Friday, 30 September 2011

Boat trip to Greenwich, Yeoman tour of Old Royal Naval College & Skittle Alley

During the second day of our summer heat wave, I decided to go to Greenwich by boat.  I got to Embankment on the Underground and via the escalator system surfaced at the ticket hall.  Turning right one faces the embankment and there is a crossing which is staggered just to the left of the exit.  This will take you near the ticket offices for the boat services on the river. 

I got the Thames Clipper from Embankment to Greenwich Pier and on this occasion had a seat mid-ship as I had previously sailed up and down the river on either port or starboard side.  ‘Visibility’ was quite good and I could make out some of the landmarks on either side of the river.  The outline of Tower Bridge was discernible and passing under the bridges always gives a sense of location, though I missed out on the curvature of the River Thames itself as it meanders through London. 

This is a commuter service, though quite a few tourists got on and off at Bankside and there is a Harry Potter attraction as well.  Canary Wharf seemed to be a busy spot for the suit brigade but I didn’t pick up any financial tips.  However, there are plenty of staff on embarkation and getting off again.  One of the staff told me about a museum at Canary Wharf itself, and recommended that I try it sometime.  

At Greenwich, I wandered through the Royal Naval College complex which was originally built as Greenwich Hospital with the architects Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor designing some of the buildings.   ( I found the Painted Hall, where one of the staff took me round to the Nelson Room and told me about a tour which lasted 90 minutes and started from the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre ( .  I was booked on the tour there and then and escorted to the visitor centre where I met Albert and Margaret, the other visitors, and our guide Wendy. 

On my last trip to Greenwich, I had been to the Greenwich Fair which is held in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College.  We wandered round the Charles II building and could hear the music coming from Greenwich University’s Trinity College of Music (now called Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance - ). 

It was a very hot and sunny day and I could make out the lines of the buildings, including the William, Mary and Anne buildings which form a landscaped line as far as the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum and the Greenwich Observatory.  I couldn’t make these out, though the buildings within the Royal Naval College stood out quite clearly.

Wendy took us to the Tudor undercroft.  There are stairs down to this, but it is well worth a visit as there are some carvings which can be touched, thus giving an idea of the sculpture involved in the decoration of the whole complex which spanned the reigns of from Charles II to Queen Anne. 

We then went to the College Chapel, which has many carvings, pillars and a beautiful geometric marble floor and my cane was able to follow some of the patterns.  In 1779 the Chapel was gutted in a disastrous fire … It was redesigned and rebuilt under the Surveyorship of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, in the ‘Greek revival’ style for which he was famous, though the detailing was done by his Clerk of Works, William Newton, and it reopened in 1789.” (  

Wendy was able to take us behind some locked doors here and there and we went into the undercroft, which connects the buildings underground and emerged into a skittle alley, which I think is somewhere below the Painted Hall.  During its days under the Ministry of Defence, the complex was used and abused and it has gradually been restored.  The skittle alley was in working order and Wendy went to the other end of the alley and kept talking so that I could take aim with some of the very heavy wooden balls trying to knock down some of the skittles.  I’m not sure if there were 9 pins or 10 pins, but I think Albert did rather better than I did as I’m sure one of mine fell into a gulley on the way.

We then went to the Painted Hall and Wendy was able to describe the history of the painting of the hall and the symbology of the motifs depicted.  (  The ceiling was painted by James Thornhill and took him 19 years to complete.  As these were done at the time of the Hanoverian succession, there is some political significance coming so soon after the Jacobite uprising of 1715. 

Wendy then returned me to the Visitor Centre, where Edward showed me round some of the exhibits.  As Greenwich had been a Tudor palace, there has been some archaeology and historical reconstruction of what the palace would have looked like.  There are videos and objects which can be touched, such as a helmet, and a gauntlet.  There is even a listen and smell section where on ‘opening a window’ you can hear the choir singing a piece by Thomas Tallis and get a whiff of incense!  On walking around the centre, I detected a fluorescent blue wavy line on the floor.  This is a representation of the meanders of the River Thames and my peripheral vision was attracted by it. 

This has been a well thought out exhibition with something for everyone.  Edward helped me pick some postcards and took me to the Tourist Information Centre.  I had wanted to check out the best way to get back as Greenwich can be a rather daunting construction site with the Olympics, Cutty Sark and other construction projects around.  Ales, from the Tourist Office, took me to Saint Alfege Church and I knew the way from there to Greenwich Railway Station.  Ales took me via the gates of the Maritime Museum complex, so that will be a visit for another day!     

Transport:  Greenwich has good links with the Docklands Light Railway and Southeastern, in addition to the Thames Clipper service.  There are also bus routes.H

Date of visit: 29/9/11

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Edinburgh Castle – Honours of Scotland, Mons Meg, Historic Scotland

Growing up in Edinburgh the Castle ( ) features from very early on in school, in addition to being taken to the castle on many occasions.  The Scottish National War Memorial ( is situated within the castle and there are books with the names of all those who had been killed in the wars laid out.  I can remember going with a friend to the Memorial to look up his mother’s brothers’ (uncles he never knew) names in the war memorial, as his mother couldn’t bear to do it herself.  My family lost no one in either WW I or WW II, so I had no personal interest in visiting the Memorial, though my father would go as he knew some sailors who had been killed on HMS Hood. 

