Robert Louis Stevenson Day – 13 November 2013

Since the first “Previously…Scotland’s History Festival”, the number and range of events being staged to market Robert Louis Stevenson Day has been growing, and this year the events take many forms – from a morning walk to Swanston, to readings of his poetry for children, to afternoon tea and an hour of lively discussion.  My personal choice of events would be to go on the walk at 10:30; followed by a visit to the Writers’ Museum at 2 pm; then a quick sprint downhill to 17 Heriot Row for Afternoon Tea and a Talk; with the day being rounded off by the discussion at the Royal College of Physicians at 7 pm.

This is of course, just the beginning of an extravaganza of exploration into Scotland’s History – what events will you be going along to?

former home of Robert Louis Stevenson

The door to 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh

Read more: Events for Robert Louis Stevenson Day

Scotland’s History Festival: Previously…

We’d love to welcome you to Craigwell Cottage if you’d like to spend a short break in Edinburgh during November – an ideal time to come as the city gets ready to celebrate the festive season, with Light Night being on 24 November this year.

Nigel Planer and Ian Rankin at the 2011 History Festival

Nigel Planer and Ian Rankin at the 2011 History Festival

Literary Edinburgh – Peter May – The Lewis Man Trilogy

I’ve been planning a series of posts this year about books which feature Edinburgh, with the idea that I always like to read books set in and around the places I visit on holiday, and I hope you’ll enjoy some suggestions.
You’re in for a treat, as I’ve found a trilogy to recommend to you by Peter May:
The Blackhouse
The Lewis Man
The Chess Men
I first read about these books as they were mentioned in Fiona Drane’s blog about her favourite books of 2012.  Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Fiona, and we talked about the books. I mentioned that I was planning a series of blogs this year, tying in the idea of holiday reading in preparation for a visit with the notion of visiting places in Edinburgh which had been mentioned in books. She mentioned that there were significant parts of the second of the trilogy which were set in Edinburgh, and that piqued my interest and drove the books further up my reading queue.
In the week since we met and chatted over coffee in the delightful Main Street Books – a “must visit” book shop in St Boswells, I’ve been deeply in the thrall of the first two books of the trilogy.
Two places which are very familiar to me and which I walk by, over and under frequently, are the Dean Gallery (now renamed Gallery of Modern Art Two) and the Dean Bridge, both of which feature significantly in The Lewis Man.
I’d recommend that if you are interested in life in the Western Isles of Scotland, or are planning to visit Scotland, you add this series to your reading list.

You can find out more about Peter May’s books on his website:
Follow Peter May on Twitter: @authorpetermay
You can even get an app for your iPhone or iPad: The Lewis Man App
Follow the video channel : PeterMayLive
Now renamed Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two

The Dean, featured in Peter May’s The Lewis Man


Literary Edinburgh – McCall Smith – Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

One thing which I love to do on holiday is to read books about where we are visiting.  Not guidebooks, but fiction set in a particular city or county.  Think EM Forster’s “Room with a View” when visiting Florence, or Patrick Gale’s “Notes from an Exhibition” when in Cornwall, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Fortunately for those wishing to visit Edinburgh, there is a wide range of different types of fiction available to choose from – historical tales from Sir Walter Scott to the gritty crime fiction of Ian Rankin, and so much in between.  We’ve even had visitors to Craigwell Cottage heading straight to the Elephant House café on arrival, just so that they can soak up the atmosphere which helped JK Rowling to pen the early drafts of her Harry Potter series.

Elephant House Edinburgh

Big Harry Potter fans!

One author I’m really enjoying reading at present is Alexander McCall Smith.  I’ve worked my way through most of the 44 Scotland Street series and listened to the podcasts of the Dog Who Came in From the Cold, but the reading I’m doing over this winter holiday season is of the Sunday Philosophy Club series, featuring the moral philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie.

I was completely hooked as I started to read the second of the series, “Friends, Lovers, Chocolate“. Not only had the title captured my imagination, but the opening chapter is set as a mysterious character walks down the Royal Mile towards Canongate Kirk, where he means to visit the grave of Robert Fergusson, the young poet who inspired Robert Burns.

