End of Scotland Trip; packing up for Madagascar

It’s taken me quite a while to get round to writing up our last couple of days in Scotland: a straightforward case of blog apathy which even a liberal daily application of red wine has so far failed to cure…..

Onwards, though…. it has to be done. If I don’t write it down we’ll never remember where we went. Now, where were we (cue quick check of last post). Ah yes, just south of Dumfries….

Unusually for us, we actually visited a town! Dumfries was a nice enough place. We enjoyed the local museum, particularly the collection of stones ranging from Roman stones from a nearby fort to Christian stones with Gaelic and Norse influences. We awarded bonus points for a depiction of Gunnar in the snake pit.

Robert Burns again; there’s just no escaping the bloke in this part of Scotland. This is the house in Dumfries that he lived in for the last three years of his life (his widow then stayed on for a further 38 years).

One of the best stones in the Dumfries Museum was the stone that isn’t actually there! They had a big display about the Ruthwell Cross, which seemed really interesting so as the village of Ruthwell was close to our route, we had to go take a look.

The Ruthwell Cross is 5.4 metres tall and dates back to around 680AD. It’s highly decorated and around the edges of the various panels has (apparently) the first recorded English language poem, written (apparently) by a monk from Whitby called Caedmon. I say “apparently” because these “facts” from the Dumfries Museum seem not to be quite so certain from what I’ve read later on’t internet…..

Anyway, the poem is called “The Dream of the Rood” and is reproduced in runes on the cross. To be honest, I couldn’t make head nor tail of the modern English text we saw. I just assumed it was me (not being the poetic type) but I’ve since found much more comprehensible translations online…… here it is in intelligible form – much better!

The cross was ordered to be destroyed in 1643 but the local minister had other ideas and had it buried instead. It was rediscovered in the 1780s.

Our next stop was Caerlaverock Castle, which was taken by Edward I in 1300. The siege was documented in a long poem called “the Song of Caerlaverock” which pretty much runs through the names of all 87 of Edward’s knights and tells us all about the colours and designs of their banners and shields. The work of Gok Wan in a former life, perhaps?

The castle itself is built in an unusual triangular shape. Initially, the accommodation would have been above the gatehouse, with towers on the two rear corners. A two-storey accommodation block (on the left in the photo below) was added in the 1400s. After the union of the English and Scottish crowns, security became less of an issue in this part of the world, and the rather spiffing “Nithsdale lodging” was completed in 1634 (on the right in the photo below).

Bad timing as it turned out, the Maxwell family who owned the castle being Catholic and all…. The castle was sacked in 1640 by the Protestant Covenanting Army.

The tower still standing on the rear wall of the castle is known as Murdoch’s Tower after the somewhat far-fetched story that Murdoch, a cousin of James I of Scotland, was held prisoner in an underground pit prison in the tower before being executed in Stirling (his crime was to have been in apparently no great rush to get James freed when he was imprisoned in England).

The big problem with the story is that there was no shortage of convenient dungeons closer to Edinburgh and Stirling, and no apparent reason why Murdoch would have been sent to Caerlaverock. Not to worry – Mark was greatly amused at the story of a Murdoch being held prisoner in an underground pit by a Maxwell….

There’s a small museum at Caerlaverock. This is a very cute bit of 14th-15th century leatherwork, possibly part of a saddlecloth:

Another good overnight spot for future reference – Glencaple, between Dumfries and Caerlaverock. There’s only (officially!) space for five vans, so it pays to arrive reasonably early. We liked it that much that we spent two nights here – and there’s even a free service point just down the road toward Caerlaverock (with more motorhome parking). No set fee for either spot – just a donation box.

We were now getting towards the end of our Scottish tour, but there was one more visitor attraction that we really had to see – the Devil’s Porridge Museum near Gretna. It’s a small modern museum absolutely packed with interesting information.

HM Factory Gretna was set up in 1915 as part of a drive to massively increase munitions production to supply the troops on the the Western Front. It was a massive undertaking. Land was requisitioned to build a factory nine miles long straddling the English – Scottish border, with isolated production sites (kept apart for safety reasons) joined by 30 miles of roads and 125 (yes, 125 not 12.5) miles of railway track.

Seventeen thousand people worked at the factory producing munitions. During the early years, when construction was ongoing, the total workforce was more like 30 thousand. New townships were built at Gretna and Eastriggs to house the workers. All of the pubs in the surrounding area were taken under state control to control access to alcohol (this was more to do with the construction workers than with the girls making the munitions).