At school, we all learned stories of the battles for control of Edinburgh Castle.  Going to school in the centre of the city, one was aware of the Castle and of course the 1 o’clock gun, which gave a time check in the days when most schoolboy wind up watches lost five minutes or so every day. 

I approached the Castle through the temporary stands for the tattoo and a Bryan Ferry concert.  On reaching the drawbridge, I was approached by Security and asked if I need any assistance for my visit and if I was unaccompanied.  I was then taken to the ticket office and arrangements were made for me. I’ve been a member of Historic Scotland for years in its various forms going back to the 1960s, when a season ticket cost in the region of 10s or so!  I was given an audio tour which was preset, though it turned out I didn’t need to use it.  I had an idea what I wanted to visit and I was then taken back to the Esplanade and a big surprise. 

I hadn’t realised that some years ago a tunnel had been bored through the Castle Rock and that one could in fact drive from the Esplanade to Crown Square at the top of the Castle Rock.  This was a very pleasant surprise and as I was driven through the rock, it felt strangely as if I was driving myself through one of the tunnels around the Monte Carlo area pretending to be Roger Moore in The Saint! 

The courtesy car climbed up and I could make out the lights in the tunnel and indeed the light at the end of the tunnel and we stopped outside Crown Square.  I was met by one of the staff and passed into the tower where the Honours of Scotland are kept.  It was quite a busy day for tourists.  The sun was out, and there were several coach loads of overseas tourists in the castle.  Coming at the end of my Scottish trip, I felt I had done more than my fair share of climbing up spiral staircases and getting down them, so it was a good idea to take a lift up to the Crown Room. 

The Crown of Scotland is very old and the regalia (Honours of Scotland) are the oldest complete set in Europe, though there are older crowns in Vienna and Budapest.  The Crown Jewels in England had to be re-fashioned after they went ‘missing’.  Before the display of the Honours of Scotland, there is a touch replica of the crown, Sword of State, and sceptre.  This was put together with the Royal Blind School and the ‘touch’ gives an idea of the Crown of Scotland and its shape, which is quite different from the crown in the Tower of London.  The heraldic crown in Scotland is also quite different. 

The crown, sword and sceptre are kept in a sealed display case and it was a fleeting flash when I could make out the shimmering gold filigree on its own.  The bonnet and the case couldn’t be seen and I felt as if I could reach out and grab the gold crown.  I couldn’t make out the bonnet which is a red/maroon colour and couldn’t identify any of the jewels, but I will never forget the instant I could make out the framework of the crown itself.  I could make out the sword and the sceptre and the Stone of Destiny, which I had first seen many years ago in Westminster Abbey.  There’s a lot of history about the Stone of Destiny and a lot of myth and a lot of conspiracy theories dating back to some student pranks when it went missing.

In the same room, there is a separate case showing Cardinal Henry, brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie and decorations with some jewels left to Scotland by a daughter of Queen Victoria. 

I was then asked what other items I wanted to see. I opted for the Great Hall and was taken there.  This is another spectacular ceiling similar to the one in Parliament House.  This is designed to look like an upturned boat and I could make out the ‘ribs’ and ‘planks’ of the boat.  I was told that the hammer beam was used as a basis for the reconstruction of the Great Hall in Stirling Castle, which I had previously visited.  The Great Hall was the scene of the infamous murder of the Douglas heirs by William Crichton during the reign of James II, who had a very hot temper and was allegedly responsible for the defenestration of another Douglas at Stirling and who was himself killed by an artillery accident. 

The Hall has a large selection of armoury in a changing exhibition from the royal armouries and I could make out pike staffs, spears, swords and some of the weapons on display.  The guide in the hall had some facsimiles to touch and explained some of the history of the hall and its use in today’s Scotland.  The army still has a token presence here and the Great Hall is used on limited occasions for state visits, Scottish government functions and royal family events.  I was then taken to Saint Margaret’s chapel, which is the oldest part  of the Edinburgh Castle complex and built by Queen Margaret, wife of King Malcolm Canmore.  Next to the chapel (which can be hired out) is Mons Meg, an impressive piece of artillery bought by James II.  Many tourists think this is used for the 1 o’clock gun.  This is an impressive piece of defence equipment and the history of it was explained by my guide, who arranged for me to be taken back to the Esplanade in the courtesy car. 

This was a wonderful trip and I would like to thank Historic Scotland for having these facilities available so that a blind person on their own can experience a lot of what the Castle has to offer.   (

Within the Castle, there is much more to see and if there is anything specific you only have to ask.  There are regimental museums, royal apartments, exhibitions, the one o’clock gun, pet cemetery (guard dogs).  On a clear day with blue skies I could make out the hills of Fife and other parts of the Edinburgh skyline.

