses with gables or turrets (sometimes both,) small shops offering groceries, pastries, bread or meats, and ruins of abbeys and churches. The pubs and taverns that seemed to be on every corner each boasted that here, Robert Burns recited his poems, drank heavily, and flirted with beautiful women. After a while, it became obvious that only some of these were true, and other establishments simply didn’t let historical fact stand in the way of a good story. I could have stopped more often, happily spending a week, sometimes several weeks, in each place I stopped.
By now you know that two of my main interests in travel are history and literature. Scotland is a bottomless well for both. Not knowing when I could ever come back, I wanted to cover as much ground as possible, plus, I was still searching for a whiskey distillery that was open!
Even so, as much as I was enjoying seeing Scotland at ease, it was late August now. It had rained during the last couple of weeks, shifting quietly from warm-ish thunderstorm-rain to steady, drizzling rain with a slight chill in it. My plan for this trip was supposed to include Scotland and England, and be back in the U.S. for Christmas. I was dawdling. I needed to move a little faster – I still had places I wanted to see. Scotland is a small country if you count square miles, but a huge country if you count regions, geography, and history.
Dunfermline, like Dunblane, is an easy day trip from Edinburgh. The train crosses the Firth of Forth via the Forth Bridge.
Dunfermline, population 49,700, has two claims to fame besides charm and age. The Dunfermline Abbey was founded by David I in the 12th century as a Benedictine monastery. There was a church there before the abbey, where Malcolm III (pre-1100 AD) had married the Saxon princess Margaret. That church was incorporated into the abbey’s church. Both Malcolm and Margaret were buried in the early church. Later, in 1329, Robert the Bruce was buried beneath the pulpit.
Next to the abbey is the Dunfermline Palace that began life as the abbey’s guesthouse, but was converted to a royal residence for James VI of Scotland (James I of Great Britain,) whose ill-fated son was born here in 1600. The son later became Charles I, and was beheaded by Cromwell during the English Civil War.
In 1560, the Scottish Reformation destroyed virtually the entire abbey. Between 1560 and 1760, the tower, steeple, and buttresses were constructed, and the church became a functioning parish again, belonging to the Church of Scotland. The church was closed because of pandemic restrictions when I was there, but it is still in use during normal times.
Dunfermline is also the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie. In 1835, Carnegie was born in the tiny house and workshop that still stands in Dunfermline. His parents were weavers, and the house is furnished as it was when they lived there. At age 13, Carnegie came to the United States, and by the late 18th century, he was – according to the museum that exhibits the life and work of Carnegie – the richest man in the world.
The exhibits about his life were inspiring – Andrew Carnegie must have been a very dynamic person. He was single much of his life, but married at age 51 to Louise Whitfield, and they had one child, a daughter named Margaret.
Also according to the museum, Carnegie gave away 90% of his wealth to build libraries, universities, and schools all over the world. His birthplace also benefited – Pittencrieff Park next to the palace was a Carnegie donation.
RAVENSCRAIG CASTLE, KIRKCALDY
Another short train ride took me to Kirkcaldy, a small town along the coast of Fife, a region of Scotland that was formerly an independent kingdom. I went there because I wanted to see Ravenscraig Castle. The castle was begun by James II in 1460 for his queen, Mary of Gueldres. James II died. Depending on whose version you read, the castle was finished or unfinished by Queen Mary. Another version gives all the credit to Queen Mary, rather than James, for starting the castle. All versions agree that the castle was given to the Earl of Caithness, William Sinclair, in 1470, with only part of the east tower and wall completed.
The Sinclairs finished the castle, which overlooked the Firth of Forth and the North Sea. They added substantial walls that were 3.5 meters thick, reflecting the impact of gunpowder artillery on castle design. Below is a rendition of what it looked like when complete, and gives some idea of castle life in those days.
The castle belonged to the Sinclair family from 1470 until 1898, although it was captured by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers during the same rebellion that saw King Charles I beheaded. After the rebellion, the castle deteriorated into ruins. In 1898, it was sold to Sir Michael Nairn, from whose family eventually it went to Scotland. It’s a ruin still, albeit historical and in a picturesque location.
