Sunday, 5 February 2017

Sir John de Mandeville hits the Road: Skirza to Blair Castle

Three hundred and fifty-four kilometres down and the trip was going remarkably well.  In the span of a few weeks John de Mandeville and Nostradamus had jogged and pedalled the distance from John o'Groats via Skirza to Tayside.

The rolling country of the north had become the rocky hardness of the Cairngorm Mountains, testing their energies.  On the plus side, it had also prevented them getting separated: the bicycle was scarcely faster than running up the hills.

Cairngorm Mountains [Image from here]

Both John De Mandeville and Nostradamus were finding the twenty-first century reassuringly familiar.  When they had stopped in Kingussie, they had heard Bob Marley's crowd-pleaser "I shot the Sheriff".  Nostradamus had always found the English office of "Shire Reeve" or "Sheriff" rather baffling.  Who, after all, would have thought it sensible to combine the jobs of collecting taxes and keeping the peace?  In his view it was a guarantee that both tasks would be done badly.  That someone would shoot such a pesky official was completely predictable.  Clearly officialdom agreed, since they were more concerned with the killing of the deputy. 

Image from here
They weren't sure, however, about the Highland Folk Museum.  Both had imagined a museum of Highland folk - perhaps ones who had been enslaved and now were required to do Highland Things for public edification; perhaps they would be taxidermied.  De Mandeville had been very excited by the idea of a museum that had borrowed ideas from the Great Khan and Ivan the Terrible.  They were a little disappointed when the Guidebook told them
Here, among exhibits showing all facets of the past life in the Highlands - dress, furnishings, etc. - is a replica of the 19th-century farm-shed and mill of a crofter*
Nevertheless, both were happy to give the museum operators the benefit of the doubt: the museum title was clear that they'd wanted to take their artistic bearing from Vlad the Impaler even if the visiting public had wanted something more genteel.  Clearly the future was another country.

Highland Folk Museum [Image from here]
They had broken their journey in Newtonmore to hear Mass and get refreshments, and this was where they had discovered newspapers.  They found these a thoroughly delightful innovation.  Nostradamus had been drawn especially to the finance pages.  The seers who filled these columns were as intent as he was about predicting the future.  They, however, were even more impenetrable than his most difficult quatrains:
The fund will initially pay 5p of income per £1 invested, while the current £9.6bn Woodford Equity Income fund initially targeted 4p for every £1 invested.
After the first year the new fund will aim to deliver 20pc more than the yield of the FTSE All Share index, the benchmark for British companies.**
Why had he not thought to write like that?  He could had thousands more readers and much less risk of being burned at the stake for witchcraft.

St Bride's Church, Newtonmore [Image from here]
De mandeville was more struck by news of the king of New Outremer (as he assumed the lands across the Atlantic must be named).  An elected King had always seemed to him a thoroughly good idea - the Holy Roman Empire usually had effective and skilful rulers - but he was could not fathom why a king named "Trump" would be elected.  These moderns had translated the sacred scriptures, and their Bible in English expressly warned that
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:52).
In his view, electing a king named Trump was asking for trouble, especially when he seemed to sound a couple of times a day:
His firm view was that the British people would have been much safer to stick with the reassuring sonority of the Vulgate: In momento in ictu oculi in novissima tuba canet enim et mortui resurgent incorrupti et nos inmutabimur.

The road south had taken them as far as Blair Castle in Tayside.  This was much more to their liking.  The guidebook enthused that -
The ancient home of the Dukes of Atholl, Blair Castle dates from the 13th Century, although its appearance has changed considerably over the years.  In 1269 the Crusader Earl of Atholl complained that during his absence John Comyn had started to build a castle at Blair.  The foundations of the present Cumming's Tower probably date from this time, although the tower itself has been rebuilt several times.  In 1530 the 3rd Earl built the Hall and the vaulted rooms beneath it.
In 1652 the castle was captured by Cromwell's troops and held for eight years until the Restoration.  More violence was in store for the castle in the 18th century - although Queen Anne had made the 2nd Marquess Duke in 1703, by 1745 the only member of the family to support the Hanoverians was the 2nd Duke, Lord James Murray.  The Jacobites, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke's exiled elder brother, marched on the castle and occupied it, and in the following year the Duke's younger brother laid siege to the castle - the last castle in the British Isles to be besieged.
Because of the extensive damage caused by the Jacobite attack, the 2nd Duke decided to remodel the castle completely in the Classical manner - between 1747-58 the battlemented turrets and stepped gables were removed and sash windows put in.  But in 1868, when the Gothic style had once more become fashionable, the 7th Duke employed David Bryce to restore the castle to its former appearance.
The interior of the castle still retains its classical scheme of decoration.  The rooms contain some fine furniture - including Chippendale and Sheraton cabinets displaying a collection of Sevres pocelain - paintings, among them works by Lely, Hoppner and Zoffany, and many items of embroidery, lace and jewellery.  Collections of weapons and armour reflect the history of the castle and the military campaigns of successive Dukes***
The coming and going of armies was familiar to both men.  De Mandeville's life (such as it had been) had overlapped with the Hundred Years War; Nostradamus' with the metastasizing bloodshed of the Italian Wars.
Blair Castle [Image from here]
Neither could have been called bellicose, exactly, but they had a different view of war to moderns.  Wars were a prerogative of princes.  Destructive, heartbreaking, murderous and as obdurate as weather.
Lastlie stode warre in glittering armes yclad,
With visage grim sterne lokes and blacklie hued;
In his right hand a naked sword he had
That to the hiltes was all with blood imbrued
And in his left that kinges and kingdomes rewed
Famine and fire he held, and therwithall
He rased townes and threw doune towres and all****
They were lamentable, no question, but it was as pointless to imagine a world without war as a world without kings.  The late afternoon sky turned the colour of blood above the battlements.  De Mandeville reminded Nostradamus of his most famous quatrain:
In the year 1999 and seven months,
From the skies shall come the king of terror,
The Mongols’ mighty leader to raise again,...
The prophet interrupted him: "Before and after, Mars shall reign at will".  Both men looked wearily at the castle.  The peace of the modern world seemed a very flimsy thing.

"Let's get going".

* Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Drive Publications: London, 1977), p.259
** Laura Suter, 'Woodford to launch higher income fund paying 5pc', Telegraph, 4 February 2017.
*** Auto. Assoc., Treasures of Britain, p.89
**** Thomas Sackville, 'A Myrroure for Magistrates', in John Hayward (ed.), The Penguin Book of English Verse (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1956) p.7

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