Friday, 28 January 2022

Gentleman's Dressing Room Paint Job

I mentioned to Gregor that I was considering using the paint colour "Red Maple" in the Gentleman's Dressing Room, which has recently been plastered. We had some of this paint left over from another room, and a warm colour would be appropriate for a sitting room where people gather, invariably, round a roaring fire.

Unawares to myself, Glen was already on the case and when I popped in one day to view progress, he was already cutting in the colour!

The morale of this story is be careful of what you say. It is definitely a bold choice. I had planned a lengthy chromatic consultation period, and this had now been taken out of my hands. In an attempt to be positive, I rationalised that perhaps this "top of head" comment was by its very spontaneity the hallmark of a correct choice.

I sent my artist friend Duncan up to view the room recently to ask him what he thought: strategically I gave nothing away about the colour or my feeling towards it. I was so relieved when Duncan gave it a huge thumbs-up. He reckons that with appropriate furniture, mirrors and paintings, the assault of the vertical planes of red will be reigned in.

coat one of "Red Maple" in the Gentleman's Dressing Room (click thrice for VR panorama)

At the top of the right-hand wall you can see two sandstone corbels which hold the beams supporting the floor above. The coving here, long since gone, would cunningly have hidden the corbels. If you have the skills to reproduce the coving - get in touch!

Outside you can see winter sun and winter blue skies.

Anyhow, progress in the Gentleman's Dressing Room and the adjoining Aunt Nellie's Bedroom has cheered me up: they finally feel on the path towards civilised accommodation, after being semi-derelict spaces for so long.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Electrolier, Gasolier, Chandelier

I recently emailed my boss to let him know that I would be taking a couple of hours off work to pick up a Victorian "chandelier" from a local auction house. The word I had wanted to use was "electrolier", but not everyone knows what this is, so I had dumbed things down to avoid confusion, if somewhat at the expense of accuracy. The latter never sits well with me. :-)

Later in more relaxed conversation with my colleagues, my conscience kicked in, and I explained that chandeliers are technically light fittings for candles, from the French "chandelle" for candle. Gas light fittings are known as "gasoliers" and electrical light fittings are known as "electroliers".  As all light fittings are electrical nowadays, the terms "electrolier" has become redundant. What I had bought had an electrical cable coming out the top, and bayonet light bulb fittings so, ergo, it was an electrolier. I noted to a colleague, that it actually looks like a gasolier because the arms had the characteristic swoop of a gas pipe but there were no taps, so it must have been an early electrolier when the style of of gasoliers were copied. All new technologies take on the look of older technologies, so customers are not scared away.

electrolier purchased at auction for Balintore Castle

Anyhow, my brain must have been on the case, as I suddenly decided to re-examine the "electrolier" in those regions where the gas taps would have been. Close-up, there were definite signs that modifications has been made - the taps has been cut out and replaced by a barbell of brass. So what I had bought was once a gasolier and was now was an electrolier. Of course, the case for "once a gasolier, always a gasolier" may be argued instead. :-)

evidence that the old gas taps have been cut out

The original finish on the fitting was fire-gilded brass. The technique involves painting on gold dissolved in mercury and then burning this off. The practice has naturally long since been discontinued. The lamp holders are just brass, and so they are a clear later addition: this is what one would expect in any case from the electrification. The candy-twist stem of the lamp is lacquered brass, so this also looks like a later addition. The puzzle is that the replacement brass barbells are also fire-gilded, so this suggests the modification from gas to electricity was a quality job and done a long time ago. One resolution to the puzzle, i.e. why the different modifications have different finishes, would be more than one phase of modification.

Anyhow, it is fun to apply Sherlock Holmes style deduction to the chandelier.  The son of one of my restoration contacts has now, amongst his other accomplishments, become an antique light dealer. I first met him when he was 12! This was very early on the trail of Balintore Castle. Anyhow, he may be able to tell me more about the light fitting and give a professional valuation.  My bid was well below the lower auction estimate, so no-one was more surprised and delighted than me when the lot came through.