Statue of Robert Fergusson at Canongate Kirk

Robert Fergusson wintry statue Canongate Kirk

I fear Mr Burns would not be happy if he were to see the statue of his inspiration being treated with such lack of respect.

However, there are others who continue to revere the poet, including the mystery man of McCall Smith’s opening chapter.  In the graveyard of Canongate Kirk, you can visit the grave of Robert Fergusson.  Robert Burns paid for his gravestone to be erected, and wrote the lines of its inscription:

This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way

To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.

I hope that if you’re planning a trip to Edinburgh, you’ll consider adding some of the Sunday Philosophy Club series to your reading list, and I for one can’t think of a better way to spend some of my leisure time in Edinburgh, sipping hot chocolate in one of the cafés featured in the series, and walking the streets along with the characters of the book.

ScotlandHour – this is one of a series of features for ScotlandHour in January 2013 where the theme is “Burns, Creative Scotland, Arts and Culture”.  If you’re thinking of visiting Scotland, or want help in planning your visit here, then join us on Twitter for a monthly chat about Scotland – just search for the tag #ScotlandHour to join in.  Many tourism businesses and fans of visiting Scotland join in the chat on the last Wednesday of each month, from 9-10 pm (UK Time) on Twitter.  To find out about the full schedule for ScotlandHour 2013, visit my social media for tourism article.

Reading: Edinburgh Days by Sam Pickering

Edinburgh Days - On doing what I want to Do

Edinburgh Days - Sam Pickering


A recent visit to the Edinburgh Room in the Central Library on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh led to a chance discovery of “Edinburgh Days – or Doing What I want to Do” by Sam Pickering.  I’m often on the look-out for books which can be read in preparation for a visit to Edinburgh, or as a companion while staying in the city.  Many visitors come here to visit as part of their studies – either for short courses, or like Mr Pickering, on a longer sabbatical to carry out research at the University of Edinburgh.

I’ve read this book over a couple of extended ‘sittings’ – or rather ‘lyings’ as I do like to read in bed.

Mr Pickering comes to Edinburgh alone, and at the beginning of a year, arriving in winter 2004 and staying until spring on a 4 1/2 month visit.  His prose can seem melancholy, lonely and sad to start with, but warms considerably with the arrival of his daughter on a visit, and the coming of spring.  He documents his stay with investigations of his own state of mind, and his writings made me think very much of the many visitors I’ve welcomed over the years whose travels are so wrapped up in their own attitude to travel and their willingness to adapt to local conditions and make the most of their time in a different city.  A positive frame of mind would seem a necessity when embarking on a holiday, or one would at least expect to find that frame of mind while travelling and relaxing.  Mr Pickering’s journey certainly tends to finding peace and contentment as his stay extends.

There were several quirks of his experiences which I really enjoyed.  I liked the fact that he visited antique shops and poked around, getting to know the owners and selecting a single item from each which he chooses to covet – although it appears that he never really gets round to buying anything.  I also liked the fact that, despite an extended stay, he chooses not to venture outside Edinburgh – and indeed rarely goes anywhere he cannot reach on foot.  So, the extent of his wanderings is usually confined very much to the city centre, and a walk out to Balerno via the Water of Leith Walkway is his longest journey from the centre.

I wasn’t so sure about the stories of characters from his home town in Tennessee, or the snippets of information which he puts into the book about letters received from friends.  The places where he mentions interaction with others in the faculty which he is visiting, or discussions with people he meets on his wanderings seemed much more vital and relevant.

However, my perception changed when I got to the end of the book and turned to the narrative on the dust-jacket tucked inside the cover.  For there I discovered that Sam Pickering was the inspiration for Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poet’s Society , and suddenly I had found a reason to read this all over again.  I hope that you will too, and find pleasure in accompanying Mr Pickering as he wanders the streets of Edinburgh, visiting mainstream and more obscure tourist attractions and bringing his literary knowledge to entertain.

