Friday, May 29, 2015

By rail across Scotland's Western Highlands

The West Highland Line and The Jacobite steam train

The Jacobite Steam Train, Fort William, Scotland
You may remember that we structured our trip around seat availability on the Jacobite steam train. Thursday was our only option, which gave us  two more days in Edinburgh. Yes to the Edinburgh Castle. No to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (It was closed). But yes to the Queen's Gallery. Yes to the Royal Botanic Gardens. And yes to haggis.

l love train travel, especially on European trains. And ScotRail did not disappoint--neither on the short runs between  Edinburgh and Glasgow--about an hour--nor the nearly four hour trip between Glasgow and Fort William.

We traveled on two outstanding, world-class rail journeys. First, the West Highland LineConsistently voted one of the great railway journeys of the world, it travels north to Oban and Maillaig. The train divides at Crianlarich, where part of the coaches go west to Oban and the others continue north to Fort William--our destination--and to its end point, Maillaig. 

Corrour, Scotland
As the train's wheels clickety-clacked over the jointed rail tracks, we drank in the spectacular scenery and marveled at the engineering feat of laying the rail lines across this isolated section of Scotland. 

After the gigantic horseshoe curve (the builders lacked funds to build a viaduct), the train travels across Rannoch Moor where the rails 'float' across a peat bog. I felt as if I were  traveling across a bridge, as, in a sense, we were.

The moor is bleak and Corrrour railway station, one of the most remote stations in the U.K. Inaccessible by public roads, it is  a popular starting point for hill-walkers on the West Highland Way and for Munro-baggers.

Railway buffs, Harry Potter fans, and all the rest of us

Champagne awaited us!
The Jacobite steam train operates in summer from Fort William north to the small port town of Maillag, a distance of 41 miles and a trip of spectacular beauty. Named one of the great railway journeys of the world, the trip begins near Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, and passes both freshwater and sea lochs--Loch Moror and Loch Nevis--to the small fishing and ferry town of Maillaig.

The day was spectacular, as well. No rain! No clouds! And warm! And we had champagne. The week before, when we hurriedly booked the train, we were feeling a bit sorry for ourselves due to the last minute change of plans, so we ordered champagne for the trip. It was waiting at our seats when we arrived. Lovely.
Glenfinnan Viaduct, Lochaber, Scotland

Harry Potter fans will know that the Jacobite's owner/operator provided the train used as the Hogwarts Express as well as the route for the Harry Potter movies. We had fans in our coach on the return trip and when the train crossed the Glenfinnan Viaduct near Loch Shiel, they jumped up out of their seats to sing, "We're crossing over the bridge." What fun! 

It's easy to be sentimental about steam trains, but the return journey was a reminder that they are exceedingly dirty beasts. As the day was warm, the upper windows were open. Soot and small bits of coal soon followed.

But what's little bit of soot on a grand rail journey? Absolutely inconsequential! (Besides, I wore black, so who could tell?) 
Lochailort, Scotland

Monday, May 25, 2015

Finding the Stirling unicorn

Tapestry above the fireplace, Queen's Inner Hall, Stirling Castle

The Stirling Castle tapestries

The original itinerary to the cruise-that-didn't-happen included an excursion to Stirling Castle, which is about an hour by train from Edinburgh. The castle wasn't my primary goal. I wanted to see the set of seven  recently completed tapestries that now hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall in the Royal Palace. 

I appreciate tapestries much as I appreciate any great art. I've tried my hand and have woven tapestries, but I'm no tapestry weaver. There is a difference. A big difference.  

The Stirling Castle project is part of a master plan to furnish the castle as it would have been in the 16th century. Two inventories of goods--1539 and 1561--list two sets of "unicorne" tapestries belonging to James V of Scotland. After 1578, when the inventory lists only four pieces, the tapestries disappear from recorded history.
Tapestries, Queen's Inner Hall, Stirling Castle

The Stirling Castle tapestry project, which was commissioned by Historic Scotland and managed by West Dean College in West Sussex, tapped the college's West Dean Tapestry Studio and its master weavers. One of only a handful of remaining tapestry studios worldwide, the Studio specializes in using heritage techniques in contemporary design. 

