An Arctic grave


Only two bodies were ever brought back from Franklin’s last expedition – the others are buried over there, or not exactly buried over there, or just gone.

One, found in the south of King William Island, is now buried in the Franklin memorial in the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The other, found near the camp made when the ships were just abandoned, but probably one of a party which returned to the ships later for supplies, was for some reason brought back to Edinburgh and buried in the Dean Cemetery – the only family burial.

I went hunting for it one autumn morning, getting mixed up first in rows of 20th century graves in a section nearer the road, and finally getting myself into the right place. This is the third expansion of Edinburgh, the extension over the Water of Leith after the Dean Bridge was built, and it’s really quite solidly Victorian, although early enough to catch the tail end of the Georgian greats.

Irving memorial

The grave I was looking for was quite an imposing one, and not difficult to find – a bit out of the set lines of stones, towards the back.

The upper section is in the form of a Celtic cross, intricately carved.

Celtic cross

This is understood to be the body of John Irving, third lieutenant of Terror – the body was identified by Schwatka’s expedition because of a prize medal left at the original shallow grave, and although there’s no particular reason, as far as I know, to believe that they were wrong, there were other cases of bodies being found with possessions which (for example) had originally belong to a friend.

The carving of the inscription is clear enough, but it was hard to read under the strong shadows.

Memorial inscription
Memorial inscription

In memory of Lt John Irving RN
HM Ship Terror
Born 1815
Died in King William’s Land 1848-9

Her Majesty’s Ships Erebus and Terror left England in May 1845 under command of Sir John Franklin KCB to explore a North West passage to the Pacific.
After wintering 1845-6 at Beechey Island they sailed south down Franklin’s Strait and entered the NW passage.
Having been there beset with ice for two years, Sir J Franklin, 8 other officers and 15 seamen having died, the survivors, 105 in number, Lieut. Irving being one, landed on King William’s Land and attempted to march to Canada but all died from cold and want of food.
In 1879 Lieut. Schwatka of the American Searching Expedition discovered Lieut. Irving’s grave. Through his kindness the remains of this brave and good officer were brought away and were deposited here on 7th January 1881.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress — or famine”

Below the inscription is an image of the burial – the ships behind, and the gravediggers with their spades, and the rows of mourners bringing the body. The reality was probably not so imposing – this was a shallow burial even by the standards of that frozen land, more or less uncovered when it was found, and with no attempt at a coffin, the body simply wrapped in cloth which might have been a coat.

The burial

John MacCulloch in Uist

I was back in North Uist and Harris this month, and stumbled over another Georgian scientist connected with the area, the main focus of the geology exhibition in Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy. Although the exhibition covered work in the islands up to the present day, it was put on to mark 200 years since the publication of MacCulloch’s Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1819.

Unlike William MacGillivray, whose book I was reading when I was there last year John MacCulloch had no native connection to the area – he came from a Scottish family, but was born at the home of his mother’s family in Guernsey. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but returned to work for the army in London, first as an assistant surgeon, and then as a chemist. It was the Army Board of Ordnance which first sent him into the highlands of Scotland in 1809, in search of stone which could be used to grind gunpowder without sparking – the usual sources having been cut off by the Napoleonic wars.

He later worked as geologist for the Trigonometrical Survey, the basis of the first Ordnance Survey maps, and his work in Scotland for the army seems to have interested him, as well as showing him how much was still to be done there – leading to the first geological study of the Western Isles, and the first serious description of Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain. He kept on working in Scotland, preparing the first geological map of the country between 1826 and 1834, but was unfortunately killed in an accident before it was published.


The Parliamentary road, Glen Coe


I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about both the military roads in the highlands, and the roads built by Telford’s Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges after 1802. A lot of the length of these roads now lies under the modern road network, but one very good stretch that doesn’t is the ‘parliamentary road’ across Rannoch moor, now the route of the West Highland Way.

