Scotland

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Long, long ago I had a job that occasionally involved looking at old trees. There’s not much in Nature that speaks with a richer, stronger voice to us, I think.

Was up on the banks of the River Tay (one of Scotland’s two or three nicest rivers, imho) last week, and found two wonderful examples of timbery ancientness. First up, the Birnam Oak, of indeterminate age but a half millennium plus old. Supposedly the last survivor of the forest Shakespeare referred to in Macbeth:

” … Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”

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Leaning on its crutches like a Yoda of the forest, or a declining ent. And though you can’t see it in these photos, hollow as a drum, with enough space for a modest hobbit house inside its trunk.

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And right next door to it, what’s supposed to be Britain’s biggest sycamore. A mere 300 years old this one, but if anything bigger and more spectacular than the oak alongside:

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It’s the oak that’s got the richer voice of the two of them, though. All texture and age and wrinkles and character. Ancient trees are cool.

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More photos! Those who follow me on twitter might have seen one or two of these already, but here they all are together. Photos from a recent visit to Jupiter Artland, a cool privately-run art park/estate just outside Edinburgh. It’s a place with a fantastical, surreal vibe – big art installations scattered through the landscape, mostly wooded, nestling in with Nature.

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Took a little break in a nice bit of Scotland last week: Aberfeldy, which is in one of my favourite – because pretty and loaded with Nature – areas of the country.

Cue photos of the Birks of Aberfeldy, a wooded gorge (birks = birches) made famous by one Robert Burns who visited and wrote a song about the place. There’s a statue of him there in the woods, sitting contemplatively in the dappled sunlight. Nice.

Nice that they put the great man on a bench, so that you can sit beside him, don’t you think?

Couple of verses, just to round things off:

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,
And o’er the crystal streamlets plays;
Come let us spend the lightsome days,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

While o’er their heads the hazels hing,
The little birdies blythely sing,
Or lightly flit on wanton wing,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

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Here’s some stuff I’ve harvested from around the web of late:

The Nerdist Podcast put out a couple of interesting/fun interviews that caught my ear: Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, talking about the comics and the movies; David J. Peterson, language guy, talking about inventing languages (including for Game of Thrones) and various real-language stuff.

Rio 2 has been all over cinema screens around the world lately. Here’s the real parrot it’s based on, Spix’s macaw:

Very pretty, no? Really quite beautiful in fact, if you ask me. But not as widespread as Rio 2, that parrot. In fact, it’s extinct in the wild as far as anyone can tell. Has been for some time. Good job, humanity. (And yes, I know the whole extinct in the wild thing is kind of a central plot point in the movies, but I still find the whole ‘let’s make fun movies and a bajillion dollars based on this’ thing a bit weird, even if it’s sort of well-intentioned.)

Amazon took over Comixology, the biggest purveyor of digital comics, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. I can’t begin to tell you how despondent the big river’s acquisition avalanche makes me. They’re a fine and clever company, I know; I use their excellent services now and again. But it’s in precisely no-one‘s long-term interest (except their own, of course) the way they’re hoovering up competitors and add-ons that incrementally turn them into a leviathan of truly leviathanic proportions. If you want to buy books online, take a look at Wordery. Good prices, good service, free delivery worldwide.

Talking of comics, I thought I’d take a moment to point out my favourite comic produced by IDW Publishing, the good folks who put out the Rogue Trooper comic what I have been writting. Locke & Key is an inspired, beautifully crafted and beautifully illustrated dark fantasy/horror comic from Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Complex and intriguing, it’s loaded with terrific character writing, clever world-building and eye-popping set-piece action. Give it a try (at Wordery, of course).

And here’s one of my favourite blogs, which I don’t believe I’ve mentioned here before: Abandoned Scotland. An exploration of ruined, forgotten, derelict Scotland that’s kind of hynoptically fascinating if you ask me. Stuff that’s hidden in plain sight, overlooked and disregarded, comes alive when you pay close attention to it. Investigate it. The most grungy and crumbly places and buildings become kind of beautiful. The Abandoned Scotland YouTube channel is a goldmine of strange discoveries. Don’t suppose this is exactly how the Scottish Tourist Board wants the world to see Scotland, but as a resident it’s all simultaneously familiar and surprising. Great stuff.