I know of two remaining sets of unicorn tapestries--in Paris (Musée de Cluny) and in New York at the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). Both are stunning and well worth a visit.

The project's leaders considered the Met's "Hunt of the Unicorn,"  ca. 1495 to 1505, "one of the most majestic surviving sets" and developed a collaborative working relationship with that museum to research medieval techniques, materials and colors. 

Tapestries, Queen's Inner Hall, Stirling Castle

The project launched in 2001 and two teams of three or four weavers began work in 2002. They wove in concurrently over 13 years. Nearly 20 weavers from Scotland, England, United States, Canada, Japan and Australia worked on the project, which was guided by West Dean's Master Weavers. The college-based team in the south of England completed the first three tapestries. The remaining four were woven in a purpose-built studio in the castle's Nether Bailey.

At the beginning, the task seemed enormous. The description of the path described by West Dean Studio Director Caron Penney captures the sense of remaining true to the historical essence while interpreting the scenes from an artistic perspective. She describes it as, 
Weaver at work (mock-up)
"akin to walking in virgin show with one track running through it. You set out not wanting to break into another path however stepping into another's footprints is quite hard. You need to tread your own path as best you can; eventually you find the confidence to break free and find your own route."

The materials and techniques

Materials. The tapestries are 90 percent wool with gold metallic threads and mercerized cotton also used in the weft. The warp is cotton. All the yarn was specially dyed at West Dean. 
Wool, weaving studio, Stirling Castle

Techniques. Using 16th century weaving techniques, the weavers used hatching, hachures, demi-duite, and slits--techniques not commonly used in current tapestry weaving. Like the originals, the tapestries were woven sideways.

Although the looms, tools, and most of the weaving materials and techniques were the same as those used in the 16th century, there are some differences between the Cloister tapestries and those woven for Stirling Castle.

  • Warp ends per centimeter (epc). The Cloister tapestries have about seven epc. The project's tapestries are warped at four epc.
  • Weft. The project substituted mercerized cotton, which is more durable and preserves its color better than the silk used in the Cloister tapestries.
  • Color palette. The wool yarn was dyed using modern chemical dyes, whereas the yarns used in the historic tapestries would have been dyed with natural dyes from plants, invertebrates, or minerals.
  • Weavers wove facing the front of the tapestry, rather than from the back as in traditional Gobelin weaving. 
This completed project is quite remarkable and well worth a trip to see the tapestries hung as they would have been. But if travel to Scotland is outside your plans, Stirling Castle and the West Dean Tapestry Studio have a wealth of information about the history, the techniques, and the weavers on their web sites.
Some weavers shared their favorite scenes, weaving studio, Stirling Castle

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Edinburgh Ceilidh

Gaelic and Scots music and the song that solved the riddle

The overnight flight from Newark arrived in Edinburgh in the morning. We slept a couple of hours before visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia where we had afternoon tea. Getting there by taxi was simple. Getting back from the Ocean Terminal was another matter. When we couldn't get a taxi,* we decided to take a bus. We only had a general sense of where we were going and realized too late that we had passed a stop convenient to our hotel. 

It was a serendipitous mistake, and one I'm glad we made.

As we walked, we passed a notice posted on the iron railing outside St. John the Evangelist church on Princes Street. Advertised as "Gaelic and Scots music and song" and sponsored by the Edinburgh Argyll Association, it was far more than interesting. It was an event that sent shivers up my spine and made connections to a past I had never understood.

We had time before the ceilidh so we dined nearby 
at Kyloe, where the food was excellent. Oysters and trout from Loch Etive, near Oban, and scallops from the Isle of Skye.
We went to the ceilidh prepared to leave at the break, but that was not to be. As we entered the church hall, we felt the ghosts of people and a community we had known and loved so well at St. Mary's Primrose Hill in London. The hall looked and felt so similar. Some of the people, too. Even the raffle and the tea and baked goods being readied for the break.