Date of visit: 8 September, 2011

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Royal Mile: visiting Parliament House, Gladstone's Land and Saint Giles

*** update 10 August 2012

On 8th August 2012, I recreated this walk starting at the Tron Kirk  on the corner of High Street and the Bridges.  Much of the High Street is pedestrianised and there is a lot of street theatre on the way up to the St Giles Cathedral and the Mercat Cross.  I was posing by the Mercat Cross. 

Prof Whitestick indicating the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh
and pointing, he thinks, at the 'puggy' or unicorn which is
the Royal Beast of Scotland

We then turned left into the Scottish Courts precints and nodding to a statue of Charles II we entered the security to get access for Parliament House, with its superb hammer-beam ceiling.  This is the Court of Session and though closed, we were able to wander past the open (unlocked) files which are kept for advocates within the courts.  The lower floor has a cafe appropriately known as The Writz Cafe and the staff are extremely helpful in orientering one's way around. 

Prof Whitestick outside the Court of Session and Parliament House
precints in Edinburgh.  The sign indicates a cafe named appropriately as
the Writz Cafe

This is quite a high security building, but the security staff are quite approachable.  There were no tourists and it is a shame that Scotland's old parliament house isn't visited more often.  Corridors lead off to the Faculty of Advocates.  The adjoining Signet Library is currently being used as a champagne bar and we entered the square with the Heart of Midlothian, which is quite busy. 

Prof Whitestick outside the Signet Library in Edinburgh
which was being used as a champagne bar

The junction with George IV Bridge can be crossed and there was a crowd of people taking photographs outside Gladstone's Land of people in costume.  Further up is The Hub, where much of the Edinburgh International Festival administration, marketing and press is based.  There is a cafe and I'm going to a conversation with Barry McGovern at this location. 

*** end of update

This was my second solo walk in Edinburgh since losing my sight and without any prior reconnaissance with a sighted person.  I took the bus and got off near the High Street at Hunter’s Square, by the Tron Kirk.  Take care if you’re walking in this area as you could fall having climbed a few steps.  If you are a reader of Irvin Welsh and Iain Rankin, you might know the area is still frequented by winos and jakeys!

I walked up the High Street, which was a lot quieter as the festival had finished and there were fewer tourists around, though some loud music emerges from some tacky souvenir shops.  I got to the Merkat Cross, turned left into the law courts area, besides Saint Giles Cathedral and entered Parliament House. 

The courts were being refurbished, but entry to Parliament Hall is possible with the immediate surroundings.  During sitting days the hammer beam hall is usually busy with advocates and solicitors walking up and down.  On the day I went, there was a pair of lawyers doing the walk.  In the surrounding corridors are boxes where the advocates would leave their briefs and of course it was a matter of honour that these boxes were not locked nor were they to be opened.  Besides the security gate there is an enquiry desk and there is a very attractive booklet on sale (my father bought this for me in the 1990s).  The book is still available for £4 and it has many interesting photographs.  The booklet was written by Lord Cullen with a forward by Lord Hope, who was then Lord President (he is now in the Supreme Court in London).     

Parliament House is not usually on the regular tourist trail but it does give an insight into the Scottish legal system, though the High Court of Justiciary has been effectively moved across the road in the old Sheriff Court.  The security staff are very thorough and polite and I was momentarily separated from my cane, mobile phone before going through the gate.  ( )

The roof is spectacular as is the stained glass window, depicting the foundation of the Court of Session by King James V in 1532.  The fireplaces in the Parliament Hall can be made out, though these are later additions to the whole complex. 

I then went across to Saint Giles Cathedral, which I entered from the west door.  It had been a long time since I had been here.  The Church of Scotland has no bishops, so the cathedral is known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh.  It has been cleaned up over the years and as I walked down the nave, I could remember sitting in one of the pews in 1969/70 during the installation of Lord Reith as a Knight of the Thistle.  The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother all paraded in their thistle robes.  I can’t recall having been in Saint Giles, apart from an organ recital, since.  My trip coincided with a 12 o’clock short service of a psalm, and readings Micah and a bit of Saint Mark. I spoke to the assistant minister who had taken the service, and she informed me that the minister, Gillespie Macmillan, had been inducted there in 1973, which is a long time these days in the Church of Scotland!  I was helped to buy postcards at the bookshop and was helped in finding the large statue of John Knox as I made my way back out into the High Street.

I managed to find the Heart of Midlothian, which has a large heart set in the cobblestones just outside Saint Giles.  If you like the novels of Sir Walter Scott, try the Heart of Midlothian.  It’s certainly funnier than the football club of the same name.  I then crossed the High Street to the Hight Court and then crossed again across Bank Street, past Deacon Brodies (ancestor of Miss Jean Brodie) and walked up to Gladstone’s Land. 

Gladstone’s Land ( ) is a National Trust for Scotland (NTS) property and I was warmly welcomed at the entrance.  I’ve been to this building many times and had attended a recital here by the MacDonald sisters in the 1970s.  In fact, a CD has been issued with recordings made of the group, which disbanded in 1977.  A film about them was recently shown on BBC Alba.  I had another interesting tour of the house, which is an Old Town tenement built on the High Street.  The painted ceiling is beautiful and similar paintings can be found at Culross Palace (also NTS) and at Kinneil House in Bo’ness.  My recollections of the MacDonald Sisters was probably met by a polite nod by some of the guides on duty till I met Audrie Robertson, who could remember when the Saltire Society used the building. 

