The Kirkhill Pillar

Another local adventure – the Kirkhill Pillar was one of those ‘how did I never know that was there’ deals, especially since I did know about some of it, and just never thought to go looking.

In 1776 the Earl of Buchan set up a scale model of the solar system in the grounds of his house at Kirkhill, now in Broxburn, building the sun and the larger planets out of stone and the smaller planets out of bronze.

The pillar stood on its original site at Kirkhill until it collapsed in the 1970s, and was rebuilt in Almondell Country Park a few miles away in 1988, near the site of a house built by the Earl’s brother.

A few years ago there was a local project to create a new solar system in sculptures, stretching across West Lothian from Almondell in the south to Beecraigs and Kingscavil in the north, and I spent an interesting day recently walking across the county trying to track these down – having already come across Jupiter and Saturn when I was walking part of the Union Canal towpath a few years ago.

The Kirkhill Pillar
Pillar explanation

The pillar has inscriptions on all four sides – the front is a quotation from Virgil, and the left side is a dedication to James Buchanan, professor of Mathematics in Glasgow, which hints at an interesting history – ‘I, who formerly animated by love of country, dared to succour liberty and oppressed citizens, now cultivate my paternal fields and shun the threshold of Kings.’

Virgil quotation

The back has a careful description of the exact location of Kirkhill, its latitude and longitude, height above high water at Leith, and distances from local landmarks – all of which makes me feel a little bit sorry for it now all its careful notes about its location are wrong!

Kirkhill location

The right hand side sets out the solar system – its scale (which is a very odd one), and the details of all the planets.

Solar system
Table of planets

A more legible version of the table was published in the Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1792.

Full table

The pillar is not the only astronomical thing at Almondell – the flowerbeds behind the visitor centre are laid out in sun and moon shapes, to reflect the interests of the family.

Sun and moon flowerbeds at Almondell

The park also has the lovely Nasmyth bridge, built in about 1800 – again, it had collapsed, but Almondell appears to be indefatigable when it comes to rebuilding things!

Nasmyth Bridge

Kirkhill itself is now squeezed between modern houses in Broxburn, and has been renovated and turned into flats, but the centre of the new model solar system is very close by, on Broxburn Academy, reflecting its origins.

Kirkhill House

Book of the Month: January

Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife
Edited by David Cannadine

This isn’t a book I would have chosen for myself – it was lent to me by the secretary of the Collingwood Society because it had a section on ballads including some which mentioned Collingwood, which he knew I would find interesting, and I decided I might as well read it all.

It turned out to be a proper academic book with footnotes – and economics! – but also to be so interesting that it left me with that good book feeling of not knowing what to read next because nothing else felt quite right.

It’s a collection of chapters on different topics; the first two are the economics ones – a general overview of the British economy of the time, and one comparing taxation and the way war was funded in Britain and in France – which are things I think aren’t interesting at all, and then turn out to be, because it’s fascinating to see why things turn out the way they do in different places.

The third is about propaganda, mainly newspapers, but also giving me a lovely epiphany about Stephen Maturin’s own particular form of warfare – not just collecting information, although that’s useful, and not just spreading misinformation, although that can be, and definitely not running round stabbing people with scalpels (even if that’s occasionally unavoidable), but about getting truth to people Napoleon is denying it to (Napoleon’s excommunication, which turns up in The Mauritius Command, is mentioned as one of the things which he’s preventing knowledge of from spreading).

The fourth compares the fleets, looking at comments from historians from the different countries involved, but especially focusing on Lord Melville’s efforts to get more ships to sea by introducing new ways of repairing rather than rebuilding them. (It also includes the nice comment about Royal Sovereign‘s engagement at Trafalgar being ‘the only time that Collingwood ever beat Nelson to anything’!)

The fifth looks at the significance of the battle, and the way it (and other sea battles) have been misunderstood – particularly by comparing then to land battles, which claim territory. Naval victories are useful for improving morale, but even more for destroying the enemy’s ships more quickly than the sea can, letting everyone get on with the real jobs of blockading and convoying.

The second section of the book is less about the battle and the war, and more about about what has been said and written about them afterwards, starting with the chapter on ballads. I did find this interesting – as well as particular songs, it looks at the way that popular songs were being influenced, so that very little that was published about Nelson or the battle is critical, despite political unrest at the time. The songs referencing Collingwood are in a group which ‘effectively enjoin us to move on, thereby both celebrating Nelson as a hero, and preparing us to to recognize others who will do the same for their country’ – saying about one song, although without quoting any lyrics, that ‘the sole purpose of the song seems to be to introduce and underline the importance of Collingwood’. (It turns out to have been printed in Newcastle, which may explain things.)

The next chapter is about art, and paintings of Trafalgar as part of a wider conflict between painting as a way of telling stories and making points, and as a literal depiction of a particular point in time.

The next two chapters are about commemorations of Trafalgar and its later legacy, from Nelson’s funeral to the Navy League and its 1905 celebration of Trafalgar Day. – the second looks more at the way the legacy of the battle influenced later public opinion, and was used in the later navy, but suffered a bit from going over things which had been better explained in the previous chapter. (I’m also intrigued but still unconvinced by an argument that Collingwood’s dispatch was deliberately beginning a process of something like canonisation – I’ll have to think about it more!)

The last chapter turned back in a way to the themes of the first half, looking at how we got to the point of one small island controlling the seas, and the extent to which being an island, and being on the edge, brought that about, mixed it with all the other historical accidents – another interesting look at how things get to be the way they are.

The whole thing has made me realise that there’s something very interesting to be done on changing perceptions of Collingwood since his own time (which I think Max Adams only touched on, and I don’t think anyone else has looked at).

(Or, really, of anyone who isn’t Nelson – I’m sure changing perceptions of Nelson has been done at least 25 time – but although with someone else you’d avoid the endless rows about anchors, I’m not sure there’d be so much there without Trafalgar lurking in the background.)

I really don’t think I’m going to be the one to do it, though!

Throwback: HMS Trincomalee

This month’s throwback is obvious, then. (And we’ll just ignore the new month for the moment – January sneaked away when I wasn’t looking.)

I’ve been to see HMS Trincomalee twice before, not counting when the tall ships were in Hartlepool, but I only have photos from the second time, last summer, and not from the first trip in 2010. I don’t think too much has changed.

It’s a wonderful place to prowl round, full of details – the rest is just photos, since in this case they do far better than words.

Below decks

Books and charts
The rudder
Sleepy marine (who seems to have been reading a love letter!)
Sickbay patient
Amusements below decks
The surgeon and his medicines
A gun
Scary goat

Pretty rigging




On deck

Gun and shot
The toilet!
Age of Sail toilet paper

The captain’s cabin

Great cabin windows
Marine sentry
Unhappy captain…
… and the reason why
The captain’s bed
And his bath!