The notice on the rail had invited us to "sit down and enjoy the friendly welcome." We did. And we didn't leave until the very end.

We were guests at the "ceilidh" (pronounced kay’lee), which Tom, the master of ceremonies, explained to the 50-odd present was a visit, a get-together more than a concert. It was a place to share Scottish songs, stories, and dance. The similarity of the ceilidh to the '50's-era community socials in the rural area of Ohio where I grew up was striking. Food, music, socializing and dancing--both round and square.

This ceilidh, which featured music for listening and dancing by Alexander Sime-Scott on the highland pipes (above); Linda Campbell on the accordion and Debbie Davidson on the fiddle (below); and Bob Murray singing Scots songs. Anybody could participate--and many did. And to accompany the tunes were tapping hands and feet, dancing and sing-alongs. The "Yellow on the Broom," in particular, had a strong, unified chorus.
The dancing, too, was a delight to watch. I particularly liked the last couple that joined in. Watch their feet. They've been married 62 years, he told me. 
The music swept over and through me, but Bob Murray's songs touched me deepest. His first song, a kind of ballad, reached out, unwrapped memories, and transported me back to the bedside of my grandfather McCormick. He and I were very close. When he had his first stroke I was 16 and he, 86. His mind was clear--at least for a short time--and during my visits with him, he recited long songs. Songs I had never heard. Songs that told stories. 

My grandfather's story songs were like those Bob Murray now sang. I had never understood what he was sharing with me. Now I know it was Scottish ballads.

This local ceilidh was a highlight that never would have been on a tour itinerary. In fact, a large tour group would probably overwhelm and spoil the personal nature of the event. But if you're in Edinburgh on July 26, September 6 or 27, and are interested in Scottish heritage and music, I highly recommend that you make plans to spend a Saturday evening (7:30 to 10 p.m.) with the Edinburgh Argyll Association at St. John's church on Princes Street. They will welcome you. 

And if you go, please give them my best regards.

*Strangely (to us), hailing cabs is not the order in the two Scottish cities we visited. Rather, taxis wait at a taxi stand for riders to find them OR you call them on your mobile. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Change of plans

The cruise company went bust. We went to Scotland anyway.

We celebrated our vacation with dinner the night before our planned departure. Our trip had been booked nine months prior, at which time M. was having trouble walking any distance. 

Thinking that this could be our last trip to Europe, the 10-day excursion on a small boat through Scotland's lochs and waterways looked good. No, it looked great. A Boston Globe review was enticing and the boat was a beauty. M, concerned that he might not be able to take part in the shore trips, could sit them out in nice surroundings. (Fortunately, he can now walk much, much better.)

We went to dinner early, trying to move toward U.K. time. It was 5:30 p.m. when the phone call came. The trip had been cancelled.

We had purchased our own air tickets, so it made sense to keep moving. With less than 24 hours to regroup, we packed carry-ons and started thinking about how to make the most of the 10 days in Scotland. In the midst of researching options, our son called with a brilliant suggestion: Why not ride The West Highland Line and The Jacobite trains, both billed as great railway journeys of the world? Bingo! We had an anchor.

We built our itinerary around The Jacobite, which only had available seats on the following Thursday. We booked them. Our friend booked us into a hotel she knew in Edinburgh for two nights. That gave us a little time to plan. 

While having a pre-boarding snack at the airport, we received an email from the CEO of the travel company, expressing regret and offering us the choice of a full refund or a rebooking. I called immediately to request a full refund, including the cost of the travel insurance. I was assured we would have our refund within 30 days.
Bufala mozzarella w/pesto

(A shout out to the Oeno Wine Bar at Terminal C at Newark Liberty for both food and the service. We had the best airport food ever. M. had shrimp--delicious and BIG. I had the bufala mozzarella with pesto and almonds--accompanied by a Negroni.)