One of the joys of the pick-up is that the auction house "The Pedestal" is based in the old dairy of the Stonor Park Estate. You can visit Stonor Park in the summer, but as it is out of season I had to be buzzed-in via an intercom through the electrically controlled main gates.  By the time I had driven to Stonor, the sun has burned through thick mist and it was absolutely glorious. After many dull winter days, this was definitely a lift for the spirits. 

my vehicle at the main gate of Stonor Park - amazing sunshine !

The main house was sadly scaffolded and under a canopy, but I did get a view of the 12th Century chapel and the  prehistoric stone circle. My photos were rushed as the estate roads are single track and there were estate vehicles driving around, so there was no opportunity to stop. Remarkably, the house has been in the same family for 850 years.

Stone Park House (shrouded), 12th Century chapel and stone circle

One of my bête noires, is the blanket expectation that, when doing up a grand room historic or otherwise, one of those cut glass wedding cake chandeliers is appropriate. This view attended the same Trumpian school of misguidedness as "I must have made it as I am decorating in Louis Quatorze". Most rooms (i.e. those not at Versailles) will not benefit from a wedding cake chandelier, and generally a more disciplined and coordinated design sits better.

Etymological Notes

One of my Mum's favourite facts was that another French word for candle is "bougie" which is the name of the North African port that exported candles to France. Bougie is now known as Béjaïa in Algeria. My family living room had a reproduction impressionist view of Bougie Harbour, so the tale came home, so-to-speak.

A bougie is also a tube-shaped medical device slim enough to be inserted into the body (choose your orifice) because the Algerian candles were long and slender.

Another French word for candle is "cierge", but this refers more to a taper.

A merchant who supplies goods for ships is known as a chandler, which was originally just a term for a candle-maker.

Candle is one of the oldest Latin-derived works in English, and this antiquity is likely related to religious observance.

Friday, 14 January 2022

Brough House

It may have puzzled blog readers than an account of  Brough House, which was the ultimate destination of the odyssey to Orkney, was missing from the Orkney travelogue. In fact, there was a bit of a delay in obtaining permission to use photographs of the building so I avoided writing about the building too.

So now, belatedly, I can continue in both sound and vision. :-)

Brough House is a late 18th Century laird's house on Westray, one of the outer Orkney islands. Brough was restored by Mark Fresson from a state of semi-ruination. The works took 3 years and were completed in 2011. 

Brough House at night

The image of  Brough, above, is a scan of Mark's 2021 Christmas card. Most buildings on Orkney are a single storey, due to the wind which whips over the island.  So, a three story building like Brough makes an incredibly audacious statement.  Mark says the building emits terrible noises in the wind. The construction is stone around a clay core, which is designed to flex in the wind.

Like many Georgian houses, Brough is just one room deep. The motivation is to impress visitors by the scale of the exterior. This certainly worked for Katherine and myself. :-)

Most of the building has been furnished beautifully as it would have been 200 years ago. And if I can achieve at Balintore even a fraction of what Mark has managed at Brough, then I will be a happy man. The historic ground floor dining room and the salon above are particular triumphs of period style.

the first floor salon

For the 17 dinner party guests, the large dining table was fully extended and moved to a different, slightly more contemporary, space shown below. How Mark obtained 17 sets of perfectly matching antique cutlery, crockery and wine glasses for each of the 8 courses, I will never know.

I was particularly envious of  the beautiful dark stone floors, which come from Orkney itself. Mark advised the stone could be picked up locally very cheaply - if only I had brought an empty lorry!

the dining table - set for 17!

The evening went with a swing as I have previously documented in the blog. I slept overnight in the loft-space, up the spiral staircase shown. This part of the house is contemporary in style and quite self contained - even equipped with a drawing studio for  Mark. 

So despite being a historic and listed building, Brough is set-up for comfortable and stylish 21st century living and working. This is an important lesson for us all.

