Throwback: Dundas House

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Dundas House

Two Dundas families are represented in St Andrew’s Square, with Dundas House on the east side – now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland – having been built for Sir Lawrence Dundas, a distant cousin and a rival of Lord Melville.

Sir Lawrence Dundas was not directly involved in the navy, but the family was still heavily involved in seafaring (as most influential families of the tme must have been) – Sir Lawrence invested in East India company ships and had Dundas relatives appointed to them, while his son was involved in the building and trials of the early paddle steamer Charlotte Dundas (named after his daughter), and his son was the naval officer George Heneage Dundas (of Master and Commander fame), who became First Naval Lord later in his life.

Dundas House is built on the side of St Andrew’s Square, looking right down George Street along the centre of the New Town, and stands on the spot from which the New Town was measured and laid out – a plaque on the floor of the bank commemorates this.

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Setting out point

This site was originally intended for a church – the counterpart of St George’s in Charlotte Square, now West Register House – but Sir Lawrence apparently decided that it was too good a spot to give up, and had his house built there before the plans for the church could be agreed and the land acquired.

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New Town plan
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Building the house

Whatever the issues with its construction, it is a beautifully decorated building

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Melville monument

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The Melville monument

I have been misled by the Melville monument in St Andrews Square. Any time I’ve remembered to go and look at it it’s been in December, and it’s always been covered up by the ice rink’s bar – and so I assumed that there was an inscription on one of the bottom panels where I couldn’t see it. But no – all the panels are blank, and the only plaque on it celebrates Robert Stevenson’s part in its building.

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Blank panels
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Stevenson plaque

It’s a very towering monument, but I got a good view of the statue from the Scott monument when I climbed that a few weeks ago – I’d never expected to see him on the level!

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Melville’s statue

Lord Melville is one of those people who did a great deal for the navy without ever really being part of it – he was Secretary of State for War and later First Lord of the Admiralty, and as the latter managed to greatly increase the number of ships at sea by arranging for repairs rather than complete refits – indirectly contributing to the victory at Trafalgar – and the monument was paid for by members of the navy.

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Melville monument plaque

He’s also an occasional character in the Master and Commander series, as First Lord and as the father of Jack’s friend Heneage Dundas (which he wasn’t, but that’s a story for another day).

But he was a controversial figure in many ways, and was also the last person to be impeached for misappropriation of public funds in Britain – although he was eventually found guilty only of negligence.

Collingwood Society – Prisoner of the Sea

Last week included the second Collingwood Society meeting of the year – and the first that I’ve actually made, because I missed the January talk.

This talk went back specifically to Collingwood for the first time in a while – we’ve been having a lovely time exploring the naval history of the North-East, and the Age of Sail in general – with Max Adams, who wrote the best of the Collingwood biographies, coming to talk about new insights from – or into – Collingwood’s correspondence.

He began by talking about Collingwood’s letters as literature, rather than as historical evidence – as great letters from a great age of letter writing – and his frustrations I’m trying to get other people to recognise this, and read us out a full letter to demonstrate the way that his letters were carefully structured.

He also read out a letter from Collingwood to the Corporation of Newcastle, thanking them for a letter which he had been told they had sent after Trafalgar – except that apparently they had never written him a letter at all, and this reply was only to point out to them how they should have behaved!

More specifically, he had been looking at letters between Collingwood and the Duke of Northumberland (nominally over problems with access to the coal mine at Chirton), both as evidence of the social relationship and discussions between two men from very different backgrounds, and as evidence of how letters were travelling to and from the Med – the letters themselves are dated, of course, but then you get comments in the replies about ‘your letter which I received last week’, or can tell that from the content that a second letter hadn’t yet arrived although it had been sent.

The last part of the talk was not about the letters, but about a source that Max wished he had read before he wrote his book, and which one of his students had pointed out to him later – a book called ‘Servitude et grandeur militaires’ (most recently translated as ‘The Warrior’s Life’) by a man called Alfred de Vigny, looking at military life in peace time, after the great events of the Napoleonic wars, which is interesting as containing a description of Collingwood by an enemy.