In a fascinating bit of zeitgeist and synchronicity, I then went further up the Lawn Market and heard a fiddler playing (busking) a typical March Strathspey and Reel.  The Strathspey was Puirt a beul : Siuthad a’ bhalaichibh.  (This is track 16 on the CD, Solas Clann Dhomhnaill, listing POPPYCD007.)  I started tapping my cane to the Strathspey and ‘wheeeeched’ with delight as the fiddler (violinist) shifted from 3/8 tempo to 4/4, which is reel time.  The reel was ‘Deil amang the Tailors’ (The Devil among the Tailors) and the cound of the fiddle and my cane tapping the cobblestones attracted a bigger crowd (footfall).  I chatted with him afterwards and he played some more and I hope his takings had gone up. 

I then hit the Castle Esplanade and walked through the temporary tattoo seating, which was being dismantled and approached Edinburgh Castle.  This will be the subject of a separate post.  On my way back to the High street I stopped at the Hub and found the staff very helpful.  I enjoyed some coffee and had a Cranachan Pavlova, that’s a raspberry cream meringue.  It was beautifully laid out as if it were a coat of arms with a bend argent on a field sable.  This was actually icing sugar on a black plate with a white meringue topped with cream and a geometric design of raspberries.  A real treat! 

I then went down the High Street and turned left down Bank Street and the Mound and along Princes Street, catching a bus at the West End.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland* is located in Chambers Street on the south side and connects to the University of Edinburgh quadrangle near the Georgian Gallery, which is so beautifully described in the Pandora’s Light Box project designed by Artlink and to be found at the Talbot Rice Gallery.  In the poem connected with two of the rooms, much is made of the precursor of what was to become the Royal Scottish Museum in Chamber Sstreet and recently re-opened as part of the National Museum of Scotland connecting through to the relatively new Museum of Scotland. 

This refurbished museum brings together most of the collections from ‘Chamber Street’ and ‘Queen Street’ museums, as they were known in Edinburgh.  When I was at school, we were taken to both museums and on a rainy day I would be parked there by parents and relatives while they went shopping in The Bridges, which in the early 1960s had a large selection of department stores – all of which have gone.  The old Royal Scottish Museum was thus a place of excitement, entertainment and no doubt some learning.  I can remember coming back from a holiday in Fife with some fossils (ammonites) and being told by my (Morningside) teacher to take them to the museum for identification.  This the museum unfailingly did and it is good to know that the curators are still engaged in teaching all-comers.   I had made a quick reccy with a sighted friend on how to gain entry into the building (it’s not obvious if you’re blind!), so: enter via basement.  It’s flush with street level at Chamber Street.  Glass door opens when you press button, which is not obvious. 

I knew I had to go up one level by stairs to get to the Great Gallery, which has been lovingly restored.  I could make out the fine metal work gallery supports and the natural lighting in the building.   I wandered around the ground floor and eventually found someone who got me one of the guards.   This proves that you can walk in and you will safely run into someone with a walkie talkie in case you missed the help desk.  There are information desks, but I couldn’t remember where they were.

One of the guards mentioned some restored exhibits such as the drinking water fountain which had been cleaned up and restored and I can vaguely remember it from the past.  It looks stunning with the fine metal work exposed in original colours.  I asked to be taken to the old locomotive section, and met many old ‘friends’ I had come across in the late 1950s-early 60s.  The guard told me that they were still in the process of bringing back objects which had been in storage in Granton.  My Buddha was on display, but the pendulum which had been suspended from the roof had yet to be put back. 

I knew that there was tour at 3pm as the help desk on my reccy had suggested this would give a good taste of the floor layout and that the guides were used to dealing with some people with sight loss.  This turned out to be the case and the guide suggested that I be adopted by others in the group, just in case we got lost in the museum.  The tour starts at The Lighthouse Light (from Inchkeith) and lasts about 1 hour.  The first exhibit was from the geology of Scotland starting with some Lewisian Gneiss (about 3 billion years old) which are some of the oldest rocks in the world.   The guide explained the story of James Hutton, father of geology. I studied geology and knew all about Hutton’s unconformities having been to one on the Island of Arran.   The guide invited me to touch some of the agglomerate rocks and we were all invited to touch the glacial cutting and striations of some of the rocks which illustrate Scotland’s glaciation eras (responsible for Edinburgh Castle Rock and Royal Mile).   A silver horde which had been discovered in Traprain Law was described and some people in the group asked about the source of the silver as no Scottish silver deposits had been exploited at the time. 

I could then make out the Crammond Lion, consisting of a Roman lion with a barbarian in its mouth.  It was found by a Crammond ferryman in the mud of the River Almond. (I can remember going across this in a ferry when we would walk all the way from Crammond through the Dalmeny Estate to South Queensferry.  There is an interesting historical society in Crammond with frequent exhibitions.)    There were more exhibits of Celtic and Norse silverware and jewellery.   The highlight of this is the Monymusk reliquary.  ( )  I was able to compare this object with those I had ‘seen’ at the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum.  This section of the museum requires sunglasses as far as I am concerned.  There’s a lot of white wall space and it can be dazzling. 