Monday, 3 January 2022

Orkney Trip Day 6

Day 6 of the Orkney trip was going to be the return journey from Balintore Castle via Glasgow to my house in Oxfordshire. However, Storm Arwen had put paid to the Balintore stop-off, by blocking roads in the vicinity, and Katherine and I had diverted to Glasgow instead.

So on day 6, I found myself in Glasgow with a morning to kill before the south-bound noon train from Glasgow Central. Katherine suggested we have a walk around the Gallowgate, an area in the East End of Glasgow where she lives. 

Some of my ancestors come from the East End of Glasgow, and despite having studied in Glasgow, I had never visited. My Mum had always told me that I would love the Barras - a legendry market there and my Granny often talked of the People's Palace. Since 1940's the People's Palace has been a museum of social history for Glasgow. Probably the most famous exhibit nowadays are Billy Connolly's banana boots. :-)

Katherine was the perfect tour guide as she is an encyclopaedia for the area, knowing the historic pubs and the hangouts of notorious gangsters of the past. This area of Glasgow has still not been gentrified, though Katherine fears this is coming, so even though there is a big city vibe, it is still a place where families have lived for generations bringing a cultural richness and depth that is palpable. Katherine bemoaned the deprivation and the "health poverty" but clearly holds the place in great affection, even though she is a Highlander rather than a born Weegie. :-)

She showed me the Clutha Pub, where infamously a helicopter crashed in 2013 killing 10 people and injuring 31. The pub is covered in a commemorative mural, and I understand part of the building now serves as a memorial.

So yes, I loved the East End: the Barras, the People's Palace and the Barrowland Ballroom. The latter is a iconic entertainments' venue - which often lends its name to this area of Glasgow: "Barrowland". I should really visit when these attractions are open, but very much enjoyed making an unexpected new connection, thanks to Arwen, with my Mum and Granny who are now both long gone.

I have been in touch with an antiques dealer in the Barras via Facebook. He has reclaim doors and other architectural antiques from big Victorian villas in the city. He insisted I should visit him at the Barras, but I said I needed to know the sizes of the doors first as it is a long trip to come back empty-handed. Perhaps this is an unrealistic demand, as I am sure it is a rough and ready establishment where sizes technicalities are not uppermost. I could not find this dealer when Katherine and I rushed around the market area, but everywhere was closed so I couldn't even ask any questions. I need to revisit on a Saturday which is market day

The Barras - a pair of fine Victorian buildings here - click on the image several times for a VR panorama

Whilst travelling, it is the unexpected which holds the magic. I thought this was purely a trip to Orkney, but diverted by a storm, I got in touch with my past in Glasgow.

My thanks go to Mark for the invitation to his Westray dinner party. I am sure he had no idea of the adventures that would result. :-)

Orkney Trip Day 5

Day 5 of the Orkney trip was the only one we spent on the main island, confusingly called the "mainland" . We would also have spent day 2 on the "mainland"  but Storm Arwen robbed us of this, as it delayed our outward ferry journey by 24 hours. Waking up in Stromness that morning we were well aware that we had until nightfall to cram everything in. We had no idea what was possible, but were going to give it our best shot.

The plan was:

  • Skara Brae
  • Ring of Brodgar
  • Standing Stones of Stenness
  • Maeshowe (recommended by Rhys!)
  • St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
  • Bishop's and Earl's Palaces, Kirkwall

I found this simplified map of Orkney online. The layout of the main attractions was a godsend so I was able to order our visits. In fact, the big Neolithic sites are arranged along an isthmus so our itinerary was largely planned by the planners of pre-history. :-)

simplified and useful map of Orkney mainland

We passed the brown sign to the Yesnaby cliffs. Katherine wanted to go down the narrow path leading to the cliffs - apparently it is a popular suicide spot. So we had an unscheduled stop. In fact, I was so glad we made the detour. The storm was still raging, with the wind blowing in fiercely from the sea, and the  cliffs in the storm were spectacular. I saw what I thought was a flock of white birds flying above a sea inlet. However, this turned out to be a formation of small spherical globs of spume that has risen up from the surface of the sea. Later, I did see a flock of small birds flying above the cliffs just as these begin to level out, and I had to marvel at wildlife which can live in such wild and freezing conditions and in such a harsh landscape. 