The book contains a story told to the narrator by a man called Renaud, who shows him a letter from his father written from captivity in England, where he had been taken on board Collingwood’s ship, and who was later himself held as a prisoner on another ship of Collingwood’s (presumably Culloden, although the book says Victory – there are various muddles of names and times).

This was where the title of the talk came from – that Renaud was depressed by being kept as a prisoner, cut off from his own land and his own people, and that Collingwood pointed out to him one night that he was just as much a prisoner of the sea, cut off from his home and family.

It was presented to us as a factual account, and well, it might be – but it does all sound a bit too good to be true, and when you look up the book it turns out to have been written a few years after Collingwood’s letters – which quite often talk about his family in that way – and that it is generally seen as short stories containing autobiographical (and presumably biographical) elements.

So I have mixed feelings about this – it was an interesting talk, and included some good stories, but I do wish that I was a bit more sure that they were more than that – I would be interested to know, for example, whether there is evidence that no letter was sent by the Newcastle Corporation, or only no evidence that one was sent, and whether there is any other evidence for the existence of this French boy (who would presumably have been borne for victuals!)

Throwback: Culross and Cochrane

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Cochrane and the Culross town house

(This isn’t exactly a throwback, because although I went to Culross years ago and took photos then, I’ve lost them, so all the photos are new. But never mind.)

Culross on the south coast of Fife is a wonderfully preserved place, with a jumble of old houses and little cobbled streets and an old market cross tucked into a tiny square, and a bright yellow palace which they swear is how it would have looked originally!

It’s not Thomas Cochrane’s birthplace – he was born over in the west somewhere – but it is where he grew up.

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Culross houses

The main street now leads along the sea front, and it’s there that the main open square is, with the statue of Cochrane. The statue is fairly new – apparently it was put up because visitors from South America kept asking where his memorial was.

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Cochrane statue and inscription

The inscription in front of it is impossible to get a good picture of – there’s no high point where you can stand – but it’s a slightly cut down version of the inscription on his gravestone in Westminster Abbey.

THOMAS COCHRANE G.C.B. ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET
Marquis of Maranham Brazil TENTH EARL OF DUNDONALD
BY THE CONFIDENCE WHICH HIS GENIUS HIS SCIENCE
AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY DARING INSPIRED
BY HIS HEROIC EXERTIONS IN THE CAUSE OF FREEDOM
HIS GREAT SERVICE ALIKE TO HIS OWN COUNTRY
TO GREECE TO BRAZIL AND PERU HE ACHIEVED
A NAME ILLUSTRIOUS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
FOR COURAGE PATRIOTISM AND CHIVALRY

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Cochrane statue

Behind the sea front the old streets run steeeply up to the church on the hill, built in – and out of – the ruins of the original abbey.

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Abbey remains

The plaques in the porch recording gifts to the poor include one from Lady Mary Cochrane, who brought Culross into the Cochrane family (and who also has a dance – probably originally named for a tune, but if so the tune doesn’t seem to have survived.)

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Church plaques

Cochrane’s childhood home was Culross Abbey House, on the hill in behind the church.

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The church and Abbey House

If I had realised this earlier I would have gone up to see if there was a view from the gate, but by the time I’d got down the hill I wasn’t going back up again.

You get a pretty good view from the shore, anyway – the house has been remodelled over the years, but has now been restored to something like the original state.

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Culross Abbey House

Down on the shore a little clump of houses is called Cochrane Haven – according to the plaque on them named specifically for the admiral, and not for the family as local landowners.

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Cochrane Haven
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Cochrane Haven sign

The Scott Monument

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Scott in his monument

Surprisingly, although I tend to climb to the highest point of any city I visit – I’ve been up many towers and spires – I’ve lived in Edinburgh for about 30 years without ever climbing the Scott Monument. So since I’m on a monument kick at the moment it had to be time to do it.

The momument itself is Victorian, of course, but Scott himself was one of the most influential authors of late Georgian times. It’s definitely an impressive monument, although too elaboate Victorian for my tastes.

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Towering spires

The monument is covered in little statues representing Scottish poets and characters from Scott’s novels.