An important landmark within the gallery space is the Corryvreckan tapestry.  (see )  It's in very bright red and provides a brief moment of glare relief.  The tapestry is beautiful and I could make out some of the red circular detail on my peripheral vision.  There is a bit of a wow factor about it!  It’s also a useful landmark when in the exhibition areas if you’re on your own.
We were next taken to a model of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.  The lighthouse, in the River Tay estuary, is the oldest lighthouse in continuous use.  The Bell Rock has a fascinating history.  There were then visits to some products from the Carron ironworks, an important part of the history of the industrial revolution.  This early factory, together with the chemical works and mining works in the Fife and Lothians areas, gave much of the prosperity of those active in the Scottish Enlightenment.  The Carronworks made guns for ships (the Carronade) and also produced telephone boxes and pillar boxes.

The tour ended with a display of some furniture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and some of the pieces from Mrs Cranston’s tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow (Sauchie is a Scots word for willow, so the willow pattern features as a design).  There is also a display of Wemyss pottery, which was produced in Fife and is now quite valuable owing to the low temperature glaze due to high lead content and inevitable cracking. 

The tour ends near the step to the roof garden.  You have to be reasonably fit to go on this tour as there are steps to climb and it can be fast moving.  It was a good idea for me to have been adopted by a charming couple from the south coast of England, who had spent a week on Shetland and wanted to see the Saint Ninian’s Isle findings which were in the museum.  They kindly escorted me to the roof garden, where we did a 360 degree tour of the panorama of the city.  I was able to make out: the Castle, The Hub (Highland  St John’s), Saint Giles, Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, McEwan Hall, George Heriot's School and Greyfriars Kirk.  I said goodbye to the English couple who were doing the festival theatre and opera and hoped they enjoyed Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which was running at the Festival Theatre in a performance by the Kirov conducted by Valery Gergiev. 

A guard approached me and asked if I needed help and wanted to go anywhere else.  At this point I realised that the museum obviously has an effective relay system which can identify a blind person on their own.  I wanted to visit other items I could remember and so was taken to another landmark, which is a racing car (I think I remember when this was put here).  I asked about seeing some of the Lewis chess pieces as I had been to an exhibition the year before, when much of the collection had been assembled for the first time since they were found on the Isle of Lewis.  ( )

Next was The Maiden, a guillotine which used to be on display in Queen Street and apparently medical students still get up to pranks with it on occasions!  There was also some Mary Queen of Scots memorabilia which a guard suggested I might find interesting as we spoke about the refurbishment of Stirling Castle which I had recently visited. If there is something of specific interest, a curator can be found to help you and even arrange for you to ‘examine’ it, though this is obviously best done with a bit of forward planning.

In summary, this is a fascinating museum which has only recently been refurbished and reopened.  It brings back many, many happy memories from my childhood and it works very well if you wander in as a member of the public and enjoy a pleasant hour or two finding out something new and reacquainting yourself with some of the past.  I found all the guards interesting to talk to and very keen to hear of memories of people when they were children growing up in Edinburgh.  Although as children we were occasionally chased away by the grumpy guards in the 1960s, it was probably because our behaviour was appalling in retrospect.  Although the kids today might still be described as appalling the guards were certainly not grumpy (or perhaps our concept of grumpiness has changed).

(1st September, 2011)

*National Museum of Scotland:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Anton Henning exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery: Artlink in action

UPDATE: 1/1/2012

On BBC Radio 4 there is an arts programme titled "Saturday Review" chaired by Tom Sutcliffe.  On radio, Tom had asked listeners to nominate their art events of 2011.  I was able to tweet Tom at @tds153 almost instantly and we had some Twitter exchange and I was delighted that the Anton Henning exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery and my cane's encounter with the carpet in the Anton Henning Interior installation was mentioned.   It's also worth noting that the Gerhard Richter exhibition was described by Giles Fraser.  My own comments on Gerhard Richter can be found on:

The programme was broadcast on 24/12/2011 and a podcast can be downloaded on:

** end of update

On September 1st, I did my first ever solo walk as a blind person in my hometown of Edinburgh.  It felt strange but familiar.  I had arranged to go to a talk organised by Artlink with the Talbot Rice Gallery at the Anton Henning exhibition.  I was there quite early and found the gallery without using the lift!  I chatted with the gallery staff and discussed the exhibition again.  A sighted person might sum it up as "visual overload", but I found that I enjoyed it, given that my vision is restricted to peripheral vision with lack of colour definition most of the time. 

The group gathered and we had a 90 minute run through the exhibition, led by Zoe Fothergill of the gallery.  Susan Humble from Artlink was there and as we sat in our folding seats I had a vision of Miss Jean Brodie giving her creme de la creme pupils a talk on her favourite painter (reference The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark which is set in Edinburgh). 

