Trinity Chain Pier


Back on the coast, walking from Leith to Granton, I came across something that wasn’t there – the site of the old Trinity Chain Pier, so thoroughly vanished that if it wasn’t for the name of the pub on the site there would be no sign of its existence.

When I went away and looked it up, however, it turned out to be very interesting – another project of Samuel Brown, the naval captain who (mostly unsuccessfully) championed the use of metal chains instead of ropes for rigging, and was responsible for the Union suspension bridge over the Tweed, which opened in 1820.

The chain pier was built only a year later, in 1821, and was an attempt to ease pressure on Leith docks, particularly for steamer traffic – it was fairly successful for a while, until a new pier was built at the new Granton harbour in 1838 and took most of the steamers away, and from then on the chain pier was mostly used for the newly fashionable sea bathing, until it was destroyed in a storm in 1898.

Unlike suspension bridges, piers on the same principle never really seemed to take off – Brown built another at Brighton in 1823, which was destroyed in 1896, while a later one in Ryde on the Isle of Wight lasted until 1952, and those seem to have been the only others in Britain. But it was an interesting bit of unexpected history, and I’m grateful to the pub for keeping the name!

The Age of Sail in Everything: Bewick and Cherryburn


It must be a few summers ago now that I took the chance of a free day in Newcastle to visit Cherryburn out along the Tyne, the birthplace and childhood home of the engraver Thomas Bewick.

Although Cherryburn lies close to the river, its perched well above it, and from here Ovington on the far side of the river, where Bewick went to school, is clearly in view.

Ovington over the river

A new farmhouse was built at Cherryburn in the late 1820s, by Bewick’s brother, and is now the museum, holding examples of Bewick’s work.

New house at Cherryburn

His birthplace, however, is the much smaller cottage on the far side of the yard, furnished more or less as it might have been in those days.

Old house at Cherryburn

A plaque over the door marks it as his birthplace.

Bewick’s birthplace

On one side of the door is a bedroom, without much more than bed, cradle and bench.


The other side is the kitchen, also the living room, with the big range, and chairs and clock of the period.


Next door were some slightly unexpected inhabitants – donkeys might have lived there in Bewick’s day, but alpacas probably didn’t, although no doubt he would have been glad to include them in his book of quadrupeds.

Donkeys and other animals

I had often passed the site of Bewick’s workshop in Newcastle, just behind St Nicholas’s cathedral, and had dashed down on another occasion to take a picture of the plaque there – which is quite possibly where I first came across his name.

Bewick workshop plaque

However I had never come across his second Newcastle plaque, marking his house at the Forth , which is appropriately enough on Bewick street – now just across the road from the railway station, but then outside the city walls, and the site of pleasure gardens.

Bewick plaque at the Forth


The Battle of Trafalgar, a Grand Characteristic Piece

Since I’ve been thinking about music, I remembered a piece that I stumbled over several years ago now – The Battle of Trafalgar, A Grand Characteristic Piece Composed for a Military Band, and dedicated with high respect to Admiral Lord Collingwood.

It’s probably a shame to make fun of it – whatever its merits as a piece of music (which I can’t really judge, as it’s written out in a whole band’s worth of parts), the composer has certainly taken it very seriously, giving not only advice on how to play his particular piece, but advice to young bandleaders on dealing with music in general. All the same, it cracked me up when I first came across it, and had the same effect now.

It certainly aims to be a full account of the battle, including the signals of the enemy, flying bullets, the cries of the wounded, and the rage of the French admirals (also Rule Britannia, but ‘as most bands have that popular air, the Author has not thought it necessary to sett it’).

My favourite part, however, is the few necessary Hints for the just Performance of this Work, too good not to share in full.

1st The reflection of the Commanders on the event of the Battle. This movement ought to be well conceived, because it represents the thoughts of Commanders before an Action; the first nine Barrs represent the Combined Fleet, these Barrs are picturesque of fear; the five following represent the English Fleet, and imitate confidence, the rest in the Combined Fleet, represent despondency and fear.