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Time for some Moving Pictures on a Friday and for no particular reason, I thought we’d all just spare a couple of minutes to admire Scotland. I mean, I do that all the time since it’s where I’m from and where I live, but the rest of you just get a couple of minutes …

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The Falkirk Kelpies

Big public art is cool when it’s good, and Scotland’s newest example is pretty good, if you ask me.  Very good, in fact.

The Kelpies at Falkirk – close enough to Edinburgh for a quick visit at the weekend – are huge, spectacular and very, very cleverly conceived.  They’re memorials and icons, reflecting Scotland’s industrial heritage and folkloric traditions.  Above all, though, I think they’re kind of beautiful.  And eloquent.  And enormous.

Cue photo-fest.

More info on what they are, why they are and how they are over here.

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A first for me at the weekend.  My first airshow, that is.  The Scottish National Airshow, at the National Museum of Flight, to be specific.  Been to the Museum before (it’s good, incidentally, should you ever be in the area), but never to the annual Airshow before.

Conclusion?  Airshows are good. But also that the banal predictability of male responses means that some bits are gooder than others. It’s kind of discouraging (but also kind of comforting, in a self-identity sort of way) just how much the psyche of so many average adult males, such as yours truly, responds in the same way as that of a twelve year old to certain stimuli.

We’ll get to the stimuli in question in a minute, but first some admittedly amateurish photos.

A Fairey Swordfish, for starters.  One of the most charismatic old-school aircraft there, imho, complete with (dummy, thankfully) torpedo:

And then these folks, the Breitling Wingwalkers. Watching them really is a bit like being transported back to the 40s or 50s or whenever this whole wingwalking thing was in its heyday:

And in many ways the oddest, vaguely surreal element of the whole day, a genuine Vietnam Vet Huey sitting in a field just outside Edinburgh, beneath by then rather ominous skies, waiting to do its thing:

It’s earned its retirement, that helicopter, since it apparently survived over 100 flights and well over 500 combat hours in Vietnam.

You can see much, much better photos of the Airshow than mine, of all these and many more aircraft, over here, by the way.

I don’t know how many fly-bys and displays there were in all – fifteen or twenty, probably – and pretty much all of them were in one way or another interesting, beautiful, cool.  Those wingwalkers, for instance (apologies in advance for mildly shaky, even more amateurish filming):

I mean, that’s a fairly remarkable way to spend your time, don’t you think? Standing on top of a biplane doing a loop. And the noise is kind of appealing, too. But noise, it turns out, is at the heart of an Airshow’s ability to make me twelve again. The wingwalkers, and the historical aircraft all appeal to the heart, or the mind, and are great to see, but if you want to hit a man-boy in the gut and put a big, stupid grin on his face you let loose the dragons (volume needs to be up to 11 to hint at the gut-punching effect for this next clip):

Honestly, when that Eurofighter was doing its thing, it was just like having a dragon set loose in the sky above you. I kept thinking of Smaug. It made every other plane in the show – no matter how cool, how interesting, how beautiful – seem like a housefly, or a droning bee, by comparison.

And apart from raw power, what else makes little boys, however old, stand still and take heed? War, of course. Cultural connections to war movies, and a sound that’s instantly familiar, even though I’d never heard it before in real life: that of a Huey taking off and chuddering away over the fields. The mood music on this one’s not mine, by the way; inflicted on us by the Airshow organisers:

I was struck by how powerfully evoactive that sight, and that sound were, in ways that none of the many WWII era aircraft on show could match.  It occured to me that, even though I’m British, the Huey’s intrinsically and powerfully sumbolic of its entire war in a way that not even the Spitfire is of WWII for me.  The sight and sound of a Huey calls up every film or documentary I’ve ever seen about Vietnam, as immediately and simply as if a button has been pushed.

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Owls

Owls must be right up there amongst the groups of birds most heavily loaded with myth and folklore and romance.  And they are rather magical creatures.  If you watch an owl for long enough – especially if you look into its eyes, or it into yours – you could easily start to imagine there’s something mystical, intelligent, fierce, wise going on there.  And cute, of course.  They’re nothing if not cute.

I watched a whole load of owls at the weekend, making a quickish visit to the Scottish Owl Centre.

So here, just because, are some photos from that visit.  You decide.  Owls: cute, awesome, beautiful, avatars of mystery?

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The Weather Gods have smiled upon us of late.  Or they’ve been trying to cook us in our own skins.  One or the other.  Either way: sunny; hot.