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Statues and carving

In among the pillars at the bottom there is a statue of Scott and his dog Maida.

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Scott

Climbing the monument was quite an adventure – there are several gallery levels where you come out, with a small museum on the first of them, and the stairs get narrower and narrower as you head to the top.

The views are worth it, though, in all directions – looking towards North Bridge and Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and the monuments on Calton Hill, up towards the Old Town and the castle with the Pentlands showing beyond, or looking out over the New Town (and Lord Melville’s monument) towards the sea.

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North Bridge and Salisbury Crags
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Calton Hill and the Balmoral Hotel
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The old town and the Pentlands
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To the sea

Throwback: The Keith Mausoleum, Kincardine

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Keith Mausoleum

I’ve been thinking about having the Fife Coastal Path as one of my goals for this year – I did start walking it a few years ago, but didn’t get very far. One thing that attracted me to the start, though, was that it began at Kincardine where Admiral Lord Keith had lived and where his grave is, and then passed through Culross, where Lord Cochrane was born.

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Tulliallan Castle

Tulliallan Castle, at the top end of Kincardine, is now the headquarters of the Scottish police, but it was built between 1812 and 1820 for Lord Keith, near the site of an earlier castle.

The family mausoleum is a couple of miles away, in the middle of nowhere in an old graveyard which once surrounded a chapel which even at that date had long been replaced by the parish church in the town.

Sadly the mausoleum was badly damaged by fire, and Lady Keith’s tablet on the back wall is the only one still visible or legible.

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Inside the Mausoleum
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Lady Keith’s memorial

It’s not the only interesting thing in the graveyard though – there are some very nice older gravestones around.

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Old gravestone

Burns Monument, Calton Hill

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Burns Monument

I seem to be on a bit of a monumental kick at the moment, so today I went to visit the Burns monument on Regent Road – it being his month.

This is Georgian shading towards Victorian – Burns himself is solid late 18th century, of course, but the monument was begun in 1831, which is into William IV – but it’s definitely neoclassical Georgian in style, as is the ‘old’ Royal High School across the road, begun in 1826 (the new Royal High is at Barnton, but the Royal High of the Georgian period was in High School Yards), and everything else around – this area was, I think, the third expansion of the Georgian New Town, in the 1820s.

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Monument information

The original – and earlier – plan was to erect a statue to Burns, and the monument was only built when the statue had only used half the funds raised – which may be why there’s so little on the monument itself to say what it is, because the main inscription was on the plinth of the statue. However, although it was erected, the marble of the statue was damaged by smoke from a gasworks down below, and it was moved – it’s now in the National Portrait Gallery.

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Monument inscription

The other thing I found interesting was the setting – Princes Street and Regent Road are so solidly on one level that it’s easy to forget how suddenly the land drops away below the bridges, but the old stairway of Jacob’s ladder (first recorded on a map in 1759) dropping to Calton Road shows just how much of a hill this is.

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Jacob’s Ladder

On the other side of the monument is the New Calton Burial Ground, created in 1817 to hold the bodies moved from the old Calton graveyard when Waterloo Place was built through it – this doesn’t fall quite so steeply to the Old Town, but steeply enough. This was another treasure hunt find for me – I knew it was somewhere near the old one, but had no idea where it was.

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New Calton graveyard

Old Botanic Gardens

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Waverley Station plaque

Towards the end of last year I went hunting down the parts of the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens which are older than the current garden itself, but this was a different kind of quest – looking for the ghosts of the older gardens.

The first site of what was then the Physic Garden was in the grounds of Holyrood Abbey, but its first longstanding site was in the grounds of Trinity Church and Hospital, on land which is now Waverley Station – the plaque marking its location is attached to the side of the booking office building, more or less directly under North Bridge.

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The booking office wall

The gardens moved in 1763 to a site on Leith Walk, then still outside the growing city. Trinity College Church itself was demolished when Waverley Station was built, but I knew that a small part of it remained – I assumed somewhere along Calton Road, but I was wrong.

