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Issue 5 - History today

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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History today

Roddy Martine talks...

It is curious how age catches up on you. As a schoolboy, I simply loathed being dragged off on weekend excursions to explore a dusty old church or poke around a ruined castle in that flat expanse of agricultural landscape that runs inland from Dunbar and across to the Lammermuirs. I could never understand how tombstones in graveyards could be even remotely interesting. Yet nowadays I find them fascinating. And when I think back on that time, I realise that my sudden awakening stemmed from a single incident.

One of my father’s great friends was Dr James Richardson, a big bear of a man, then well into his eighties, who in his prime had exalted in the title of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Scotland. Dr Jimmy lived on the sea-front in North Berwick and we would collect him in my father’s Humber Hawk, then set off with a picnic lunch to places like Tantallon Castle, the formidable Douglas fortress overlooking the Bass Rock in the North Sea, or Borthwick Castle where Mary Queen of Scots took refuge with the Earl of Bothwell after their wedding on 15th May 1567.

And it was at nearby Hailes Castle, another stopping off place for Mary and Bothwell during that long ago escapade, that everything was put into perspective for me.

Dating from the 13th century and much knocked about by Oliver Cromwell when he invaded Scotland in 1650, Hailes Castle is today nothing more or less than a shell maintained by Historic Scotland, and I was standing at a window on the second floor when Dr Jimmy appeared beside me. “Look at that view and then try to imagine who once stood where you are standing now, looking at those same hills, that same stretch of river, and that same piece of sky. Think of the seductive 26-year old Queen Mary abducted here by her lover.

“Try to imagine how she must have felt as she watched those clouds rush past across the horizon. How vulnerable she was. Think of the danger, the fear and the excitement. Then remember that you are standing on the very spot where one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of our land was decided. For Mary, that most brave and remarkable woman, it was the beginning of the end. There was no turning back when she stood where you are standing in front of this window, and she must have known it.”

Years later I told this story to another great Scotsman, the greatly missed historic novelist Nigel Tranter, who also lived in East Lothian, and he confessed that this was exactly his approach to writing. Almost daily, he would set off on a walk with his notepad and scribble down the thoughts that came into his mind as he progressed, taking in the many castles, the keeps, and battlefields of the period he was working on. Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, the Marquis of Montrose, Bonny Prince Charlie, the Wolf of Badenoch, they all came to life when he walked in their footsteps. In Scotland, reminders of the past are everywhere you turn. For those who believe that only the future matters, they may be nothing more than dull old monuments to long forgotten names and faces which should be levelled to the ground. To others, they are reminders of men and women, both ordinary and extraordinary, caught up in the inevitable events of their generation, whose deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice in response have created the world we live in today.

And that is why when I recently visited Yester Castle, near Gifford, another haunt of my youth, I was dismayed to discover the state it was in. Astonishing and amazing, you come upon the remains of the red-sandstone walls and the extraordinary underground vaulted chamber, through dense woodland. Overgrown and neglected, this enchanted place is being allowed to crumble away into nothingness.

That makes me sad, because this is the site of the 13th century Goblin Ha’, where its builder, Sir Hugo de Gifford once made a pact with the Devil, and where, according to local legend hijacked by the not entirely nonsensical American television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the spirits of the underworld are gathered to await the call of their master.

“Of lofty roof and ample size, beneath the castle deep it lies; to hew the living rock profound, the floor to pave, the arch to round, there never toil’d a mortal arm” wrote Sir Walter Scott in his 19th century masterpiece Marmion.

I have often thought that if schoolchildren could learn about history by taking them to where it actually took place, they would never find it boring.

You can learn so much about human nature by doing so, by seeing exactly where St Ninian brought Christianity to mainland Scotland in the fifth century, and where, in the following century, St Columba, built his first missionary settlement on Iona. Stand on the clifftop at Old Slains in Aberdeenshire and imagine the pounding of cannon from the ships sent by James VI to subdue his rebel lord. Gaze across the battlefield of Bannockburn from the ramparts of Stirling Castle, and perhaps travel to Caithness to see the enchanting Castle of Mey, lovingly restored by Her Majesty the Queen Mother as her personal home and now open to the public.

If the present generation could only be made more aware of what took place in the past, a lot of the problems of our world would be avoided because when you study the past you realise that everything in human life is cyclical. The same passions, the same evils, and the same betrayals emerge in every generation.

“He who ignores history is condemned to relive it,” wrote the Chinese philosopher. If our politicians were better informed on the excesses of the past, perhaps they would be less inclined to make the same mistakes all over again.

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