The line of the road is a good bit higher than the modern road on the other side of Loch Tulla, and there’s quite a bit of up and down to it, but it would have made a lot of sense at the time to keep to higher and drier ground – a hundred years later they still had a lot of trouble stopping the railway line from simply vanishing into the bog. Before Telford’s road the military road ran even higher across the hill, being more concerned with the shortest distance than with taking an easy route.

Taking the high road

Although this was the main route until 1933, it doesn’t seem to have ever been properly tarmacked, so although any given part of it may not be original after 200 years of mending, it can’t be all that different from how it was first made – small stones on top of a foundation of larger stones.

Stone road

This bit looked particularly good, stone edging rather than worn edges and stones down the middle.

Stone edging

Telford’s road would originally have been gravelled on top of the stones – more for the feet of cattle than for wheels – leaving the odd situation that the bits which are gravelled now are the most authentic, despite looking just like modern tracks.

Gravelled road

Bridges on the Telford roads were built by the contractors to a standard design – they allowed for so many small bridges per set length of road – and there are some good examples of slightly different sizes on this stretch.

Small bridge
Bigger bridge

No one seems to be sure whether Ba Bridge itself was built by the army or by Telford’s commission – the lines of the two roads coincide here, and at some point along the way the bridge has lost its parapets, which might have given a clue. It’s a bit buried in among trees, but quite a substantial structure.

Ba Bridge

The Kingshouse itself dates back to the time of the military road, of course – king’s houses because they were on the highway built by the king’s men. These inns were once strung out along the whole of the military road network – the one in Strathyre was still called Kingshouse until very recently (and still is on the bus timetable!), while others I’ve seen mentioned were at Dalwhinnie (still part of the hotel), Dalnacardoch, Amulree, Tummel Bridge and Garva at the Corrieyairack pass, and there would have been many more.

The original building is rather overwhelmed now by the new part, which is a nice enough building but a bit odd in the setting.

Kingshouse in the rain

Melville monument, Comrie


It is obviously monument season again, because having gone to Comrie to climb another hill, I made a short (but very steep) detour to visit Lord Melville’s monument there, having been to see the one in Edinburgh a while ago.

The monument sits on a little hill looking down on Comrie – you can see it from the edge of the village, although not from in among the houses.

Melville monument

Melville had local connections of a kind – he had a house at Dunira a few miles away, although his roots were in Midlothian, and he was made Baron Dunira as well as Viscount Melville (a title which had really come from his wife’s family). There just have been a fairly keen local campaign to get the monument built, as it was erected only a year after his death – maybe all the keener because his reputation had been tarnished in London.

Monument inscription

Almost every town in Scotland has a Dundas Street, so it’s no surprise that Comrie does, leading up to the road to the monument – but it goes one better by also having a Dunira Street.

Dundas Street


Nelson monument, Taynuilt


Having been chased off the Argyll hills a couple of weeks ago by thunder storms clattering around the sky, I ended up in Taynuilt, which claims the distinction of having the earliest monument to Nelson to be erected after Trafalgar, beating the monument on Glasgow Green.

The monument is easy to get to, but not easy to find – you go up a lane beside the village shop, and up a path ahead of you and follow it round and you’re there, but you have to know where you’re going. It can be seen from the main street, but only just.

Monument from the road

The reason they could get it done so quickly, of course, is that there was nothing to build – the monument is a single standing stone, which had fallen locally and was taken to the small hill and lifted again. It was apparently done on Christmas Day 1805 – about 6 weeks after the news would have arrived, and two weeks before the funeral (and three weeks after Nelson’s body arrived in England, despite what the newspaper report says).

Nelson monument

The lettering – going by gravestones, at least – looks more Victorian than Georgian, although it would be hard to do the usual Georgian carving on that kind of stone – a plaque seems to have been attached at some point, which might have been the original.