Barry Didcock from The Herald covered the talk and wrote it up in the edition of September 3rd, page 12.  I bought up the supplies of The Herald in the local village shop!  I am posting the machine readable version in text format (supplied kindly by Susan Humble of Artlink) as well as an image of the full page on which the article appeared (supplied kindly as a pdf file by Barry Didcock).

This illustrates different perceptions of the visual arts as experienced by two sight conditions.  I have no central vision and while appreciating that the exhibit title Pin-up No. 154 was a nude (shock, horror!), I couldn't make any great distinction regarding taste when compared with the other painting Venus etc.  However, one of the members of Artlink with a different eye condition could make out more detail.

This was my third visit to the Talbot Rice Gallery and a wonderful exhibition and a great start to my first solo walk in Edinburgh.  The next visits were to the Dovcot Gallery, where Emily took me round the tapestry exhibition, and also thanks to Richard from the cafe for recognising me from a previous visit.  The coffee is indeed highly recommended as is the service!

I then went to the National Museum of Scotland in Chamber Street and had a wonderful visit there just by walking in unplanned.  I will report on this in a separate post.

Edinburgh Galleries open up to the visually impaired

Arts group conducts visitors on detailed descriptive tours

Barry Didcock

In an Edinburgh gallery, an argument has broken out in front of a painting called Pin-up No.154.

It shows a woman on her back, legs slightly apart, a slice of cucumber on each eye.  She isn’t wearing anything else.

Rita Simpson hates it. “This one is portraying women as sailors would see them,” says the feisty 60-year-old.  “The more I stare at it, the more I dislike it.”

She turns and points to the wall behind her, where a less confrontational nude hangs. “This is a beautiful painting.” She turns back to Pin-up No 154: “This is an abuse of women.”

Douglas Hutchison doesn’t agree and says so. Others in their small group nod or shake their heads or simply peer at the image.  Curator Zoe Fothergill listens with interest.

Just another day at the capital’s Talbot Rice Gallery? Up to a point.  Look again, though, and it becomes apparent that both Ms Simpson and Mr Hutchison are clutching foldable white sticks.  Ms Simpson also has a pair of thick sunglasses ready to slip on when the light becomes too bright.

The debate about the relative merits of Pin-up No 154 has followed a detailed description of it by Ms Fothergill.  Like the four others in the group, Mr Hutchison and Ms Simpson are visually impaired and are here as part of an event called In The Frame.  It’s organised by Artlink Edinburgh, an arts access organisation which takes visually-impaired people round art galleries where they are given descriptive tours by curators such as Zoe Fothergill.

“If you walk round a gallery normally, it’s just like being in a hospital, very clinical,” says Ms Simpson.

“But once you get the feel of it by someone expressing what if looks like and how it feels, it gives you such an idea of it that you’re in a totally different world altogether.”

Only about 13% of her vision is clear, she says. “Colours are difficult, depending on what they are.  I can’t see anything at the side or above or below.  It’s like tunnel-vision to me.”

For her and the other Artlink participants, events like this really do bring another dimension to the art.

Last month, Artlink visited The Queen’s Gallery, where Ms Simpson was among a seven-strong group given a descriptive tour of an exhibition of paintings by Northern Renaissance painters Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein.  Today it’s a man with a very different artistic vision: 47 year old German painter and sculptor Anton Henning, who has carpeted the downstairs gallery and decorated the walls in a maelstrom of pastel shades.
One of the first things Zoe Fothergill does is describe the scene.

“There’s a riot of colour in this place,” she says.  “It’s as if someone has gone into the tester pots at B&Q and gone completely wild.”

Mr Hutchison, an Edinburgh native now resident in London, is on his first Artlink gallery tour though he’s a regular on similar schemes in England. Using speech recognition software on his computer he runs a blog, profwhitestick, in which he comments on life as a visually-impaired person.
He also paints and shows me postcards of some of his work.

“Abstract art is difficult to explain to those that can’t see, whereas landscapes and portraits you can imagine,” he says.

“Old Masters are familiar to me, but these are paintings I’ve never seen.”
“We’ve been doing tours like this for seven years,” says Susan Humble,

Artlink’s audience development officer. “We have about 200 clients supported by 130 volunteers.”

Several Edinburgh galleries now run tours for the visually impaired as a matter of course. But, Ms Humble admits, “this is the first time we’ve had explicit nudity on an audio-descriptive tour.” Nobody seems to mind.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Stirling: day trip by train from Alloa

Stirling is a pleasant town to visit and can be accessed easily by train.  I wanted to use the relatively newly reopened section of railway from Alloa which is in Clackmannanshire. 

At Aloa Station
© Professor Whitestick

This section of the railway has been reopened with an hourly service to Stirling and on to Glasgow Queen Street.  The journey passes through the foothills of the Ochil Hills and the Wallace Monument could be made out at Bridge of Allan as the line joins the main Stirling – Perth line and crosses the River Forth into Stirling Station.  Stirling is the tidal limit of the River Forth and was the historic bridge crossing point. 

The station has several island platforms connected by bridge, though there is also lift access from the platform to the bridge.  There are ticket controlled gates and though tempted did not use my London Freedom Pass!  There is a very friendly information office in Stirling station and staff assembled a good selection of timetables for me and answered any questions I had. 