2d The Fleets discovering each other prepare for Battle. Should be played as quick as possible, with the accompaniment of Drums, &c.

3d Signal of the Enemy. The Performer ought to be placed at a distance, or use a certain contrivance, the construction of which the Author is not at liberty to disclose.

4th Music in the Enemy’s Fleet. Must be played in the same manner as No. 3.

7th Word of Command. Must be played in the stile of Recitativo towards the end, the tempo must be gradually increased.

8th The Fleet moves to the Attack. Very legate.

9th General Attack. Although in appearance difficult to the Performers, yet it will be found that all the passages are well disposed for the Fingers. This the Author has always considered as an object very necessary to cause a good effect.

10th Lord Nelson wounded. The broken cadence before this movement, requires to be well executed, because the most trifling noise immediately after it will be fatal to the effect; the movement itself must be performed with peculiar solemnity of expression.

12th Lord Nelson dying. The time and sound gradually to die away.

14th The cries of the wounded. In this movement the time and sound must be almost entirely lost.

15th The French Admiral’s rage at losing the Battle To be played in an agitated, boisterous manner; the number of interrupted cadences will abundantly assist the Performer in producing this effect.

16th The Fleet lamenting the death of their beloved commander. This movement must be played extremely slow, in the stile of a dirge, accompanied by the roll of a pair of Kettle or muffled drums; within six Barrs of the end, the time and sound to be gradually diminished.

Currie Kirk sundial


One of my recent walks took me to Currie Kirk – a lovely Georgian building itself and the unexpected bonus of the sundial in its grounds.

This particular sundial has no naval or other wider connections as far as I know, but the business of telling time by the sun certainly does. Noon was the most important time for a ship – until 1805 the naval day officially ran from noon to noon, and that was noon not as set by any outside time, but as observed on the ship (also a way, when compared to a chronometer set to Greenwich or some other known time, of determining the ship’s latitude).

I also just couldn’t find much about this sundial online, and I think it’s too beautiful not to show off.

The carving is beginning to wear away in places, which is a shame – as far as I can tell, the attribution reads:

To the Parish of Currie, as testiment of respect and gratitude, this dial, calculated, drawn and engraved by Robert Palmer, schoolmaster, is inscribed, 1836.


1836 is the end of the sundial period, really – this is the start of the railway age, and in  1840 the Great Western railway introduced the first standard time – a time which was the same across the country, or at least along the length of their line, rather than a time depending on a local noon in every place, which took away the importance of the sun in determining time.

It wasn’t easy to take a picture of the full dial at once – this was my best effort, and clicking on it should hopefully make a bigger version.


The very outside gives compass directions, then the outer ring is the ordinary time.

The next two – also marked off with the hours, but very different hours – are labelled ‘Hour at Calcutta’ and ‘Hour at Easter Isle’. Why those two places I have no idea – Calcutta sits roughly at 90° East, which might be significant, but Easter Island is more like 110° West.


Inside that is a whole list of places, with the ends of the ring marked ‘NOON at PLACE in this RING’ – presumably when the shadow points towards it. A nice little Age of Sail cluster came more or less together – Gibraltar, London, Waterloo, Cape of Good Hope.


Inside that again is the equation of time – the difference between the true solar time, as shown by a sundial, and the mean solar time, the average based on a theoretical steadily moving sun, as shown by a clock. At different times of the year the clock would be so many minutes before or behind the time shown by the sundial, and this is shown to let you calculate the clock time (and set your watch or clock – one of the uses of sundials before everyone got their time from the radio).

The inside of the dial also shows the signs of the zodiac for each time of year, and then the very centre is the arrows for the compass points.

Leith and John Hunter


Fairly recently I followed the Water of Leith right down to its mouth at Leith itself – one of the first places I ever wrote about here – and while wandering about at the Shore at the river mouth I came across a statue to a naval captain John Hunter, born locally.

John Hunter plaque

The statue has been erected by the Scots Australian Council to commemorate his time as the second governor of New South Wales between 1795 and 1800, but it turns out that he had a long and varied career taking in several of the major events of the time – an unusual career in some ways, but in other ways just another of those many you never hear of.

