Wednesday 31 October 2012

Octopus in Armour and Other Halloween Ponderings

At Halloween one's mind is drawn to ghouls and those spirits who are no longer with us. How can this possibly be relevant to Balintore Castle? Well, read on ...

On a recent trip to Westminster Abbey, I unexpectedly bumped into one of my favourite neighbours from Balintore Castle.  I had no idea he had taken up permanent residence in London, so the encounter was one of great delight. And indeed the last place I expected to find Charles Lyell, whose family still owns the land surrounding the castle, was buried under a slab in the main aisle.
Charles Lyell's Tomb

Even before moving to the Angus Glens, I was aware that Lyell was a geologist of great repute, whose seminal work "The Principles of Geology" was responsible for widely establishing the principle of uniformitarianism, which states that the processes that had formed the landscape in the past are still at work today. I also knew that Lyell was an intimate of his namesake Charles Darwin, but even then to have made it to "scientists' corner" in Westminster Abbey is no mean achievement. I understand Lyell's observatory at his family seat of Kinnordy House a few miles from Balintore Castle, is still in existence and is being, or is to be, restored.

octopus in armour?

halibut in space suit?

An eagle-eyed friend who accompanied me on the trip to Westminster Abbey, spotted this extraordinary ghoulish carving on an ancient tomb (above left). What is it? We weren't sure if the head had worn away, but no, it is some kind of putative "octopus in armour". There is but a small leap to Admiral Ackbar (above right) of Star Wars ( a halibut in a space suit?). It just shows you that any CGI monsters we can create nowadays are more than matched by the artists of history. I am thinking particularly of the mediaeval depictions of hell and the outandish creations of Hieronymus Bosch that defy modern understanding. So what does the"octopus in armour" signify? Did it mean the resident of the tomb had died in a battle at sea? Neither my Latin was up to the challenge, nor my friend of other ethnic origin.

red heraldic lion

white heraldic lion

Another creature much in evidence at Westminster Abbey is the heraldic beast, which is one of my very favourite subjects ever. A successful treatment of a heraldic beast is one of the very toughest tests, that will only be passed by the best artists. It is not about the  naturalism in the fantasy, but whether there an animus in the creature, and an observing mind behind the depiction. The heraldic beast may be regal and may be magnificent, but with an additional cadenza of humour or pathos, you know you are seeing the very best of class. Mary Queen of Scots'  tomb features this mercurially disturbing red lion, while the woebegone beast in white marble is a masterful study in misery.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Ring of Bright Terror

I got woken up suddenly in the middle of the night. There was something under my bed ... breathing ... and breathing loudly at that. Eeeek! I could tell it was large when it moved around. I would have put it at the size of a small child or thereabouts.

I was petrified. What could it possibly be? Anything this large had to be a mammal. The next thing I heard was foxes barking outside my bedroom window. Aha! It was a fox under my bed, which could ... which could easily savage my throat. Eeeek! I made certain the duvet was pulled well-up over my head in strategically ludicrous defence. I was too frightened to investigate in case, whatever it was, attacked. I stayed as still as I possibly could, rigid with terror, in the hope it would go away. Eventually, I dropped off to sleep again.

The next time I spoke to the gamekeeper, who lives next-door, I described my experience and asked if the creature under my bed had been a fox. He told me a fox would not approach a human, and that it would be an otter taking refuge from the foxes outside. How shall I put it? The castle is not hermetically sealed from the fauna of the neighbourhood by any stretch of the imagination, so anything and everything has come a-visiting at some stage. More animal tales will follow ...

I had read "Ring of Bight Water" as a child and knew that otters were not to be trifled with, as these creatures took off the fingers of the author (Gavin Maxwell) and his young assistant (Terry Nutkins). Indeed I had thought the author's choice of pet to be highly unsound. The duvet over the head was definitely a good move. :-)

the other otter encounter

Thursday 18 October 2012

Beelzebub the Sheep

The first time I saw Beelzebub, he scared the bejasus out of me. As I was driving home to the castle one night in the utter dark of the countryside, Beelzebub's diabolic visage suddenly appeared out of nowhere just feet in front of my car's windscreen.

His eyes were glowing red, his powerful horns curved round, in the very physiognomy of "Auld Nick" himself! It took me a few moments to rationalise the experience, and that this was actually "just" a sheep by the very edge of the road.

The problem was that Beelzebub, was not your normal "sheep in a field" type of sheep, with eyes that glow green in car headlights. No, he loved standing by the side of the road and given passing motorists, particularly at night, the collywobbles. And for whatever reason, his eyes glowed red in car headlights!

It wasn't just me - he would spook visitors to the castle as well who arrived by night.  My thoughts were that if the devil really did manifest himself in animal form, then that animal would be indistinguishable from Beelzebub.

Beelzebub The Sheep

Midnight The Bunny

Driving back home to the castle at night after work, I would often spot a "midnight black" rabbit at the same spot: on the right hand side of the single-track road, just on the approach to Balintore House - reputed to be the earlier mediaeval incarnation of Balintore Castle.

Anyhow, as I was often passing this spot at midnight, the rabbit was clearly "Midnight the Bunny", and a sighting of "Midnight at midnight" would greatly gladden my heart. 

I am an animal lover, not in the sense of putting polka-dot dresses on chihuahuas, but in the sense of taking great joy from my fellow creatures with whom I share this planet.

I was explaining to an acquaintance that this must be a  biological "sport", given that the colouration differs from the normal "wild" one. I was told that this was rubbish, and that the rabbit must be the descendant of a Dutch Rabbit that had lived at Balintore House in the past !!

The web and an animal expert neighbour have told me this mutation is indeed quite common, and one can find parts of the country where black is more prevalent that others colours.

A wild black bunny!

Sunday 14 October 2012

Jeepers Creepers: A Tale of Two Castles

Each Autumn the Scottish Military Vehicle Group takes its Jeeps on a "Quarter Ton Fun Run". I am led to understand that stops are required to ease leg cramps and aching buttocks, as these vehicles were built to take on and defeat the Third Reich not to give comfort and a good driving experience!

This year's stops were at Glamis and Balintore Castles. I think the mutually-flattering spectacle of vehicles and architecture is magnificent. If anything, methinks Ms. Balintore wears her khakis somewhat better than Glamis. :-)

Jeeps at Balintore Castle

Jeeps at Glamis Castle