Trying to piece together the source of the cancellation, I had spent some time on social media the night before, starting what would become a very active thread on TripAdvisor. No one knew more than we did, which was nothing. Because the company was unresponsive, I suspected bad news. Unfortunately, that suspicion would prove correct. The company filed for Chapter 11 the next week while we were away.

As for our itinerary, the final plan is below. For those of you who identify me with Excel spreadsheets, do note that this doesn't take advantage of that software's robust capabilities. Nay, this plan was plotted in pencil, which could be--and was--erased and changed as plans solidified.

This was a great trip! And because I promised that I would provide details on this trip, this is the first--the introduction, if you will. Follow me over the next few days for the highlights.

10 days in Scotland, May 2015

Kumihimo: Rebirth

Part III: The craft nearly lost

Kumihimo survived for hundreds of years in Braiding Houses, which were often composed of families of craftsmen. These houses rarely permitted outsiders access and jealously guarded their braiding diagrams. However, modern technology and modern dress caused a severe depression in the craft. Fewer and fewer women wore the traditional kimono and modern braiding machines made braids faster and cheaper.

Kumihimo as a decorative accessory
In an attempt to keep the craft alive, one House published a few diagrams in the mid-1970's. The patterns were so popular that other Houses rushed to follow suit. Schools were established in the once restricted Braiding Houses and are now well established and offer courses in kumihimo. Continuation of the craft seems assured.

Although many unfamiliar with the craft of kumihimo identify it with the French knitting spool of childhood, it is actually more closely related to bobbin lace and to Victorian hair braiding.

Like kumihimo, bobbin lace—a 16th century European development—uses weighted bobbins for interlacing and interweaving threads. Even more similarities exist between kumihimo and Victorian hair braiding, which was very popular in Germany, France and England in the late 19th century, and even the equipment is very similar to the Japanese marudai and bobbins.

Kumihimo, which is defined as three or more strands crossed or interlaced in a pattern, can create square, round, flat, and even hollow braids. The thread strands run lengthwise with the effect that the braid is very strong and quite elastic. Knots made from handmade braid are more secure and therefore, less likely to come undone. For many years, historical usage in warfare depended upon these factors. Braids made by machine, no matter how sophisticated the equipment, lack these qualities: qualities that can only be achieved by hand.

Traditionally worked on a marudai, or braiding stool, kumihimo braids made in the traditional way use weighted bobbins, counterweights. The hands maintain and control tension during the braiding process. Although there is no doubt that working on a marudai provides the craftsperson with far more control over braiding and supports the creation of more complex braids, a marudai and bobbins are not required to create many kumihimo braids. Using a simple and inexpensive handheld circle that is notched and numbered a craftsperson can create beautiful braids.

*This excerpt is from the historical introduction of Charlene Marietti's workbook, "Kumihimo: A Systematic Approach to the Ancient Art of Japanese Braiding."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Kumihimo: A craft for war and beauty

Part II: The Asian route

Bushi warrrior armor
The introduction of braiding into Japan is known to have traveled with the movement of Buddism through Korea into Japan from T'ang China in the late 7th or early 8th century. When Japan cut all ties with China after the 8th century, Japanese culture became established as unique and separate from its former source of influence. With the growth of increased nationalism, the culture became more introspective and its society more insular which enabled art forms to develop independent of outside influences. During this time, the unique Japanese braid patterns developed.

The aesthetic ideal of beauty and function in harmonious combination was epitomized by the 13th and 14th centuries when the demand for elegant braids from the Imperial Court, from the warrior classes, and for religious ceremonies was at its zenith. Patterns were developed that were associated with, and defined by, rank and ceremony, particularly within the military.

As the numbers of Bushi warriors increased, the demand for armor and sword braids grew. The traditional suit of samurai armor required two types of braids: flat, flexible silk braids to attach the layers upon layers of small, flat metal or lacquer plates and hard, tight braids to edge the outer structure.