Hunter was born in 1737, the son of a merchant captain, and the great-nephew, on his mother’s side, of the several-times Lord Provost of Edinburgh who was the driving force behind the building of the New Town. He went to school in both Edinburgh and King’s Lynn and even started studying at the University of Edinburgh before joining the navy at the relatively late age of almost 17.

As a midshipman he was present at the capture of Quebec, and served on several ships through the Seven Years’ War. He passed his lieutenant’s exams in 1760, but was presumably (as he doesn’t seem to have lacked skill) lacking in either luck or influence, as it took another 20 years before he was finally appointed to a lieutenant’s post.

In the meantime he served as a master’s mate, quite a usual post for an experienced midshipman, but then took the more unusual step of qualifying and serving as a master, a warrant officer rather than commissioned officer. In this role he was sent to the West Indies, where he charted the coasts and the Spanish fortifications, and then to the Dutch East Indies. At some point he attracted the attention of Admiral Lord Howe, who was going out to North America as commander in chief in 1776, and took Hunter as master in his flagship, HMS Eagle.

Over the next few years Hunter was twice made acting-lieutenant without having the post confirmed, and was finally confirmed as lieutenant of the Berwick in 1780 by the commander in chief of the West Indies station – possibly as a way round London politics, as Howe had fallen out with the government after his actions in America were criticised. By 1782 he was first lieutenant of HMS Victory, now Howe’s flagship, and took part in the relief of Gibraltar.

However much it had to do with the fact that Howe was now back in favour, Lord North’s government having fallen in March 1782, Hunter’s career was now also on a steady rise – by November 1782 he had his first command, a 14-gun sloop, and in December 1786 he was made post captain and appointed to HMS Sirius of the Australian First Fleet (whose monument I found in the Isle of Wight) – Lord Howe by now being First Lord of the Admiralty.

Sirius was wrecked on Norfolk Island in 1790, and Hunter returned to England, joining Howe as a volunteer on HMS Queen Charlotte, where he was present at the Glorious 1st of June in 1794 – having already been appointed as governor of New South Wales, but not sailing until February 1795. He was recalled in late 1799 after a difficult time, and returned to naval service, captaining HMS Venerable in the fleet off Brest in 1804. He became a rear-admiral in 1807 and vice-admiral in 1810, but never served as an admiral at sea, and died in 1821 in London, although he had spent most of his retirement back in Leith.

John Hunter monument

The square which holds his monument also holds a memorial to the merchant navy, and the Victorian sailors’ home which is now the Malmaison hotel, but back at the corner of the square is a more interesting building, one of the oldest in Leith – the old Signal Tower.

Signal tower

According to the information boards, the tower was originally built as a windmill in 1686, at the same time that a sea wall was built – the battlements were added in 1805, and it was then used as a signal tower during and after the Napoleonic wars, sending messages to ships entering the harbour.

You can see the tower in the map I linked to in that first post, sitting right at the water’s edge – meaning that even the square which now holds Hunter’s statue is on reclaimed land.

Signal tower over the river

An engraving was printed in 1829 showing the tower in its original position, with what can be seen of the harbour looking quite different from how it looks now.

The Age of Sail in Everything: Comiston springs


The trip to look for the old spring houses at Comiston which mark the sources of Edinburgh’s first piped water supply was indeed an adventure for another day, but not too many days later – a good friend lives over that way, and we met up to go prowling over Blackford Hill and the Braids before returning through Comiston.

There were four main springs originally, all given the name of an animal, a sculpture of which was used to mark the pipe from that spring on the collecting tank in the main wellhouse. Fox spring and Swan spring still survive on the map as street names, and those were also the two that we found traces of on the ground – the others seem to have been hare and lapwing or peewit.

Street names

The building over Swan spring was tucked right into someone’s garden, although easily visible from the road – a little square thing with a slightly pointed roof.