The advantage of being here was that we were so blasted by the wind, that other inland sites we visited felt more sheltered. The experience cleared the cobwebs away and was quite exhilarating.

The legendary Skara Brae was my main objective - and if I did this alone I would be happy. A visit had been long planned. As we approached the visitors' centre a wonderful and distinctively Scottish country house also came into view. This is Skaill House: Orkney’s finest mansion, built in the 1620's, and the home of the man who discovered Skara Brae in 1850.

Skara Brae with Skaill House in the background


I was excited to discover that entry to Skara Brae gives you free entry to Skaill House, but the ticket seller indicated this was only in the summer, and accordingly the winter Skara Brae ticket is correspondingly cheaper. My plan was to walk around Skaill House after Skara Brae, but the weather was so bad that discretion was the better part of valour.

The ticket seller said "My colleague will be waiting for you at the site proper". Making conversation, I casually remarked, "That job must be the short straw, in this weather.". I had unintentionally pressed a button. "I was out there yesterday." came the rather too prompt reply.

How the colleague survived her outdoors shift is unknown, though many layers of clothing were in evidence, including a hood over the top of a woolly hat with sides.  Katherine and I managed about 15 minutes outdoors looking around Skara Brae. In fact, there is a replica of House 4 just outside the visitor centre with a roof, so this provided initial shelter and an excellent opportunity to study the layout in advance and at our leisure, which really helped later on.

House 4 with stone dresser

Skara Brae was surprisingly compact but not disappointing for this. However, I was expecting a more extensive site for whatever reason. Mark mentioned there is a similar site on Westray currently falling into the sea, that he suspects is just as distinguished as Skara Brae, as ever it's about obtaining excavation money and having the right location. Westray is an extra degree of remote.

for a VR panorama of Skara Brae click on this image multiple times

By the time we were walking around the next site, the Ring of Brodgar, both of us were soaked to the skin and beginning to seriously suffer from exposure. I realised I was looking towards the ground all the time to avoid stabbing sleet getting into my eyes, so I was not actually looking at this awe-inspiring vast ring of standing stones. This was crazy. At one stage, I became disoriented walking round the ring and could not even see Katherine's car (to which she had retreated by this stage) so I had no idea which way to remove myself from this perilous situation.

for a VR panorama of the Ring of Brodgar click on this image multiple times

The drive to the Stones of  Stenness was thrilling: we crossed a narrow causeway with water on each side of the road. The first standing stone, dark and sculptural, was right at the edge of the causeway: it was an astonishing approach. I felt like I had crossed the river Styx and, and was now passing though the gateway to Hades. This was a deliberate mise en scene that would have assaulted the Neolithic mind just as it assaulted mine. The drama of the approach was worthy of the attached video:

The  Stenness stones were far older than the ring of Brodgar but larger and more carefully crafted. I would find out later they are almost exactly  contemporaneous with the first wave of building at Stonehenge. It was so cold that someone had built a snowman amongst the stones.

Stenness Stones with resident snowman


After leaving Stenness, we came to a T-junction. Katherine wanted to head left towards Kirkwall. I pointed out that our last Neolithic site Maeshowe  was just to the right. Katherine said "I am broken David. I need food and warmth. We can come back this way".  I pointed out that we would not be coming back as our lightning tour was one way, but that food and warmth was very appealing. Later at the Kirkwall Museum, I discovered that Maeshowe has a large underground central chamber which puts it ahead of  Stenness  and Brodgar: Rhys had advised us well. However, a recent YouTube video showed the metal grill over the entrance locked shut for winter 2021.