Monument inscription

The reason for the early monument in such an apparently odd place is the ironworks at the edge of the village, founded in 1753, and based there because there was such a good supply of wood for charcoal locally. Most of the iron produced there was just sent on as ingots to be worked elsewhere, but a large number of cannon balls for the navy were also cast at the site, so the workers would have felt a link to the battle.

Bonawe Iron Furnace

Explorers’ Garden, Pitlochry


Earlier in the month I got round to making the trip to Pitlochry to visit the Explorers’ Garden there, and the David Douglas pavilion.

The entrance is based around the ships which would have carried the early explorers to their destinations – masts and sails, and a star-shaped platform marked out with compass points, and metal waves on the gate itself.

Compass points

Inside, the garden is arranged geographically, with information boards about the collectors who were active in that area as you go round – many more than my few special friends, and a couple I hadn’t come across before.

It had been a cold spring, and sometimes there didn’t seem to be much more in bloom than rhododendrons – not many really recognisable discoveries.

South America comes early on, with Archibald Menzies, who also went to western North America with Vancouver, and the smallest monkey puzzle tree I’ve ever seen, although I suppose they have to start somewhere.

Archibald Menzies
Tiny monkey puzzle tree

Beyond Australia and New Zealand – the south seemed to be sticking together – was South Africa, with Francis Masson, who travelled there with Cook. No red hot pokers – presumably it was too early in the year.

Francis Masson

Beyond this is North America and David Douglas (among others) – one of the few really recognisable flowers here, the lupins which famously ended up washed down the Spey, and a lovely carved pine cone (although I don’t think it’s Douglas fir – it doesn’t have the little tongues!)

Fir cone and lupins

The pavilion itself I found a bit of a disappointment – it’s a nice building to put a little exhibition in – photos from a recent trip to China at the moment – but as a monument I much preferred the little pavilion at Scone.

David Douglas pavilion

The focus here is mostly on forestry – the place is built from different woods grown in Scotland, mainly Douglas fir, larch and oak, and the information on Douglas is mostly about trees.

Douglas map

I did like that the pavilion appeared to have produced a cub – which was the toilet!

Pavilion and cub

Beyond that the focus moves to the Himalayas and Japan – some of the more interesting parts of the garden, with a lovely round stone ‘moon gate’, and the meconopis which is a speciality of the garden, but based mainly on 20th century exploration, rather than looking back to the true Age of Sail. I did like the George Forest pavilion, which was far more striking as a memorial.

George Forrest pavilion

Collingwood Society – Old Sunderland


The Collingwood society is beginning to believe that its ‘summer’ outing is cursed – the only time we’ve ever had good weather for it was when we spent the day indoors at the Northumberland Archives. Still, a reasonable number gathered in a very wet Sunderland, where the only question was whether you had come in your waterproof trousers or come with your umbrella.

Waiting in the rain

We met first at Trafalgar Square – much smaller than its namesake elsewhere, but still an attractive place. This is a square of early Victorian almshouses, built originally for retired seamen and their families, and still occupied by people who have worked at sea. (Some of them on ferries, apparently.)

The monument in the square records all the Sunderland men who were present at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was erected as part of the Collingwood festival in 2010, and we heard about the research which went into it, making a more accurate list than had existed before by comparing muster lists with other records which showed where they were out of date, still including men who had left the ship or even the navy.

Trafalgar monument

The imposing plaque and crests over the central doorway produced two questions:
– what does INo mean? (John, we think)
– and what on earth are those coats of arms? (approximately Nelson’s)

Trafalgar Square plaque

Very close by is Holy Trinity, the original parish church of Sunderland when it split from Bishopwearmouth (whose parish church is now back in the centre of Sunderland, the town having moved towards the sea and back again!)

It’s an impressive building which looks quite unusual to me, because although I’m used to Georgian architecture, I’m not very used to brick.

Holy Trinity church

We stopped in the churchyard to hear a bit about the early history of Sunderland (and the rivalry with Newcastle which goes back to the Civil Wars, if not before).