(The story of the church was started by the Stewarts and finished by the Victorians, so it doesn’t really belong here, but never mind. It’s too interesting to leave out.)

When the station was expanded in 1848, permission was given to demolish the church as long as it was rebuilt nearby, and it was carefully taken apart, and the stones labelled, so that it could be put back together again later. However, by the time that this was done, 30 years later, a large number of the stones had gone missing, and only part of the church could be recreated.

This wasn’t on the original site – which was somewhere near the current Calton Road – but as part of a new Trinity Church between the High Street and Jeffrey Street, on the other side of the station. And then the new church was demolished, and a modern hotel built on the site, but the old part was left behind it.

So tracking it down, squeezed in and invisible from both main roads, felt a bit like a treasure hunt!

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Trinity Apse

Although access to the building – which there isn’t much of these days anyway, because it’s only let out for events – is from Chalmer’s Close, the best view is from Trunk’s Close, slightly further down the hill.

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From Trunk’s Close

A small part of the Leith Walk site is still gardens, although it bears no relation to the layout of the original Botanic Gardens there. Looking down the length of the existing garden does give some idea of the size, though.

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Map of the gardens
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Hopetoun Crescent Gardens

Roddam

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Roddam Hall

I was away at Wooler for a few days after Christmas, and coming down from the edge of the hills I passed through Roddam, birthplace and eventual home of Admiral Robert Roddam – on whose ship Lenox a young Cuthbert Collingwood served for a time as a midshipman. Although Collingwood is sometimes commented on as being unusual as a northerner in the navy, there were quite a few men from Northumberland around – and they did tend to stick together!

Coming down towards Roddam from Calders farm (also part of the Roddam estate), you pass through first Boat Wood and then Admiral Avenue, planted by the admiral – I do like the names.

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Boat Wood
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Admiral Avenue

Roddam farm at the bottom of the avenue has a wonderful arched gateway – apparently once the entrance to the estate’s stable block.

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Stableyard entrance

The original front of Roddam Hall faces out over the fields, with the side nearest the road being one of two wings built later – possibly by the admiral again.

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Roddam Hall from the road

Further down towards the main road, the lodge still has an impressive gate to allow you to close the road, presumably dating from a time when it was more the road into the estate and less just one of many roads to the hills.

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Lodge and gate

Book of the month: May – The transits of Venus

Chasing Venus
Andrea Wulf

My book choices often seem to lead from one to another, and in this case it was Mason and Dixon who set me off on the trail of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus.

The transits were important because they would allow the measurement of the distance between the Sun and the Earth by comparing measurements of the transit time from different parts of the Earth whose locations could also be measured – a fact which had been predicted and advertised by Edmond Halley almost 50 years earlier. Closer to the time, a French astronomer called Joseph-Nicolas Delisle took charge of the operation, with international cooperation – and competition – seeing observers sent to St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope (having failed to make it to Bencoolen), Rodrigues, India, Scandinavia, Siberia, St Petersburg and Newfoundland – only the end of the transit being visible across most of Europe, and none of it across most of North America.

None of the records were as accurate as the organisers and observers had hoped – as well as troubles with clouds, accurate timekeeping, disagreements and onlookers crowding the observatories, the entrance and exit on Venus on the face of the sun were not the clear events which had been hoped – the planet seemed to change shape and ‘stick’ to the edge of the sun, as well as being surrounded by a shimmering halo that was the first definite sign that Venus had an atmosphere similar to Earth’s.

With 8 years between pairs of transits, the observers now had time to try to fix these problems before their second attempt. It was this transit which saw James Cook dispatched to Tahiti – it having been realised that the greatest contrast in timings would be between northern Scandinavia and the South Seas – and it also saw both Russia and North America eager to play a greater part in scientific endeavours. It was these measurements which led to a measurement of the distance of the sun accurate to within 3%, and the various travels required for the measurements also led to discoveries in botany, mapping and other sciences.

The only problem with this book was that there were just so many people to keep track of – at times I found myself longing for a straightforward account of the French, or Russian, or British attempts, rather than jumping between them all. But in general the book was a lovely mix of science and voyages, and I really enjoyed it.