Katherine and I had to visit a few establishments in Kirkwall before we found one which did food. One of our discussions in the car was my dislike for cheesy chips - which Katherine felt was a classic dish beloved in Scotland. Given my need for calories, it was my chance to go for a huge, and only my second ever, helping of cheesy chips - which much to my surprise were delicious and just hit the spot!

I think I just hadn't met the right cheesy chips: my first experience about 5 years ago had that plastic cheese with undercooked bland chips - and the whole thing was just too much. On that occasion, the cheese felt like a failed attempt to gild the lily, when chips on their own, were surely the ultimate overindulgence food.

St. Magnus Cathedral and the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces in Kirkwall were closed, but these were beautiful ancient structures and I had a good walk around them all. The ruins of the  Earl's Palace were highly reminiscent of the Scottish Renaissance parts of Stirling Castle, which I had visited recently.

for a VR panorama of St. Magnus Cathedral click on this image multiple times

Earl's Palace Kirkwall

Earl's Palace Kirkwall

Katherine went to buy some dry clothes and  a dry coat in the charity shops of Kirkwall. Her existing coat, which would have been very warm under normal conditions,  turned out to be not as waterproof as it looked.

I went into the Kirkwall Museum on my own in the hope of drying off slowly. I tried to do a covid QR code sign-in at the entrance. There was no mobile Internet, but I did find a Wi-Fi network with the name "museum" which I could not log into. So I went to the lady in the shop, and asked for the password. "We don't have Wi-Fi here." came the reply. I showed her the network with the name "museum" on my phone. "Gosh, I never knew about that." said the lady, who then passed me paper and pencil to sign in. "We are good with old technology like that in museums." she quipped. I complied with the manual sign in, but remained puzzled as the lady was very much of the younger generation.

entrance to Kirkwall Museum is through arch on left

I was able to do the full museum in quite a bit of detail - normally I don't have time for this type of thing - so much enjoyment. It made me think about our tenuous connection to the Neolithic age - a stone with a few simple scratches can be a museum exhibit. There was obviously a vigorous culture all over the Orkney islands but now we have to work with the faintest of shadows from that age.

Kirkwall Museum: Orkney Chairs and staircase 

Kirkwall Museum: Orkney Chairs and staircase 

Kirkwall Museum: Viking whalebone plaque 

There is a rough street game that occurs every Christmas Day in Kirkwall called the Ba' Game. On Christmas Day 1945 the first women's Ba' game was won by  Barbara Yule. Barbara moved to London after the war, but wanted the ball she won to return to Orkney on her death. And so in 1999 the ball was moved to the display cabinet devoted to the game. I found this story very moving: the powerful draw of where you come from and the liberation of women that followed WWII.

There was a portrait of Jo Grimond in the museum. Jo was the legendary MP for Orkney and Shetland from 1950 to 1983,  and was the leader of the Liberal Party between 1956 and 1967. Mark had explained to me, just the day before, that Jo was a frequent visitor to the last resident of Brough House, who gloried in the nickname Jock O' Brough. Jock was a very wise man amongst other accomplishments, and believe it or not, Jo came to him for advice.

Kirkwall Museum: portrait of Jo Grimond

As Katherine drove from Kirkwall to the St. Margaret's Hope, the ferry terminal on the south of the island, the weather was kicking off. Waves were crashing onto the road from both sides on the causeways, and Katherine had visions of us being swept away. 

The plan had been to stay that evening at Balintore Castle, as it was just a 3 hour drive from the Gills Bay ferry terminal close to John O'Groats. However, the news was of blocked roads round the castle and of no power in the building due to Storm Arwen, so we did not know if we could even get there.

I asked Katherine if she could make it all the way to Glasgow in a one-er. She answered in the affirmative, but I could hear the doubt in her voice. After around 9 hours driving, we finally made it to Katherine's flat in Glasgow. It had been exhausting and tiring for Katherine, but she was deservedly proud of her accomplishment - and long drives in future will not present such a head-space challenge. I was so pleased that we had made it in one piece and blacked out on the sofa as soon as my head hit the pillow.