Swan spring

Fox spring had a similar building, this time tucked between the garden and the pavement – we liked the way that the houses had been built around them regardless, but leaving them there.

Fox spring

It also, however, had a slightly larger building just up the road, this time the shape of a tiny house – and, fascinatingly, still claimed as the property of Scottish Water.

Fox spring house

As well as the buildings, in each place we could also easily hear running water below a manhole in the street.

The main wellhouse, where the water from the springs was collected together, stands beside the Cockmylane path which runs down to Oxgangs Avenue, but although there is a sign on it describing its history it would be easy to walk past without paying any particular attention.

Wellhouse plaque

It seems to have been opened up occasionally – you can find pictures of the interior – but it’s impossible to see anything inside when it’s shut, as the tiny window openings have stone behind and only open out to the sides – all you can do is feel the cool air coming out.

Comiston Wellhouse

Ensign Ewart


I went into town one day to hunt for statues, but the most interesting thing that I found was one that I didn’t expect.

I knew of Ensign Ewart only as the name of a pub, but on the Castle esplanade I found myself standing beside his monument, and discovering that – as a sergeant in the Royal North British Dragoons, better known as the Scots Greys – he was responsible for the capture of one of the two French eagles taken at Waterloo.

Ensign Ewart memorial

Charles Ewart was born in Ayrshire in 1769, and joined the army in 1789. The Scots Greys fought in the low countries during the Revolutionary wars, but then didn’t see active service until Waterloo in 1815.

After this, Ewing was promoted to ensign – second lieutenant – in a veteran battalion, but after it was disbanded worked as a fencing master.

As well as the inscription on the front, the memorial has a stylised eagle on one end and the date of Waterloo on the other.

Waterloo date

Beside the memorial is a sign giving information about Ewart and his grave – he was originally buried in Salford, where he had died, but the grave was later built over, and in 1938 it was rediscovered by the regiment and his remains brought back to their base in Edinburgh.

Ensign Ewart sign

Set in the ground behind the current memorial is another interesting thing – the top part of Ewart’s original gravestone, also rescued and brought to Edinburgh.

Original gravestone

The pub is not much further down the hill – it’s a little unsure about when it was founded, giving a different date on a sign, but it obviously predates Ewart. The current name might only date back to the 60s, although before that it was the Eagle – maybe a coincidence which inspired the current name, or maybe named after the French eagle, which is housed in the castle.

Ensign Ewart pub


The Age of Sail in Everything: Singing about Bonaparte

*In all my assorted music listening at the moment, two songs have caught my attention – in slightly different ways, but for the same person.

The first is Mark Knopfler’s Done with Bonaparte – a good song, and of course he has a knack for character songs, but when I started to think about it this seemed to be a slightly surprising character. The retreat from Russia is still general knowledge, maybe, but Austerlitz isn’t exactly a household name. I like the twist of the French point of view, although as it’s critical of the French army it might still be an English point of view really…

The second is on a Capercaillie CD, an old Gaelic song called Bonaparte, which means that I’ve known it for about 25 years without realising that there was anything unusual about it.

It certainly bears out the comment in the Wild and Majestic exhibition about the way that Highland enthusiasm for the British army had grown by the end of the 18th century – instead of setting out for another part of the highlands, the warriors of the song are ‘dol a chòmhrag ri Bonaparte, ‘s e bha bagairt air Righ Deòrs’/heading off to do battle with Bonaparte, he who threatened King George’.

It’s an interesting mix of traditional Gaelic praise and modern – as of 1815 – description. The soldiers are happy in their travels, splendid in attack, and never give ground, but although they are  ‘luchd nan osan geàrr ‘s nam fèileadh/men of the short hose and the kilts’, they also have ‘còta sgàrlaid orr’ mar èideadh/their uniforms of scarlet coats’.

The song seems to belong to the end of the hundred days and the build up to Waterloo, as ‘ann am Bruiseal a chaidh innse gun robh Frangaich tighinn nam mìltean/In Brussels it was said that the French were coming in their thousands’ – both the 71st Highlanders and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders took part in the battle, having seen earlier service in the Peninsular war and been called back.