Hence, outings have been made.  Stuff has been done, under the sun.

One such bit of stuff was a Knights’ Tourney at Linlithgow Palace.  That, I’m afraid, means I have photos (not very good ones, me being me, but never mind that).

It’s a fine setting for a joust:

And the knights looked the part. Mostly, anyway; they would insist on taking their helmets off, which kind of diminished the effect if you ask me. I suspect it was an audience identification thing, much like that which requires Spider-Man and Iron Man to continuously unmask in their movies, whether it makes sense or not. Equally possible, I suppose, is that on such a hot day their skulls would be broiled if they stayed helmeted.

Anyhow, they charged at each other, as expected:

and managed to hit something more often than not.

And, though you’ll probably struggle to make it out in this photo, they caught rings chucked into the air on the end of their lances. Which was nice.

All in all, a pleasant time, so well done Weather Gods, well done Linlithgow Palace, well done Knights of Royal England.

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So what’s the best bit about writing a book? Well, it’s rarely the actual writing, I can tell you that much.  In the case of The Edinburgh Dead, it was the research, so you’ll have to forgive me if I digress from the main thread of the Photo-Trailer in order to dispense some heartfelt affection.

In 1710, the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh was granted the right to claim, from its publisher, a copy of every book published in Great Britain.  So for three hundred years it, along with a select few other institutions, has been steadily, remorsely amassing a vast, almost unimaginable compendium of the written word.  It became the National Library of Scotland, and in 1956 took up its present abode behind an admittedly somewhat forbidding facade on George IV Bridge (a bridge that, by convenient coincidence, does get a mention or two in The Edinburgh Dead, since it was being built at the time of the novel).

Behind that unshowy exterior lies a world of wonder and dreams. It is the manual, analogue internet, and a place, I think, in may ways far richer and deeper and more intoxicating than the digital version that rules our lives now. There are no hyperlinks to guide you, no Google to impose its presumptive structures upon your wanderings. You have to do the work yourself. Hold the books in your hands; read not short, snappy summaries but page after page of considered text; follow trails through quotations and references and indexes. Map out your own exploration, and do it slowly, with care and reflection.

That modest doorway is the portal to centuries of human thought upon every conceiveable subect. The NLS currently holds over 14 million printed items in their collections. 14 million. And it is freely available to anyone with the inclination and cause to investigate it. What a thing. What a wondrous, wonderful thing.

Within, beyond the obligatory cafe (which does rather good tea, by the way – the diligent researcher must know where his restorative refreshments are going to come from) and cloakroom and exhibition space, a relatively modest stairway leads us up towards the light, towards the doors of the reading room.

That’s the doors there, and I took my camera no further, because snooping around in there taking photos seemed unlikely to be welcomed. So we’ll have to make do with this little snapshot I pinched from the NLS’ own website.

The Reading Room’s a modest space – demure – unlike the cavernous, crowded reading rooms of the British Library in London. Always busyish, but never overcrowded. Wonderfully quiet, of course, save for the tip-tap of fingers upon laptops and the occasional cough from the assembled readers.

Who are a diverse lot, as befits the clientele of a national library. Students and academics, of course, but amateur researchers too, hobbyists and genealogists, writers and readers of all sorts. Each one of them in his or her own world, immersed in the mental space created by printed words upon a page; words that have been brought forth from the vast, unseen storage spaces that reside in that same building or other sites around the city like some titanic literary iceberg whose merest, random tip is each day brought forth into the light by the specific requests of those visiting the library.

And while you wait for the books you have requested to be produced for your perusal, you can browse the shelves, where an eclectic selection of stuff awaits your curiosity. That’s where I found the old proceedings and records of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which – like George IV Bridge – can be found within the pages of The Edinburgh Dead. The Society was founded way back in 1780, and is still going today, which makes it almost, but not quite, as venerable an institution as the National Library of Scotland.

Above the door of the NLS, obvious to all as they depart, is a map that says as much as any words can about how deeply into the past go the foundations of the building.  It shows Edinburgh as it was three hundred years ago, when the seeds of the National Library were sown.  The city – and the world – may have transformed around it, but the idea that the Library embodies and fulfils is still there, unchanged.  And a jolly good idea it is too.

Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:

Duddingston Loch

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Guarding the Dead

Weaponry

So, What’s a Close, Then?

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