Most of the churchyard has been cleared, but one of the remaining monuments is to a local naval hero, Jack Crawford, famous for nailing the colours of HMS Venerable to the mast during the Battle of Camperdown. He eventually died in poverty, one of the victims of a cholera epidemic in 1831, and was buried in an unmarked grave, but a minument was put up nearby in 1888.

Jack Crawford monument

We then went to visit Sunderland Maritime Heritage, who have built a model of the Venerable, so large that it is almost a small boat in its own right.

Model Venerable

They’re not exactly sure that Bede was the original figurehead, but it would be a very appropriate local link!


Venerable was the flagship of Admiral Duncan at the time of the battle, and so the centre has made a link with the modern HMS Duncan, which they are very proud of.

HMS Duncan

They have a variety of things on display from different periods of Sunderland’s history – my favourite was a large copy of a Georgian map of the town, but there is also quite a lot from the 20th century, and another of their prized possessions is one of the ‘small ships’ which went to Dunkirk, kept in the harbour. At the moment she is inside the security gates, and we had to be taken down by people with passes, but they’re working on finding a better place for her.


Like Admiral Duncan, Willdora was originally Scottish, which pleased me!

Jack Crawford is obviously the local hero – there’s another monument to him up in the newer part of town, which I meant to visit but ended up going for lunch instead, and while walking back from lunch we passed this mural.

Jack Crawford mural


David Douglas monument, Scone


Finding myself back in Perthshire, I went to have a look for the David Douglas monument that I didn’t find the last time. I got off the bus too early because I was worried about getting off too late, but it turned out that I should have waited for the road sign – it was obviously a more famous thing than I expected.


The monument stands in the grounds of Scone Old parish church, which was originally built in the old village beside Scone Palace in the 1780s, and moved to the site of the new village in 1806, rebuilt from the stones of the original.

The monument is up behind the church, towards the back of the churchyard.

Old Scone churchyard

It’s an imposing monument, if very much in the Victorian tradition! The inscription is also very Victorian – and very presbyterian – a whole essay on not only his professional but his personal characteristics.

Monument inscription

But affectionate, I think – under the formality, there’s a sense that this is someone who will be missed.

There’s also a much more modern commemoration of his life, at the foot of the monument.

Douglas information board

The back of the monument also has an inscription, this time giving a lost of some of his famous plant introductions.

Reverse inscription

The Dean Bridge


Back to Telford this week, and a local site. The Dean Bridge was one of Telford’s last major projects, completed in 1831 when he was 73.

It’s been a place that interests me for far longer than I’ve really been chasing Telford – I used to work nearby, and wander down to eat my lunch in the valley below.

One if the most striking things about it is the contrast – from above you would hardly know you were on a bridge, because the land on both sides is level, and the bridge itself flat. Only the treetop and the lack of buildings give it away, and since the parapets were raised in the early 20th century it’s not easy to look over to the river.

Bridge from above

Down below it is completely different – the arches tower above at a dizzying height.

Bridge from below

A plaque on the bridge celebrates Telford’s involvement, put there to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth.

Dean Bridge plaque

The settlement at the Dean Village – a famous site of mills on the Water of Leith – long predates the bridge, and there are still odd old buildings there, although mixed in with a strange combination of Victorian recreations and modern creations.

Dean village

Until the building of the New Town the village was well outside the city, although I think this old picture exaggerates the distance – it’s only about half a mile to the castle rock. But by the 1820s the city had spread out as far as Moray place, and the very steep river valley was standing in the way of further expansion – the old crossing is a bit further west, and means a steep ascent and descent. The bridge was funded mainly by the owner of the land on the far side, who hoped to make a lot of money from opening it up, although the local road trustees were also involved.

It’s not easy to get a clear view of the bridge as a whole – if the twisting valley doesn’t get in the way, the trees do.

The bridge

One of the most distinctive features of the bridge is the double arches – large central arches carrying the road, and narrower arches carrying the footpaths. (The other really distinctive feature is that the piers are hollow, but you can’t see that from the outside.)