It’s only the end of the song which comments on the difference between these days and the older ones, but even there it’s not so much a nostalgia for the days of independent highland armies as a wish for the weapons of old to deal with their enemies even more violently!

The Age of Sail in Everything: Wooden water pipes


I saw these wooden pipes sitting by Middle Meadow Walk just before this all started, and have been waiting a long time for the chance to go back with a camera, as they’re interesting history.

These pipes were dug up nearby during recent work on the modern pipes, and are part of Edinburgh’s original piped water system, set up in 1674 – or at least almost original, as the first lead pipes kept causing problems and were replaced in the early 18th century by these wooden pipes, and from 1790 by cast iron pipes.

Water was brought from springs at Comiston (then well outside the city, and still near the edge) to a reservoir on Castlehill, slightly lower, where a cannonball in the wall of a nearby house apparently marks the height of the spring. (This bit seems like magic to me, with so much lower ground in between, but it clearly worked and kept on working!).

From there the pipes took the water to masonry wellheads spread through the (old) town, where it could be collected by the local inhabitants – it wasn’t until around 1820 that it began to be piped to the houses.

Wooden pipe

The pipes were generally made of elm, and each trunk was sharpened at one end to allow it to fit to the next.

Pipe joint

Some illustrations from a Victorian book on the history of the water supply are posted there, showing people at the wellheads.

Wellhead illustration

If you didn’t want to stand at the wellhead yourself, and if you could afford it, you employed a water caddie, often a retired soldier, to bring the water from the well to your house.

Water caddie

The original visit to the pipes led on a bit unexpectedly to other places – I was going to Parliament Square to look for a statue, but found on the way one of the old wellheads, although this is an 1835 replacement of one demolished when George IV Bridge was built.

Lawnmarket wellhead
Wellhead information

Further up the hill, the cannonball in the wall of the house on Castlehill – known as Cannonball House – is still there. I’ve known about it more or less forever, as every Edinburgh schoolchild is told that it was shot at the house from the castle, which I think seemed a bit doubtful even at the time.

Cannonball House

I haven’t found definite confirmation of the idea that it marks the height of the spring, and I don’t know why they would use a cannonball and not some more standard marker, but it’s definitely possible – the reservoir building (a Victorian replacement of the original) is on the left here, set low, with the cannonball just below the middle window of the building on the right.


And now I’ve discovered that the buildings which covered the various springs and collected the water at Comiston also still exist, but that is an adventure for another day.

Throwback: Whitehaven


I didn’t go to Whitehaven looking for history, in the beginning – it was just a place to hang around in the early morning between the first train round the coast from Carlisle and the bus that would take me toward the western hills. But it turned out to be a surprisingly attractive place – the kind of place that has kept its old buildings more or less by accident, having never been rich enough again to think about replacing them, but Georgian in this case, in contrast to the medieval relics of Fife.

Georgian houses

The harbour was first built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – the bulwark quay was the second harbour area, and rebuilt in 1711 – originally to export coal from the area, but the town grew to have a flourishing import industry through the 18th century, particularly of tobacco from Virginia. After 1707, however, when English markets were opened up to Scotland, Glasgow began to take over this west coast trade, and Whitehaven’s importance slowly faded, although the coal industry kept it busy for another century or so.

Whitehaven harbour

The watchtower and harbour master’s house on the Old Quay which encloses the first harbour date back to about 1730 – there are now newer piers around another harbour area beyond them.

Old watchhouse

The town is famous, however, for one event of the period in particular – the attack on the town by John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger in 1778, which was intended to set fire to all the shipping in the harbour, but only succeeded in spiking the guns

John Paul Jones story

A statue by the harbour shows one of the raiders – possibly Jones himself – in the act of dealing with the guns.

John Paul Jones statue

The town seems quite proud of this event – I particularly liked this mosaic set into the pavement of the main street.

John Paul Jones mosaic

(Just outside Greggs – I was looking for my breakfast, not for it!)