Braids were also used on swords for both practical and fashionable purposes. Flat, ridged braids without patterns were wound around the hilt to provide a good grip and strong and thick, decorated braids were used to attach the scabbard to the warrior's armor.

As social changes evolved in Japan, so did demand and uses for braids. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Tea Ceremony became an important part of Japanese life, and braids, always beautiful, were an integral part of this event.

Tightly tied to cultural and political changes, braids and braid quality reflected the times. Periods of internal political turbulence, for example, caused braid quality to suffer when demand for braids exceeded the capabilities of the craft industry.

With political stabilization in the second half of the 16th century, braiding and other fine arts and crafts regained their former value. The Tea Ceremony was re-established as an important social custom with brought renewed enthusiasm to the beautiful braids that were part of the presentation. Inspired by the braids on tea canisters, the reigning ruler adapted the braids to keep his Haori jacket closed in the front, thus giving birth to the Haori braid.

The period of peace in Japan from 1600 to 1868 was a stimulating environment for artists and their arts. Feudal lords spent alternate years in Edo (now named Tokyo), improving the quality of life and providing a ready market for articles related to the Samurai warrior classes. Since the sword was their spiritual symbol, great attention was assigned to the braids for sword knots. It was not uncommon for them to be braided with individual's names or with the family crest. To meet the increased demand for braids, large numbers of braidmakers moved to Edo to practice their craft.

But the market crashed with the abolition of the Samurai classes in 1868. The wearing of swords was forbidden and demand for braids collapsed. A small number of braidmakers adapted their craft to fashion and in the subtle shift in women's dress style. For braidmakers, the change in the width of in the sash band, or obi, which is worn over the kimono, was significant. To secure the wider obi , fashionable Japanese women quickly adopted the braids previously used on swords. These braids then came to be known as obijime.

Priests in temples continued to use the beautiful braids for decorative purposes on sacred scrolls as did traditional Japanese theater (Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraki), which used the decorated braids in costuming as fastenings, decorative knots, and tassels.

Next week, Part III: A craft nearly lost

*This excerpt is from the historical introduction of Charlene Marietti's practical workbook, "Kumihimo: A Systematic Approach to the Ancient Art of Japanese Braiding."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Kumihimo: Who, what, where

Part I: Kumihimo's ancient roots

Since early Paleolithic man discovered the art of plaiting three strands together to make braid, people have made use of the increased strength of braided structures. Although the art of braiding and plaiting pre-dates loom weaving
Examples of kumihimo braids
by hundreds, if not thousands, of years, these skills tended to disappear with the development of looms. As cultures gained proficiency in the art of loom weaving, the craft of braiding and plaiting became less and less valued.

Historically practical structures, braids were typically designed for specific uses and purposes. Little documentation exists about the forms and uses of the earliest braids because they have always been considered 'secondary textiles.' Undoubtedly, many cultures sought to enhance their daily life with braids that were beautiful as well as useful, but beauty was secondary. The information we have today comes almost exclusively from preserved braid pieces, often attached to clothing or with objects preserved in temples, shrines and graves.

Three continents, the North and South Americas and China, have strong historical braid roots. The earliest braids found to date have been in the high, dry Andean Highlands of South America, which have proven a good repository for braids and other Peruvian textiles. Similar, but distinctly different, flat, finger-woven braids are known from the Basketmaker period of North American Indian history. The silk braids known as kumihimo developed in China, but travelled great distances and gained identity in Japan, rather than China.

Each of these three very different and very distant cultures developed braids unique to, and characteristic of, that particular culture. The flat, finger-woven braids of the North American native Americans and of the Peruvians share a commonality, but are readily identifiable one from the other by patterns and designs. In addition, the round braids made entirely in hand by Peruvians even today share a common structure with many of the round Japanese braids—but are distinctive in materials, patterns, and uses.

Next week, Part II: The Asian route

*An excerpt from the historical introduction of Charlene Marietti's practical workbook, "Kumihimo: A Systematic Approach to the Ancient Art of Japanese Braiding."