Tantallon Castle

Tantallon is one of the places which I feel looks more spectacular on pictures than in person. This, however, is not because the place is bad, but because I don’t think a good position to appreciate it all remains. The front walls are strong and people can still climb them, but if there ever was one to the rear (slight doubts), that would have been a better place to look out from (for me). Or, the gatehouse through which one enters these days…

The skill by which the Scottish lairds built and maintained castles must be appreciated. And, Tantallon is definitely one of these places. The wish that a man must have had, saying “I shall have my castle here”, and then building it. Now, this statement makes it all sound inhospitable which it actually is not. It’s just difficult: very easy to cut off from the landward side, but also problematic to access by the sea due to the cliffs it stands on. From the point of view of the construction-work, this must have been a right pain.

Tantallon is poetic in the best sense with a slightly ruined façade visible as one approaches. The external gatehouse, however, is in tatters with one getting the barest of ideas what entering through it could have looked like. Also, the rear (seaward) wall has disappeared, and only the barest of ideas tells us what the castle in its entirety looked like.

Overall, though, perfect! What makes it stand out even more is the wonderful seascape (where I have to add that, Bass Rock feels like Ailsa Craig picked up and thrust to the other side of Scotland).

The other things that bring these Scottish gems to life is the history itself. A story to go with Tantallon, for example, recounts the tale of the Civil War, how a group of thirty (I believe) mounted bandits essentially put up a better fight than the rest of Scotland put together. General Monck is who fixed the situation as Tantallon could not stand against his artillery. There are other Scottish associations as well, typically having to do with imprisoning kings and such things. Poor James who could never trust his regents to actually be reasonable. The stories, some might say, are lots of fun. For others, the below will do:

View from Tantallon Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle

Moving southwards on the coast, there’s Dunstanburgh. Or, rather, what was Dunstanburgh. With the castle being so closely tied to the fate of its lords, the fact that the Lord, Thomas of Lancaster, earned royal displeasure by killing Piers Gaveston, did not help Dunstanburgh rise through the times. Thomas was often on the wrong side of any argument after that, and it was not long before he died. It is not even known whether the Earl ever made it to his castle.

The final dagger through the heart of Dunstanburgh was, of course, its destruction in the Wars of the Roses when Lord Warwick’s artillery decided that the castle’s masonry was of the previous century. As expected, it did not hold out.

What is clear, however, and what stood through the times, is that the king’s men in Bamburgh could see the defiance inherent in Dunstanburgh. Even now, when one stands facing north, the mighty keep at Bamburgh is clearly visible. When the great walls of Dunstanburgh were still intact the sight would have been similarly majestic from the other side. Majestic, I say, by which I mean the king’s men would always have known that their vigilance was required.

Dunstanburgh Castle

What is not noticeable from this photo is the fact that as one goes further along the coast (or the walls), the coastline develops into a massive sea-cliff. Thomas chose this position very very well. It is a pity it doesn’t survive better, but in a lot of ways, ruins can be more spectacular than the full thing.

The other bit worth mentioning here is the John of Gaunt gatehouse. John is well-known to readers of 14th century as the instigator of a massive raid into France in the Hundred Years’ War, and he came to own Dunstanburgh for a while in the late 14th century. He clearly also left his mark on the grounds though indeed I don’t know much about it.

What is also interesting but what I cannot really comment on is how the Edwardian fortification construction lessons from Wales were applied in the next set of castles. The plentiful placards on the site note that Harlech and Conwy resemble certain works on this site, and I imagine people who have visited both will have more to draw on. Maybe when I visit them, I’ll take another guess at comparing these…

Bamburgh Castle

I wish I could say I visited Bebbanburgh, but regrettably as yet we can still travel only in space and not in time. If we could… Until then, I visited Bamburgh.

Northumbria’s ancient seat of power had been in my list of places to see. Firstly, because I have taken an interest in early English history (5th to 9th centuries), and, secondly, because it has lately been popularised by the writings of Mr Bernard Cornwell. Indeed, it was the latter which built in me the enthusiasm for the former.

The present castle is of course not the one we would have seen in the 8th or 9th centuries, nor is our understanding of what those castles looked like particularly good. But, it is ever my principle than in experiencing the places people previously have experienced one can grasp an idea of what they may have thought.

