Saturday, 21 October 2017

Are you a vampire or just a bit different?

Latest post about blood sucker rumours on our Malawi blog:

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Saving sailors from sinking at Trinity House, Leith

Among the many hidden treasures of the Port of Leith, a couple of miles from Edinburgh City, is Trinity House in the Kirkgate. This lovely Georgian building, opened in 1817, has served as a support to sailors and their families over centuries, as did the sixteenth century almshouse which it replaced.

The shipowners and masters of Leith established the charitable foundation even earlier than these buildings, in 1380 in fact. In fact, if you walk round the outside of the current building, you can see old inscriptions on the retaining wall. The one on the right below reads: In the name of ye Lord ye Masteris and ye Mareners bylis this hovs to ye pour. Anno Domini 1555.

The organisation which owned Trinity House was called the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners. While this early 'trades union' had always been concerned with welfare and charitable support, it was inevitable that it would also address wider issues of safety at sea including, eventually training in nautical matters. In 1797, George III gave Trinity House a Royal Charter, which gave it the power to determine the competency of the master mariners who put themselves forward for membership.

Financial support for the Incorporation came from prime gilt: 12 pennies for every ton of merchandise unloaded by Scottish ships at the Port of Leith. It was the main Scottish port. Ships sailed across the North Sea to the Baltic and also south to France and other European countries. If masters did not pay this money over, their anchors and sails were confiscated. The right of Trinity House to demand prime gilt had been established in 1566 by Mary Queen of Scots, when she also agreed to the construction of the building. The prime gilt was supplemented by crown money, a voluntary contribution.

This money was used to support sailors, to construct the almhouse in 1555 and for the original building of South Leith Parish Church, opposite Trinity House, then called the Kirk of Our Lady. It was here that the prime gilt was distributed. The welfare helped sailors who were old and infirm and the families of those lost at sea. The only parts of the almshouse which survive are the vaults, once used for a school. When Cromwell's troops took over Trinity House in 1650, they used the vaults for storage.

The Incorporation also provided support for widows and orphans during the American Civil War and for French prisoners kept in Edinburgh Castle in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

However, a critical contribution of Trinity House to seamanship and safety in the port and on the seas, was by means of training activities carried out through dedicated establishments, most recently Leith Nautical College (now part of Edinburgh College). It also licensed pilots for the Firth of Forth and along the coast and built lighthouses.

The elegance of the building is evident not simply in the facade, but as soon as you enter, when you see the beautiful staircase curving around the wall before you. At the top of the stairs is a stained glass window erected in 1933 to the men of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars.

Before you clim the stairs, however, you may enter the Masters' Room. Masters still hold meetings here. The fireplace, constructed in 1797, to commemorate a great naval victory, came from the old almhouses.

The most beautiful room in the house, however, is the Convening Room upstairs, designed to seat all the members around its log mahogany table : about a hundred at the time it was built.

The Room is currently used to display many interesting historical artefacts associated with Trinity House.

The walls are hung with many paintings: of Mary Queen of Scots (above), of famous maritime achievements at and of well-known Masters, some painted by Henry Raeburn, as on the left.

The table is covered with old instruments, documents and relics from ships.

The most beautiful aspect of the room, however, is its plaster ceiling, created by local craftsmen.

Absolutely lovely, but also a place which made a significant difference to safety on the seas and to the survival of individual sailors and their families.

Trinity House is a small treasure. Leith itself is a fascinating place to visit. Now regarded as part of Edinburgh, it used to be a proud burgh in its own right. It has gone through enormous changes over the years, but there are still surprises waiting for you in unexpected places.

You may see more about Leith on this blog, in due course. It is, after all, only a mile or two down the road from where we live. Where better to take a walk?

Next steps

If you wish to visit Trinity House, you will need to make arrangements in advance. We visited on Doors Open Day, when you can just wander in. It is managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

Trinity House Maritime Museum is a very good guide by Historic Environment Scotland, which you can find on the web. It was the source for much of the information in this post, but contains far far more.

Secret Edinburgh: an unusual guide, by Hannah Robinson suggests many unexpected places to visit.

Explore Historic Leith, by Leith Local History Society (on the web), suggests intersting places you can visit on foot.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Visiting the Venetians and finding the Turks

Mycaeneans, Dorians, Romans, Arabs, Venetians and Turks: Crete is one of the most colonised regions in the world. Strategic importance can be a mixed blessing. Civilisation after civilisation, culture after culture left their remains on these shores.

Evidence of Venetian occupation is all around you. Frankocastello (Fragocastello, Frangocastello...the castle of the Franks) has guarded the southern shore since the early 1370s.

The Venetian lion can still be made out over the doorway.

Re-used by Ottoman and local Sfakian militia over the centuries, its impressive battlements were constructed by the Turks. The fortress's main purpose was to provide protection against pirates, at least giving the local people time to take refuge in the mountains. It also served to impose order on those same fractious locals.