Double arches


Telford in Eskdale


I set out on Saturday to come up on the ‘back’ of the Ettrick hills from north of Eskdalemuir, but when I got there I found my route blocked by forestry works.

Fortunately that wasn’t the only thing I meant to come to the area for, so I set off on the trail of Thomas Telford instead. Of course, if I had planned to do this, I would have checked more carefully on what I meant to see, but I knew that I had to start at Bentpath where there was a memorial to Telford, and could then go on to Langholm.

(The place names have confused me before when reading about Telford. Westerkirk is the area and the parish, taking in the valley where Telford was born and other places round about, and once including what is now the parish of Eskdalemuir. Bentpath is the tiny village which holds the parish church and the library and the former school, and where Telford went to school, and Glendinning is the farm up at the head of the valley where he was born.)

The memorial is now outside the little Westerkirk library.

Telford memorial and Westerkirk library

The inscription on the left hand panel reads:

This seat was erected in 1928 to perpetuate the memory of Thomas Telford son of the ‘unblameable shepherd’ and to record his fame as an engineer and his untiring benevolence. Apprenticed to a stonemason in Langholm. His creative genius gave to the nation many works of inestimable benefit. He was the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

‘Unblameable shepherd’ is a quotation from Telford’s own carving on his father’s gravestone, but I was unsure about where he was buried, and when I could only find the new graveyard in Bentpath I thought that the older graves must be in Langholm or Eskdalemuir – it turns out that the old graveyard is hidden up beyond the church.

Telford description

The right hand side has a quotation from a poem written by Telford himself as a young man, on the death of a childhood friend.

There ‘mongst those rocks I’ll form a rural seat,
And plant some ivy with its moss compleat;
I’ll benches form of fragments from the stone,
Which, nicely pois’d, was by our hands o’erthrown

Telford poem

The centre has a carved portrait of Telford, and a brief inscription about his life:

Thomas Telford FRS. Born at Glendinning 9 August 1757 President Institution of Civil Engineers from 21 March 1820 to the time of his death 2 September 1834

The monument was put up in 1928 on the centenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was originally a bit further up the road, near where the Esk and the Meggat Water join.

Telford portrait

The Westerkirk library is the oldest library in Scotland still lending out books, and was originally founded by the miners of the Jamestown mine, right by Glendinning. The mine opened in 1793, about 35 years after Telford’s birth, and closed in 1799, and the library moved to the Westerkirk school in Bentpath in 1800, and to its own building when the school was rebuilt around 1840.

Telford left money in his will to be used for buying books for the library, which eventually added up to quite a proportion of it.

Westerkirk library

I had vaguely planned to walk down to Langholm and get the bus back, but the notice at the library reminded me about Glendinning itself – I could go directly to Langholm easily enough another day, but I wasn’t likely to head back up that long valley, and I figured out that I should be able to go on over the hill to Eskdalemuir, which was more appealing than walking all the way back out again.

The junction of the little road has a sign saying ‘Telford cairn’, although it doesn’t say anything about it still being 3 and a half miles away.

Telford cairn sign

The walk in just follows the road, but it was a lovely valley, little rounded hills and clear burn, until eventually the hills at the head of the valley came into view – Glendinning and Jamestown are just at the end of the main valley, before it splits into two branches.

The end of the valley

There’s a little carpark at Glendinning, mostly for the Greensykes bothy, and a board giving information about Telford’s life and a rather dramatic picture of his birthplace.

Glendinning information board

The cairn itself is a little bit up the hillside, with a wall behind it.

Memorial cairn

The inscription is very simple:

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of THOMAS TELFORD at Glendinning on 9th August 1757

Cairn inscription

I kept on up the hill to head back towards Eskdalemuir, which gave me a good view of the valley below – Telford’s father’s cottage would have been somewhere this side of the farmhouse, I think, and the mine was up the side valley opposite.

Looking down on Glendinning