After Kirkcaldy, I took the bus north to St. Andrews because there is no train station in St. Andrews. For golf aficionados, yes, it was that St. Andrews, but, no, I didn’t visit the golf links, not being a golfer myself. I spent my afternoon in the town of St. Andrews, instead, but I will share some of what I learned about golf:
Golf has been associated with St. Andrews for over six hundred years. The game was so popular by 1457 that it was banned by James II because his troops were neglecting their archery practice in favor of golf, a distinctly un-military form of recreation.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754, has its own golf course, which sits next to “The Old Course.” The Old Course is the one that non-members can play, and is, as the name implies, the more historical. Several other courses have been developed, which you can book if you aren’t tied to The Old Course.” In pre-internet days, you had to make reservations by the end of August the year before the year in which you wanted to play. Nowadays, you still need to book well in advance, and, like everyone, the pandemic restrictions have thrown “a spanard in the works.”According to their website, the greens fee is one hundred ninety-five pounds, roughly two hundred seventy-five US dollars, not including caddy or gratuities. There is a shorter notice lottery system if you’re feeling lucky (fees are the same.)
St. Andrews was founded by St. Regulus (aka St. Rule,) who came from Greece, bringing with him the bones of St. Andrew himself. St. Andrew eventually became the patron saint of Scotland – their flag is blue with the white St. Andrew’s Cross – but in the meantime, the relics’ presence made the town a major destination of pilgrims and a major ecclesiastical center in Scotland.
All that remains of the once-magnificent cathedral are fragments of walls, an arch, and a single towering gable, but the size is still discernible from these remains, and it was huge. The cathedral was founded in 1160.
The bones of St. Andrew were moved from the nearby Church of St. Regulus, and are interred underneath the altar still, although the sarcophagus is in the museum. The museum, per the guidebook, also houses an “excellent collection” of 17th & 18th century grave slabs and 9th & 10th century Celtic crosses. Unfortunately, the museum was closed. Pandemic.
Like so many Catholic cathedrals and churches, the St. Andrews Cathedral was attacked and much of it was destroyed in 1559 by Reformation believers.
Although the ranking clerics of St. Andrews were housed in a castle, it wasn’t enough to save Cardinal Beaton. George Wishart (1513 – 1546) was a Protestant preacher and was betrayed to Cardinal Beaton. Beaton had Wishart brought here and locked him in the sea tower. Wishart was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake, March 1, 1546. Wishart’s friends plotted against the cardinal. On May 26th, 1546, the conspirators entered the castle, killed Cardinal Beaton, and hung his body from the battlements. While still in the castle, they together formed the first congregation of the Protestant Church in Scotland.
St. Andrews University, founded in 1410, is a collection of beautiful buildings. The older ones are organized into quadrangles, and entered from the streets of the town through arched gates.
Patrick Hamilton, a member of the University, was born into a rich family and was related to the king. He studied on the continent for a time, and was “greatly influenced” by the teachings of Martin Luther. When he returned to St. Andrews, Hamilton began to teach Lutheran doctrines. He was tried, found guilty of heresy, and burned at the stake, aged 24 years. His initials, PH, mark the place where Hamilton became the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation.
Fortunately, times have changed, and religious differences are tolerated to a much greater degree. The streets of St. Andrews are friendly and beautiful.
Across the street from this church, i.e. where I’m standing, taking the photo, is the dry cleaning shop of a very nice man. I really didn’t want to lug my suitcase around the town – even on wheels it had gotten heavy, and it was awkward on the cobblestone streets. I looked in the window of the shop, and saw that he not only provided dry cleaning services, he made duplicate keys, and repaired shoes to boot (so to speak.) I went in and explained that I wasn’t staying overnight and therefore didn’t have a place to stash my suitcase, would he mind awfully if I left it with him for a while? He said he would, with the understanding that he had to leave promptly at four o’clock to pick up his daughter at school, and the shop would close. I promised that I would return timely, and I did – half an hour early, just to be sure. I also asked if he would allow me to buy him some refreshment by way of thanks, and left him with a ten pound note. I was happy to have walked around town unburdened, and he seemed happy, too. All’s well that ends well.