Yes… girls. Calls for workers went out, promising all kinds of things (including that the work was perfectly safe; that has to be up there on the list of all time howling lies told by those in power). Girls were attracted by the high wages on offer – 22 shillings a week compared to, say, 6 shillings a week if she was working as a housemaid. Even after deductions for lodgings and board, it still seemed a good deal. 80% of those who signed up were working class. 62% were 18 years of age or younger. They moved into hostels in the townships and got to work.

HM Factory Gretna produced RDB cordite . By 1917 it was turning out 1100 tons of the stuff a week, more than all the other munitions factories in Britain combined. We got lots of information on the nasty (and dangerous) chemical processes involved in making cordite. The “Devil’s Porridge” was nitro-cotton, one of the first stages in making cordite. To make it, girls had to mix nitric acid and cotton in Thomson nitrating pans:

Unsurprisingly, this job wasn’t very good for you…..

In later stages, the devil’s porridge would go through all kinds of other processes, being boiled and beaten to produce a fine white explosive pulp that became cordite at the eastern (English) end of the factory before being sent out by train to shelling factories across Britain where the shells and bullets would be assembled. Within the plant, “smokeless engines” were used to reduce the risk of explosion when transporting substances from one stage of production to the next. These had steam boilers that could be refilled at three specially constructed steam charging stations.

It was all fascinating stuff, but that wasn’t all…..

We also learned about the Quintinshill rail disaster near Gretna Green in May 1915, when a southbound troop train carrying the 7th Royal Scots battalion hit a stationary train due to a signalling error, and was then hit by a northbound express train. This remains the worst rail disaster in British history.

We’d seen the remains of Chapelcross power station as we drove to the museum and wondered what it was (the cooling stacks have gone but strange-looking, regularly-spaced buildings remain). We learned that this was the UKs second nuclear power station (after what is now Sellafield), built in the 1950s to produce weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear warheads on the site of RAF Annan, whose role in training pilots in WW2 we also learned about.

Finally, we saw a really interesting temporary exhibition and film about two suffragettes who, not being the types to hang around chained to railings, took themselves off to Paris at the outbreak of war to run a medical facility there (at the time, women could train as doctors in the UK, but struggled to be allowed to practice other than in “female” environment – they wouldn’t be allowed to treat men and they certainly wouldn’t be considered suitable for patching up wounded soldiers returning from the front). Anyway, Drs Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray did so well that in 1915, they were invited back to run a new 600-bed military hospital in Endell Street, Covent Garden, which they and their 180-strong all-female staff of doctors and nurses did with great success, despite most of the doctors’ initial lack of practical experience.

We really enjoyed the Devil’s Porridge museum. There’s so much information there to absorb. Our tickets are valid for a year, so if we’re back in that area we’ll definitely call in again for a second visit.

From Gretna, it was only a hop-skip-and a jump to the border and the end of our 2018 Scottish trip.

We’ve been at home for a couple of weeks now whilst I’ve been prevaricating over updating this dratted blog…. In that time, Mark has updated our “savings” totals for the year. Drum Roll please…..

In Scotland, we “saved” £245 with the National Trust and £62.50 with English Heritage (as first year members, we get half price entry to Historic Scotland properties, hence “saving” half the admission fee).

That brings our total “savings” so far for 2018 to

National Trust: £362.80

English Heritage: £745.30 (includes free OPW in Ireland and half price Historic Scotland)

TOTAL: £1108.10 (not too shabby!)

We’ve also been spending time organising ourselves for our trip to Madagascar. Only a few more days to go! I’ve been amazed at how much longer it’s taken to pack a bag for an organised tour compared to packing SOK or packing a bag for a trip where we’ll be hiring a vehicle and organising our own time when we get there. Every eventuality must be covered! I think we’re getting there.

I’m expecting that internet access will be very limited whilst we’re in Madagascar, so I may not manage to post any updates during the three weeks we’ll be away. I’ve downloaded an offline diary app so we’ll see how good that is for keeping track of our activities as we go along…….

One comment

  1. Hi Jo & Mark

    I’ve forwarded this to my son in law who is from Annan & used to work at Chapelcross power station & Sellafield.

    Enjoy your trip to Madagascar. We fly to Barbados 16 December.

    Margaret xx

    Sent from my iPad



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