I couldn’t make out the castle, though the old town is a short walk from a tactile crossing outside the station.  Stirling still has cobbled streets and on climbing you pass by a Mercat Cross with the unicorn on a column and a circular monument.  The unicorn is known as a ‘puggy’ and it was a tradition in Stirling for people to gather during certain festivities and get rather drunk.  My mother used to use the expression ‘as fu’ as a puggy’  This was a more polite description of someone who had far too much to drink and I had always assumed that a puggy was a dog until someone read out the notice at the Mercat Cross.  Further up, on the right is Argyle Lodge, which is closed.  I reached the castle esplanade and car park and it was remarked that there were coaches from as far as the Czech Republic and one could hear many European languages spoken.

The access to the castle is relatively free of the tourist tack shops which can spoil a visit in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  Stirling gives a better idea of what life was really like in a medieval Scottish town without resorting to ghost stories, storytelling, excessive bagpipe music and £35 kilts on offer.  There is a bus shuttle from the town centre to the castle, but we didn’t take this.   It seemed that very few people actually walked up, having obviously come by coach, car or bus.

Stirling Castle resembles Edinburgh Castle, and there is often some confusion in identifying the two from photographs, bearing in mind that both castles were in continuous military use – in Stirling’s case until the mid-60s.  The ‘crag and tail’ geology of both ‘Castle Rocks’ is the same, the tail being the glacial debris in the direction of the ice.  Historically, whoever controlled Stirling Castle controlled Scotland on account of the mountains, hills and river systems.  Many battles were fought here including Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn with such figures as William Wallace, King Robert the Bruce and several King Edwards of England. 

Now much of the modern period military vandalism of Stirling has been discarded and the castle property has been refitted to its 16th century glory during the reigns of King James IV and King James V (father of Mary, Queen of Scots).  It was opened as a Royal Palace by The Queen in July 2011.  The Great Hall looks stunning, especially in sunshine and against a blue sky.  The refurbishment has not been without controversy and has been compared with a theme park by some critics. 

I found all the staff very approachable, especially asking about James II’s killing of the Douglas family.  This is a defenestration mystery. There is an exhibition of the Stirling Heads which have been restored.  These are beautiful wooden carvings, though they can’t be touched.

Replicas of the 'Stirling Heads'
© Professor Whitestick

Tip: It’s worthwhile getting an Historic Scotland pass as an accompanying carer goes free.  The audio guide is just about accessible and the staff gave instructions on the settings, though there is a frequent problem of finding the number of the given exhibit if you wander off the prescribed route.  It is possible to tag on to a tour, though I would recommend that anyone not dressed as a tourist can be approached, especially if wearing a Mary Queen of Scots or King James outfit!  Historic Scotland staff are all well-trained.   

To cap off the visit, we enjoyed a very pleasant fish tea at La Ciociara in the town centre.  There is a large covered shopping mall called the Thistles if you are in need of retail therapy.  If you need a nice coffee, I would advise you to get one before you get to the station! 

Having been to Stirling before, I couldn’t make out the Great Hall from the station, as the light had become poor and the sky was by now overcast – though I know it’s there!  On previous visits I have been able to make out the Ochil Hills and the foothills of the Highlands, but it was a mixture of a not so good eyes day and changing light. 

Stirling bus and train stations both have good links to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Inverness and London.  It is still an important railway junction and quite busy, with the Alloa-Stirling service well used by commuters from all over.  Return from Alloa to Stirling with a Railcard is £2.10. 

Alloa station is located in a pedestrian area with many tactile crossings to and from Alloa centre and a large supermarket with cafĂ©/restaurants.  Reminder: the train service is hourly and Alloa is the end station.  Buying tickets is via a machine only, though there is a conductor on the train.

Day trip to Glasgow, Riverside Museum and GoMA

There is constant rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow and the cities are separated by 44 miles, though in many ways it could be many more miles or even a song from The Proclaimers!   I can remember the old steam trains that went to Glasgow from Edinburgh Waverley, then a gradual replacement to diesel and faster connections in the 1970s. 

This is still a very busy route and there are several ways to go from both cities.  There are two routes from Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Central: one via Carstairs Junction and another via Shotts.  Technically there are an additional three routes to Glasgow Queen Street with services on the new electrified line via Bathgate to Queen Street low level; and services via two Falkirk loops to Queen Street higher level.  (In addition, I can remember being shunted around Larbert and ending up going backwards into Queen Street in the past). 

Current journey times are around 50 – 70 minutes.  With a disability card, an off-peak day return costs £7.55 bought from a ticket machine – using a sighted person’s eyes and card, of course!  There are restrictions with this fare, such as returning from Glasgow to Edinburgh by certain trains and times.  I wanted to go on the new service via Bathgate which joins up an old railway link which had been a goods line and gradually rebuilt and reopened in stages.