My next stop was Dundee, a seafaring city from the word “go.” Located on the north shore of the Firth of Tay (east of Perth and north of St. Andrews,) Dundee was once a major center of the shipbuilding, whaling, textile, and railway engineering industries. “Dundonian” businesses owned and operated most of the jute mills in India, making rope and sacks. It was a cosmopolitan city. At one time, Dundee had the highest per capita rate of millionaires in all of Scotland.
I arrived in the afternoon, but had enough daylight to check into the Best Western Queens Hotel, and zip over to the V&A Waterfront and tour the HMS Unicorn, moored at the Victoria Dock. It’s the oldest ship in Scotland, and one of the six oldest ships in the world.
The Unicorn was built in Dundee and launched in 1824. It was at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, so the ship was never rigged, not ever, so it cannot move without being towed, even today. HMS Unicorn was used mainly as a depot ship, and became a museum ship in the 1960s.
She was designed to be rigged as a Leda-class frigate, for those of you who follow these things, and it was just a twist of fate that left her without rigging. As a museum, she is used as an example of her design – showing the construction, the sailors’ mess and bunks, the officers’ quarters, and her cannon.
THE ARCTIC CONVOYS
What I found most interesting, however, were the other stories that were told here, especially the story about WWII convoys and the animals who served.
The United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, and WWII began. In the next two years, the Nazis advanced, and invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. As the Nazis moved toward Moscow, they blockaded the ports of the USSR, disrupting supply routes.
Millions of Russians were faced with starvation. The USSR asked the Allies to help, and so the plan was born: supply ships would travel from bases in Scotland and Iceland, across the treacherous waters of the Arctic Sea, evading German battleships and U-boats, to deliver supplies to ports in northwest USSR. The Scottish base was Skapa Flow, a body of water where the town of Stromness is located in the Orkney Islands.
These convoys continued between 1941 and 1945. Over one hundred Royal and Merchant Navy ships were lost to enemy ships and rough seas.
Animals, such as Bamse the St. Bernard, who rescued a man overboard, and Pollyanna the Naval Reindeer, a gift from the Russians, and served in the North Sea.
My favorite story was about Winkie the Carrier Pigeon. “In February 1942 an RAF bomber was shot down in the North Sea. The crew found themselves in the icy water and unable to radio their position. Their only hope was to release the on-board carrier pigeon, a little hen named Winkie. Winkie flew 120 miles home to Broughty Ferry and was found by her owner, who immediately alerted RAF Leuchars. The RAF were able to estimate where the aircraft had crashed, and a rescue mission was launched. The entire crew was saved and Winkie was awarded the Dickin Medal.”
The RRS Discovery is very nearby the HMS Unicorn, and is reached easily by walking through the V&A Waterfront building.
The museum next to the ship has a really, really excellent exhibit about the Discovery, the preparations, the mission, and what transpired. I spent a couple of hours in there, it was fascinating and so well-done.
The main downtown area of Dundee is up the hill from the waterfront. It’s a lively city of about 150,000, and the downtown is filled with shops, restaurants, and a lovely museum depicting the history of Dundee, among other collections. Nonetheless, the biggest photographic attraction is “Desperate Dan,” a beloved cartoon character with his own bronze statue in the city square.
Desperate Dan is a character from the comic book “Dandy” published by DC Thomson comics since 1937 in Dundee. While many businesses – textiles, engineering, shipbuilding, et cetera – have moved away, DC Thomson is not just surviving, but thriving. The “Beano” and “Dandy” comics continue, and DC Thomson owns several regional newspapers. For a while, DC Thomson was the largest employer, but they’ve been overtaken by some of the newer industries attracted to Dundee.
Located in Albert Square is the McManus Museum, a gem of a museum in a beautiful building.
The collections in McManus Galleries focus on the city, from the Iron Age to modern times, as well as other cultures around the world. There has been so much activity during the city’s lifetime that there is plenty of material to work with and it was an enjoyable time, wandering through the life of Dundee and the countries they visited.
I mentioned the Best Western Queens Hotel by name earlier because it had history of its own. It is a historical hotel, and you can tell when you ride the world’s slowest elevator up to your floor. It has seen better days but it was comfortable and well-located for someone like me.
It was well-located for one of my favorite people, Winston Churchill. At the time, Churchill was running for a seat in parliament, and Dundee was in the district. The hotel has preserved a letter that Churchill wrote to his wife, Lady Clementine, while he was staying at the Queens Hotel.