Old College


After having visited the oldest remaining teaching building of the University of Edinburgh – the cottage in the Botanic Gardens, where botany classes were held – I thought I had better finally make a visit to the main Georgian building, planned in 1789 to replace various buildings owned by the university which were falling into disrepair (nothing has changed there!) and partly built, then completed from 1815 after the Napoleonic wars.

This was once the site of the original Kirk o’ Field, of Darnley fame, and when the courtyard was renovated a few years ago unexpected bodies turned up – not illicit ones, but where the medieval graveyard had simply been built over – as well as remains of earlier buildings including the church and an earlier university library.

Old College courtyard

The buildings are impressive, to be fair, but it is hard to be properly impressed when they are primarily a place you hurry to with exam papers that someone has given you at the last possible moment!

Registry entrance

A dome was in the original plans, but was not added until 1883.

Old College dome

An inscription over the imposing entrance from North Bridge (probably now only used by tourists and post vans, as the rest of the university is on the other side of the building) commemorates the building works.

Old College inscription

The University of James VI King of Scotland founded in the Year of Our Lord 1582 in the year 1789 renovations were begun under the gracious patronage of King George III, the Provost of the City Thomas Elder, the Principal of the University William Robertson, the Architect Robert Adam.

Throwback: Trinity House Newcastle


I’m in Trinity House fairly often, as it’s where most of the Collingwood Society meetings are held – just not often in daylight, as most of the talks are winter evenings! So I took a chance last summer to take a few photos, as it’s an amazing place, accessed through a little archway from Broad Chare in among a muddle of modern buildings, and then opening up behind into a range of buildings round a main courtyard.

Trinity House was set up in 1505 as a charity to support local seafarers, and soon became involved in improving navigation, first building marks and lights at the mouth of the Tyne and eventually becoming responsible for marks between Berwick and Whitby, and licensing masters and pilots, all paid for by dues on ships coming into their rivers. These powers have generally passed on to modern bodies, and the dues abolished,but they’re still active in various ways including licensing pilots.

The bulk of the buildings visible now are Georgian, although sometimes copying an earlier style, but there was a building on the site when Trinity House took it over in 1505, and their chapel was added in the 16th century.

The main room of the building, and the place where the talks are held, is the Banqueting Hall on the south side of the main courtyard.

Banqueting Hall

There are plaques on just about everything to tell you when it was built or rebuilt, and who was responsible for it – Trinity House seem to be very proud of their work!

Building the hall

Inside it’s decorated in a very nautical fashion. There’s a good description here of the various paintings on the walls – I generally sit and look at Quiberon Bay, and get muddled about the others.

The ceiling is painted with a sailing ship in the middle, and an optical illusion is supposed to mean that the sails swell regardless of where you’re looking at them from.

Banqueting Hall ceiling

At the foot of the entrance stairs as you come into the courtyard are two anchors, one from the Armada, and one far more recent. How either of them got to be here, I don’t know!

Armada anchor

(On the other side of the stairs for a long time was the model of a new Collingwood monument they were hoping to build, but both the model and the idea seem to have vanished.)

The main entrance is more obviously Georgian, rebuilt in 1800 in the style of the time.

The entrance

Another courtyard is visible from my usual shortcut round the back of the theatre, although it’s also accessible through an arch from the main courtyard, holding almhouses and the old school building, originally intended for the children of brethren, and later teaching navgation.

Almshouse courtyard

Along the Crinan Canal


While I was in Argyll I took the chance to walk the Crinan Canal – it’s only 9 miles long, so makes a nice trip.

The canal was originally built between 1794 and 1801, but ongoing problems meant that sections were being repaired and rebuilt for at least another 10 years.

The current buildings at Ardrishaig are a bit newer – the canal offices date from the mid 19th century, when tourist traffic was beginning to pick up.

Ardrishaig canal office

The steamer terminal dates from the heyday of steamer transport in the 1890s, and has been used as various things since the steamers stopped coming – at the moment it’s a cafe. I like the practicality of the doors, which recognise that passengers for a boat arrive as a trickle, but passengers from a boat come out as a flood.