In many places, such as Heraklion, the Venetian fortress remains a dominant landmark, while other buildings with less obviously military purposes have long since disappeared.

The Venetians built their harbour at Heraklion in the early years of the 13th century, following the Minoans, Byzantines and Arabs before them. The rather rusty coastguard vessel below left continues to keep an eye on local waters, though these days it is refugees from the Libyan coastline that it watches out for. The wealthy yachts of the super-rich who use the Mediterranean as a playground make a stark contrast, like the British-registered vessel below.

Heraklion's shipyards and arsenals were developed at the same time as the fortress, which still retains its Venetian coat of arms on each external wall.

The inside is a fascinating warren of interconnecting corridors, with leftover cannons and cannonballs.

Recent finds from shipwrecks excavated by marine archaeologists include amphorae which once contained wine or olive oil.

Climb the stairs and you grasp the fortress's dominant position on the coast.

Subsequent occupiers built on what their predecssors had constructed, hence the distinctly Turkish lookout posts and battlements.

At Rethymnon, the impact of Turkish occupation on the Venetian fortress is even more obvious.

Originally built in the 1570s, the fortress was designed to repel attacks by pirates and big enough to house all the city's inhabitants. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Nevertheless, it was large enough to house a cathedral, converted into an Ottoman mosque (above). The decorated dome and mihrab can still be seen.

The Cretans rebelled on various occasions, but the Venetians bedded in. The northern areas of Crete were fertile and colonisers from Venice were sent to farm them. Indeed, domestic architecture, in Rethymnon, Chania and villages all over the island, may retain more features of Venetian architecture than the military forts.

Venetian fountains have survived quite well, probably because they perform a useful function. Here is the fountain at the tiny village of Fotinou, south of Rethymnon.

A rather grander fountain is the Rimondi fountain in Rethymnon itself.

In the central fountain attached to the old church in Tylissos, you can still see Turkish plaques inscribed using Arabic script.

The church itself, like many in Crete, still retains its Byzantine frescoes.

In many old villages, and in cities like Chania and Rethymnon, remains of Venetian houses are built into walls. Doorways are sometimes all that survive. These dilapidated buildings in Meladoni village, situated just below the famous caves of the same name, may not survive much longer. A few houses are being renovated, room by room, but most are simply crumbling into the ground.

The Venetian occupation lasted from the mid-13th to mid-17th century, when the Turks invaded, and up to 50 years later in some parts of the island. Four hundred years provides plenty of time in which to make a mark. In art history, that period is called the Cretan Renaissance. During those years, elements of Italian and Byzantine art merged to produce stunning icons and an amazing painter, El Greco or Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who worked and died in Spain. The art and artefacts of those times are in churches, monasteries and, now also, museums.

As for the Ottoman occupation, it lasted until the late 19th century. The Cretan Muslims have a sad history, which is not to deny atrocities committed by Crete's Turkish overlords. Most Muslims were Cretan converts, though Cretan Christians called them 'Turks'. The two communities got on reasonably well for much of their shared history, socialising together and Muslims even becoming godfathers to Christian children. The Muslims, however, began leaving Crete in the second half of the nineteenth century during periods of sectarian violence and following Crete's unilateral declaration of union with Greece in 1908. After the Greco-Turkish War of Independence 1919-1922, the Muslims of Crete and other Greek islands and settlements were compulsorily exchanged for the Greek Christians of Anatolia, under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne. Both these populations had lived in their respective regions for generations. The Cretan Muslims went to Syria and Lebanon, where they continue to speak a Cretan dialect of Greek. Indeed, in recent years when these Syrians have come to Crete to work, they have been able to make themselves understood, to the great surprise of local Cretans.

Like the Venetians, the 'Turks' of Crete developed their own culture, culinary, musical and literary. Their buildings, however, largely fell into disrepair or were converted for other uses, like this old mosque in Chania, now an art gallery. Whereas the Catholic churches of the Venetians mostly survived alongside the dominant Orthodox Christianity, Islamic culture and architecture largely disappeared with the people who created them.

Many Turkish buildings in well-frequented tourist areas like Rethymnon and Chania are now being restored. Others, however, remain in ruins and are unlikely to be saved from collapse any time soon, like this fortress on the hill above Loutro on the south coast.

Colonialism brings with it oppression, submission, denial of local culture and, often, conflict and the horrors of war. We British should know: we inflicted it on so many other countries.

However, time passes. What can be left behind after the invaders have gone and the settlers have merged into the local population can be a rich mix of cultural influences, both local and from beyond the immediate context.

Crete is such a region. Visitors experience, often with surprise, layer after layer of civilisation, some ancient, some - like the Venetians and Turks - more recent, though still old from our own perspective. Over centuries, the pain of colonisation has gradually passed and beauty, or at least the ruins of beauty, has emerged.