However, one should also think about what Bamburgh symbolised for all of the years after then. It is steeped in history, like so many of the other local fortifications. Bamburgh rebelled against William II when the third Norman Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray thought he had found a better king than William. After the castle submitted, it became a property of the king, and the royal standard flew from the keep for centuries after then.

Indeed, the various stages of fortification would have added to the keep so that people all around the local area would unrecognisably see the power and authority of the king. And, he was powerful. But, power is always contested. More on this elsewhere (namely, when I’ll get to writing about Dunstanburgh)…

But back to Bamburgh: I found the complex environment of the dunes of the beach and the rock of the castle a very curious mix. The castle from the beach was striking, and the beach from the castle looked like an integral part of the landscape. The dunes seemed to comprise more of a landscape than the entirety of the landward countryside.

And though we shan’t know how exactly Bebbanburgh looked like, but if you’re as curious as I am to see what the people there could have made of it, go and take a look.

And, for a second, back to the Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. How would a lord of this castle behave? What would he think? Would he have looked in admiration onto the Holy Island and the monks there; the very same monks who turned Northumbria into a centre of the Christian culture? What would have been the limit of his aspirations?

Bamburgh Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

I read some books on early Northumbrian development last year (7th century), and it only reinvigorated the wish in me to see the places which gave life to its original greatness. Finally, my  journeying this weekend took me to the Holy Island. Lindisfarne, it is known by others, but, I think, especially after having been there that the name of the ‘Holy Island’ is perfectly suitable.

Admittedly, the castle is presently in the process of reconstruction which should be over by the March of 2018. Hence, entry to the castle was forbidden and all visitors can do is walk about here and there. Therefore, I did not actually stay for too long, but I still got a sense of the area.

Now, before I continue too far, this castle was begun in 1550 and hence some of what I will say below will not readily apply. Warfare on the borders and internally had (with some notable exceptions) ceased by this point, and the kingdoms on this island would soon be unified. However, even so there would have been a period of at least thirty to forty years when it was militarily relevant.

The castle has also been portrayed in several films and thereby has claim to an iconic status. What I considered more iconic, however, was the view across the bay to where Bamburgh rules the skyline. What the people garrisoned here must have thought, seeing their comrades-in-arms so close (and yet so far). What must have the people in Bamburgh thought when the Norsemen raided and pillaged in Lindisfarne to begin with…

The rest of the island, and particularly the priory, are probably more thought-inspiring but even so, this was worth visiting.

Lindisfarne Castle

Glenfinnan Monument

The Young Pretender was not particularly successful in his enterprise to reclaim his grandfather’s throne (though of course, the other event to be mentioned here would involved the drowning of the Great Seal in the Thames which (potentially) left the authenticity of the new government in tatters for a while before it was reclaimed from the river). Nevertheless, the failure of the Young Pretender’s claim makes it more of a romantic endeavour than the Old Pretender’s or James II and VII’s grumbling in a far-off land. [An aside: a good reason to be thankful for the Act of Union 1707 is the combination of the regnal names/numbers.]

One of the romantic memorials to the failed rebellion is the Glenfinnan Monument, emplaced at Loch Shiel where Charles Edward Stuart placed his banner of rebellion. I have not yet been to the field of Culloden where the Highlander dreams were finally shattered, but it is an interesting time to be considering.

Loch Shiel must also take the honour of being one of the windiest places I have ever seen, which is saying a lot given I have been to Whitehaven during the ‘Weatherbomb’, Norfolk during its normal circumstances, and round all sorts of coastal areas. The windiness of the Shiel coastline was absolutely spectacular, but I guess that’s only to be expected if the wind is first channeled up Loch Linnhe and then into Loch Shiel.

But, back to the Monument, although before that I’ll note a historic event from the life of the Young Pretender as written down by sir Charles Petrie:

…when they [Charles Edward Stuart and the future Charles III of Spain] were on board the galley from Gaeta to Naples after the siege the Stuart prince’s hat fell into the sea, and when the sailors were about to rescue it Charles called out, ‘Never mind, it floats towards England, and the owner will soon go to fetch it; and that I may have something to fetch, too, mine shall accompany it’: whereupon he threw his own hat into the sea, and there were general shouts of ‘To England’.