Walking from Edinburgh to St Andrews

Thanks to the folks at Informed Edinburgh, I’ve just been reading about of a walking route which follows the trail of ancient pilgrimages from Edinburgh to St Andrews. A book by Cameron Black called ‘The Saint Andrew’s Way – Restoration of a Medieval Pilgrimage’ is due to be released. You can obtain copies by emailing

With excellent public transport routes from Edinburgh to Fife, Craigwell Cottage might just be a possible base for walkers who come to Edinburgh to start the walk and intend to walk it in sections. And even a stay at Sandcastle Cottage, our lovely seaside home in Fife, might be an alternative base for those wishing to walk sections of the Fife part of the walk.

I’ve entered the competition to win a guide, but it will be going on my Christmas wish list too! Would be great training for next year’s Edinburgh Moonwalk which I’ll be walking towards during 2011.

St Andrews Cathedral

St Andrews Cathedral

Edinburgh – 40 Town and Country Walks

Came across this little publication by Kerry Nelson

whilst browsing books about Edinburgh in my local library. It’s easy to put in your pocket, and covers many favourite walks in and around Edinburgh. A good addition to your preparations if you’re thinking about visiting Edinburgh. Many of the walks can be easily started from Craigwell Cottage, and there are directions for public transport to the start of each walk.

The second 100 pages – Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland, The Story of a Nation

Well, certainly failing in the target for reading, but things like the Moonwalk and other pleasures have been getting in the way.

I’ve brought the weighty tome along with me on holiday and have been undertaking to get back on track with my reading. You may have gathered by now that I’m no great shakes on this history lark. Just couldn’t summon any great enthusiasm, preferring fictionalised accounts rather than lists of facts.

Must say that my reading of Chapters 9 onwards have felt like torture – book falling on my nose as I drop off after ploughing through a few paragraphs and so on.

But, having slogged up to the Battle of Bannockburn over my muesli the other morning (yes, I’m such fun on holiday!), I’m finding a little more of the story resonating. As soon as we got to James I and the building of Linlithgow Palace I began to get interested. Reading is of course a personal journey, and I think that I’ll have difficulty in recalling many facts of battles won and lost and parts of the countryside traversed. But I can relate to a king who wanted to build a palace and decorate it in the grandest style of the times. And I liked the tale of how he fell in love with a lady and wrote poetry.

It also seemed that the history as portrayed in this book is a timeline moving from one ruler to the next, one battle to the next in a weary procession. Surely this isn’t the way to interest a non-historian like me? I’d thought at the beginning of the book that I’d be hooked by the sense of place which was being conveyed, and now I find that all these endless battles just don’t do it for me. No idea of how the ‘common people’ lived from day to day – how was it to be a citizen of this emerging nation?

Am I hopelessly lost in my need for domestic details rather than the ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’ of the would-be leaders of men?

Struggling with history – a personal journey

I am a keen reader.  Have been since I learned to read.  In recent years, I’ve been a member of two book groups as well, so not only do I read, I also meet with others to chat about what we’ve read together.

Increasingly I find myself drawn to read blogs and on-line content too, and have connected with a couple in particular over the past year or so.  Scotland for the Senses is one of them.  A place where you can read about a personal journey experiencing all manner of things Scottish.  Back in April 2010, there was a competition on this blog to win a copy of Magnus Magnusson’s ‘Scotland, The Story of a Nation’.  The trap was, you had to read it along with the giver to encourage her to keep going, and email back and forth to share comments on what was being read.

To win, you had to submit details of your favourite Scottish character, as well as agreeing to the conditions. ‘Ha, I never win anything’ I thought to myself, but I know who my favourite Scottish character has been for a while.  At least, she’s the Scottish character I’d like to understand more about.  This is where it gets personal.

For the Scottish character I speak of is my great-grandmother, one Roseann/Roseanna/Annie McGowan, born in around 1870 and mother of 12 children.  At one time in her life she lived very close to Craigwell Cottage, in a tenement flat at South Back of Canongate, Edinburgh.  A road which is now Holyrood Road, and a place where the Scottish Parliament now stands.