Ardrishaig steamer terminal

As well as local transport to and from Glasgow, and tourist traffic on the canal, Ardrishaig was for a long time part of the sea route from Glasgow to Oban and Fort William and Inverness via the Caledonian canal, with passengers transferred to smaller boats and onto another steamer at Crinan.

The breakwater was built in 1800 and extended in 1817 to make it easier to enter the canal – there was never really a natural harbour at Ardrishaig, only a small bay.

Ardrishaig breakwater

Inside the sealock the basin is usually busy with small boats.

Ardrishaig basin

For the first part of its journey the canal runs close to the side of Loch Gilp, which is too shallow to allow access for boats.

Further up, a sharp bend before Craigglass marks the point where the banks of the canal collapsed in 1805 – it had originally been built across flat but unstable ground, and was rerouted much closer to the rockier hills.

Bends in the canal

From Cairnbaan, roughly halfway along the canal, two competing routes had been considered – the one eventually chosen, via Dunardry to Crinan, and a route across the Great Moss coming out at Duntrune Castle.


Dunardry, at the western end of the summit reach, was the most troublesome part of the canal with leak after leak, and the first part which Thomas Telford was called in to advise on.

Dunardry locks

The alternative route would have taken the canal around and across the Great Moss at Dunadd, and avoided Dunardry – although the ground here might not have proved any more stable than in the Moss at Craigglass!

The Great Moss

A great variety of ground was found to underlie the canal as it was being dug, and this was nicely visible a bit further – hewn rock turns into a bank built of brick.

Different edges

The final stretch of the canal runs along the side of the River Add and the shallow bay at Crinan Ferry, as it does with Loch Gilp at the eastern end.

The canal and the river Add

Across the water from Crinan is Duntrune Castle, the other possible western end.

Duntrune castle

Crinan is quite an idyllic spot on a sunny day, but there’s still nothing in particular there, and there was probably even less 200 years ago – as in Ardrishaig, the village grew up around the canal.

Crinan sea lock
Crinan basin

Book of the Month: July – William MacGillivray

A Hebridean naturalist’s journal, 1817 – 1818
William MacGillivray

I took the journal of the Scottish naturalist William MacGillivray’s time in the south of Harris to North Uist with me, since I was going to be visiting the same area, and found it all very interesting – it’s an account of a trip originally from Aberdeen via Poolewe and Stornoway to Harris, to see different parts of Scotland, and then of a year spent with his family there, instead of returning to his studies in Aberdeen.

It’s a diary which happens to be written by a naturalist, rather than a naturalist’s account of an area – birds and plants which he happened to see that day are mixed up at random with what he had for his dinner and who came to visit and the news they brought, but it all adds up to a vivid picture of the area, which was just on the verge of a great change, with the small tenants evicted to make way for larger farms, and also describes visits to the island of Pabbay and to Uig in Lewis.

And the MacGillivray of the journal is quite an endearing character – very young, very serious, and full of plans for self-improvement. An excerpt from one plan is fairly typical:

Each day I must walk at least five miles – Give at least half a dozen puts to a heavy stone, make six leaps! Drink milk twice a day, wash my face, ears, teeth and feet, and rise with or before the sun.

… as is his admission a few entries later that ‘in regard to my resolutions of last Saturday, I have only to say that none of them has been regarded’!

And for all his solemnity, he does have a sense of humour – he can quite seriously write of having packed femoralia and pectoralia, rather than breeches and shirts, but a line or two later he is describing his hat as ‘just like those of my neighbours, without the vast umbelliform brim, which characterises the physical or Linnoan cut!’ And on another occasion the only new animal he has seen that day is ‘a Brown Bear, one of which Mr Macleod the laird has got chained in his garden’.

Towards the end the journal begins to change, with some longer descriptions which look like practice for a different kind of writing – an ‘economical account’ of the area, and a description of the local agriculture. The seeds of his most important later work, on British birds, can also be seen, in a series of description of local birds, including their habits – it was his knowledge of the habits of birds which he was most noted for in his later career, when he published a History of British Birds, among other works.