I found the monument itself quite underwhelming, though perhaps it is suitable for a failed endeavour. The text noted in three languages (English, Gaelic, and Latin) the Young Pretender’s failed effort:

On this spot where Prince Charles Edward first raised His standard on the 19th day of August, 1745, when He made the daring and romantic attempt to recover a throne lost by the imprudence of His ancestors…

Somehow it all just fits in together.

Glenfinnan Monument

Lochranza

One of the places well worth visiting on the isle of Arran is Lochranza. At least, in my mind, that is what I thought before I went there. Lochranza has been in my mind for years with no good idea of what to expect. The castle there has been mentioned in so many different sources, I thought it might be spectacular.

And, it was. Though I would not say it was what I expected. For one, it was considerably smaller than what I had thought. For another, it was more magical than anything I had expected.

Situated in a glen and surrounded by hills, washed by the sea, the spectacular nature of the castle can only have sparked the imagination of the local people.

I did not get a good view of the sea from where I was because I arrived at low tide, but I imagine that at high tide, seeing the sea surround the castle on three sides can only be a wonderful experience. Similarly, to have experienced a storm in the centuries gone by in that castle, overlooking the sea with the fury of Earth straining against the masonry of the castle…

Lochranza wasn’t what I expected; it was better than what I expected.

Lochranza Castle

Sir Walter Scott also wrote a few lines about this:

On fair Lochranza streamed the early day,
Thin wreaths of cottage smoke are upward curl’d
From the lone hamlet, which her inland bay
And circling mountains sever from the world

— Sir Walter Scott, ‘The Lord of the Isle’

Review: Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC

Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC
Ancient Greek Warship: 500–322 BC by Nic Fields
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

While I find this a good introduction to Athenian ships, I find the book does a less good work on actually fulfilling its promise on discussing “Greek” ships. Overall, the ships’ military performance is not very well assessed with Corinth and Corcyra not mentioned except in a few short paragraphs. However, speaking historiographically, some other conclusions Mr Fields made sound more like conjecture than actual science, and I feel that quite a few other books are a better look at Athenian triremes (which is invariably the city and ship this book focusses on) and at least do not pretend to deal with other topics.

I will briefly mention the other topics: Mr Fields describes “positive buoyancy” as the main reason why triremes have not come through the ages, while it has always been my understanding that the salinity of the Mediterranean along with the biological organisms there (vis-a-vis the low salinity Baltic Sea and the oxygen-deprived Black Sea, for example) are the main reason why wooden ships in the area have not been well preserved (in general).

Secondly, Mr Fields also makes it sound as if the trireme was the cause for the Athenian defeat in the Syracusan Expedition, and that is not quite how I would read Thucydides (who admittedly is not the most unbiased author). There are some other similar claims made about other battles along with not mentioning some of the most famous Themistoclean statements on triremes which one should consider a mainstay of any book on Athenian navies. Also, I find Mr Fields’ incapability to not refer to Athens as an “empire” quite poor, especially where in a book of this length accuracy of statements should be paramount (hence, “Athens and Her Allies”…).

Lastly, Mr Fields says that “control of the seas in the modern sense was impossible for a trireme navy”. This could be the beginning of a discussion longer than any worthy of this post here, but in short, I think he is wrong. I think that conceptually war had a different purpose in that time and age, and no one even thought of a “control of the seas” à la Mahan.

The illustrations, however, are superb as ever.

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Gariannorum, Litus Saxonicum

The system known today as the Saxon shore forts was a Roman defensive system for the coast of what later became East Anglia. Not much is known about the full extent of the fortifications, and even less remains. However, one of the few remaining stations is what is known as Burgh Castle, possibly identified as Gariannorum.

Firstly, one must keep in mind that the East Anglian shoreline has changed considerably in the last few thousand years. Great river deltas have disappeared, to be replaced by new ones further south or north. This has happened both in present North Norfolk as well as at the River Yare. The Burgh Castle area is one of the affected zones, with a former site of a very good port having been replaced by an intertidal zone less suitable for marine traffic.

Indeed, it is possible that the present Caister-on-Sea was located on an island, connected to other local stations (Burgh Castle and Reedham) by the water. Venta Icenorum (Caister St Edmund) was a great port by the same influence, with the river there being considerably deeper and wider than it is now. The site at Caister St Edmund is similarly interesting, though the Burgh Castle one is perhaps more reminiscent of the past glory with the ruins being considerably better preserved.