Before the birth of my first child, I devoted a couple of weeks to researching my family history in the Scottish Records Office at New Register House, and the one person I kept coming back to and wanting to know more about was my great-grandmother Annie.  I shall write more of her in future posts, but it was finding out more about her life that sparked that fire within me to start reading more about the past rather than the diet of novels upon which I’d mainly existed until now.  And somewhere in my personal journey there’s a connection to place which made the ownership of Craigwell Cottage more than a simple business decision.

So, tempted by the prospect of adding to my scant knowledge of Scottish History, I posted a quick comment and moved on, only to find out just a few days later that I’d won!  So now, not only was I struggling to finish books for my two ‘real’ book groups, but there I was committed to contributing in a public place too.  A scary prospect indeed.

When the brown paper parcel arrived I noticed from the sender’s address that she lived very close to me in Edinburgh, so it seemed sensible to invite her to meet up and discuss the practical arrangements.  A bit of baking and I was ready for the meet, thinking that if nothing came of it at least we’d both have had cake!

A lovely meeting and the outline of a plan resulted in the decision to post comments on Scotland for the Senses’ Facebook Discussion Board.  In the few short weeks since then, I’ve come to realise that this will be no easy task.  For we agreed to a target of around 60 – 70 pages a week, which by my reckoning means that we should be about half way through by now and I’m only on page 123.  This is truly becoming a struggle.

But like any activity on which you embark, there is learning to be had from it, but maybe not what I expected.  The next steps on the journey are the subject of the post The First 100 Pages.

The First 100 Pages – Magnus Magnusson’s: Scotland The Story of a Nation

Reading about Scottish History

Reading about History

Reading this book is part of a historical reading path I’ve been following since my interest in history was sparked by researching my family tree, and owning a property in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

I won the competition to read this book along with Scotland for the Senses, a fellow tweeter and enthusiast for Scottish experiences, whereas I’ve tended to concentrate my reading for the moment on Edinburgh where my home and business are based.

To put the reading of this book in context, I’d just finished reading Patricia Dennison’s Holyrood and Canongate a Thousand Years of  History and had picked up another couple of historical books in the Audio Books section of my local library – Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, and Phillippa Gregory’s A Constant Princess.  One of my reading groups has also embarked on reading Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, so I’ve got that ‘on the go’ at the moment too.

I thought that reading a history of Scotland would help put a timeline around my reading, providing context for dipping in and out of different periods of history.  But I’m learning a lot about different subjects as I read, and yesterday as I took some time out from reading to be mindful of another task in hand (or rather on foot!) at the moment, I had a revelation about why the first 100 pages of this book have taken so long to read.

I was slogging my way around the base of Arthur’s Seat, with my headphones playing the MP3 version of the aforementioned Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England when I realised what I wasn’t enjoying about Magnusson’s book.  In the introduction to the Time Traveller’s Guide, Ian Mortimer explains why he’s decided to write about history by taking you on a journey through time.   He points out that “understanding the past is a matter of experience as well as knowledge”.  Further that “seeing events as happening is crucial to a proper understanding of the past”.  And I was stopped in my tracks by his point that: “Most of all it needs to be said that the very best evidence for what it was like to be alive in the 14th century is an awareness of what it is like to be alive in any age, and that includes today. Our sole context for understanding all the historical data we might ever gather is our own life experience.”

The culmination of his introduction to the Time Traveller’s Guide is that “the key to learning something about the past might be a ruin or an archive, but the means by whereby we may understand it is and always will be, ourselves.”  Thank you so much, Mr Mortimer, for providing me with that flash of insight.

Mortimer says: “As soon as you start to think of the past happening as opposed to ‘it having happened’, a new way of conceiving history becomes possible.”  He talks of an investigation into the sensations of being alive in a different time.  And while Magnusson’s book has conveyed to me a great sense of place with references to places in Scotland which you can visit today and what they’re like now, I’m struggling with how it feels to have lived in any of these past times.  And that’s what any recounting of a historical nature must have for me, a sense of what it was like to actually have lived in those times.

So, the reading of “Scotland The Story of a Nation” will be more of a journey than I thought, and take me in different directions and to different places.  All of which is a good thing, but won’t make for a speedy finish.