The fact that approaching the site, all that one sees are the walls, still standing strong after 1600 years, is enough to create a impression. Of course, later fortifications have also been positioned there, with the Normans building a castle of their one as well as monastic efforts by the early Christians. The Norman ruins, however, have not sailed through the time as well as the Roman stonework.

Overall, then, what a place: the sheer accessibility and scale of these ruins makes one want to visit, even if the site itself is relatively empty of plaques and explanations. The missing information, however, allows for imagination. What was here before? Who was here before? Can your mind’s eye picture the ships about to dock at the wall that is no longer there? Is a turma riding out for a patrol of neighbouring region?

Any of these things could have happened, any of these will have happened at some point in the past. And it is up to us to imagine life here as it was then.

Gariannorum

Review: Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall
Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall by Nic Fields
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A comprehensive review of the Roman fortifications of the first two centuries in the area to the north of Hadrian’s wall. I was impressed by the plentiful tables, totalling not only the benefits and drawbacks of the wall but also it’s construction plan, manhours spent, garrison sizes, etc. Overall, this review stands out as a very brief but strong introduction to Rome in Scotland.

What I found missing was the political context. Though the Severian re-expansion into the north is mentioned, barely half a sentence touches on it. The Antonine and Flavian periods are covered in far greater detail, and I think if the book had restricted itself to the pre-Severian period in what it covered, it would have achieved it’s goals superbly.

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‘Roughs Castle’, Vallum Antonini

The Antonine Wall is a cousin of the more familiar Vallum Aelium, or Hadrian’s Wall. Was it a sign of imperial hubris by a man who wanted to leave his mark on the world, or an example of unintentional overextension? What did it represent to the hundreds and thousands of men who had seen the previous wall being built to the south? What did it represent to the thousands sent to serve at the very edge of their civilisation, in common contact with people who did not acknowledge the southern customs?

To Victory, the VI cohort of Nervii, under the acting command of Flavius Betto, Centurion of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled its vow.

This vow was to march north and build a new wall where they thought they could draw the limit of civilisation. They were right, for a time — and are we all not right for only a certain time? It is amazing for me to think that such an inscription has preserved through nineteen centuries to come to us. We, the loyal soldiers of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “we gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled” our vow. Many others have done far worse.

Overall, it is a miracle to consider what we do and do not know. We know the names of some of the people who served here. We do not know the names of the forts (excepting one for this wall, but this point is also more generally true in Roman Britain). But, I guess, the people matter more than the places in any case?

When I visited this fort, what I thought about was how a person born in what is modern Glasgow — or near there — shared an identity, a Roman identity, with millions of people from modern Syria to Greece to what is now Morocco. These people had the theoretical rights and opportunities to make themselves into anything they wanted. I am sure in practice this was not as easy, but the simple consideration that for millions of people over thousands of square kilometres, the only language they knew was their very own Latin and the only government they had any reason to think about was their Imperial government. What a thought!

Admittedly, the occupation of the frontier that far north did not last for long. The reasons for this are of more academic interest than relevant for present considerations. Hadrian’s Wall has a similar impact to a visitor: at least if that visitor is me. But what matters more is that this monument to power has come down through time from the latter part of the second century. What have its ramparts seen? What secrets have they heard? Were people regretful to demolish it or to use its resources to build their homes?

What would a Strathclyde farmer in the 8th century have thought of this structure? Did it carry connotations of power, of strength, of survival? Or was it a monument to occupation and a despised foreign government? Again, as with so many of these mysteries that have survived ages, we can never know. All we can do is think, and to place ourselves in the shoes of the people who came before us.

‘Rough Castle’, Vallum Antonini

As with so many of these places, I would say that if you can, go and visit it. See what emotions it brings about, and what thoughts awaken in you. I have shown you mine.

For a closing thought:

I like knowing, but in cases where I cannot know, I am happy to speculate. And in cases like this, there is so much we need to speculate about. Further, the speculation leads me to regard in surprise and admiration the entrepreneurial sense of these ancient people. And, what I always wish is that more people would recognise the beauty of the mysteries ancient sites like this present all around the world. Visit them and give them a new life.