We caught the 12:07 from Edinburgh Waverley.  The weather seemed ok at the time, but after emerging from the tunnel at Haymarket it started raining.  (For those who are familiar with the tram saga in Edinburgh, there was a proposal for the tram connection to stop at Haymarket.  In other words passengers would have to get off at Haymarket which will cause many a grin, as this is an Edinburgh euphemism for something quite different.)  The final destination - and top marks to Scotrail telephone information service on this - is Milngavie, though this is pronounced as MILL GUY.  All Scotrail services which I have used have automatic station announcements and apart from one trip a helpful guard has been available. 

On travelling through Edinburgh I could make out familiar landmarks such as Murrayfield stadium, Corstorphine Hill, and what seemed the track bed of the old suburban line to Corstorphine which was closed in the 1960s.  Uphall station was the first stop beyond Edinburgh, then passing through Bathgate station which had been a dead end.  Intermediate stations which were not served on this train included Armadale, Caldercruix and Blackridge with a pretty loch along the way.  The train did stop at Airdrie and Coatbridge Sunnyside and then sped through the eastern part of Glasgow into High Street and then Glasgow Queen Street lower level, which is where I got off. 

I went upstairs to the main Queen Street terminus station and could last remember coming here in 1990 when Glasgow was European capital of culture.  I even bought the t-short, ‘City of Kulchur’.  I hadn’t been to central Glasgow since then, though a few years ago had assisted in navigation between Dumbarton and Edinburgh using the Great Western Road, Queen Margaret Drive, Mary Hill and the M8.  It was at Queen Street where a very friendly member of the railway staff asked me if I needed any help.  I was wondering to myself how the West Highland line trains left and this member of staff was a real mine of information, including giving out notice of places to avoid, especially with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who were filming in George Square at that time. 

This part of Glasgow has a grid structure and is relatively easy to navigate and I could remember most of the landmarks including the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) at Royal Exchange.  This is a beautiful building both inside and outside and though it was between exhibitions, the staff were very helpful and tipped me off about the new Riverside Museum, which houses Glasgow’s Museum of Transport.   There is a lift to the top of the GoMA, and if you have any peripheral vision it’s worth looking down the ‘concentric’ oval shapes of railings on the landings between the floors.

On leaving GoMA, I continued down Queen St to Argyle Street and I could make out in the distance to the right the Highlandman’s Umbrella and headed towards it, stopping at St Enoch’s underground station.  The Glasgow underground “is the world’s third oldest Subway, opened in 1896 after only London and Budapest.  Today, it’s one of the most punctual systems in Europe and is a crucial link in Glasgow’s transport infrastructure.”  (from A Guide to the Subway published by the SPT,  I was discussing going round the circular system at the ticket office when the ticket office staff suggested that I could readily visit the new Glasgow transport collection in the Riverside Museum, about 15 minutes walk from Partick station, so we took the train to Partick and found the Riverside Museum using a series of tactile crossings. 

Whitestick points the way!

There is a very warm welcome at the entry to the Museum, which is free, and floor plans are available and though there is no audio tour yet, all the staff are more than happy to guide and suggest items of interest.  The collection isn’t quite complete, but the main attractions for me were some of the old Caledonian Railway and North British Railway locomotives and the Glasgow trams which I remembered from the museum when it was based in Albert Drive in South Glasgow in the 1970s.  The collection has used original rolling stock from the subway system imaginatively.

Inside one of the original carriages.

The Riverside Museum ( was designed by Zaha Hadid and is situated between the River Kelvin and the River Clyde.  An interesting feature is the mixture of sound recordings with wonderful eaves dropping and jaw dropping conversations, including two girls talking about ‘getting off on a lumber’!  There are many interactive and touch screen points, but I found it was best to submerge ones self sitting in an underground railway car or on a tram and listening to both the recordings and video images flash by within the cars.  I made a rash comment about the only thing missing from the subway train was its distinctive smell, only for some wisecrack to reply "it was alright until you came in here.”  This sort of repartee is common in Glasgow and many people, young and old, were giving their collective memory a good backup. 

Reminiscing with other visitors

This is a very imaginative collection and though it’s not complete, will repay many visits.  The bookshop has some interesting publications, though for probably copyright reasons there are no facsimiles of some of the transport maps available.    I’m sure I have a Glasgow Corporation transport map from the 1960s somewhere showing the trolley bus routes. I remember seeing a trolley bus whose ‘antennae’ had come off the power rails and the driver had to remove a large pole from under the trolley bus and pull the sprung pantograph back into line.  The trolley buses were known as ‘silent death’ or ‘silent killer’ as they were so quiet and I remarked to the museum staff who were sharing the story that there was a plan in London to put hybrid buses in Oxford Street, which is of some concern to the visually impaired.  Needless to say, there was some good humoured banter at the expense of the Edinburgh tram saga, which had unfolded during the day of my visit (25th August). 

We then returned to Partick Interchange and took the Scotrail service into Glasgow Central lower level (£1.05 with Railcard) and ascended to the upper level terminus station.  Listening to the destinations being announced with some of the Glasgow place names always gives some amusement.  Glasgow has some of the largest suburban train networks in the UK after London and I couldn’t resist smiling when the train to Barrhead was announced, stopping at Nitshill and Crossmyloof.  I remember using suburban railway services in Glasgow while visiting relatives in Ayrshire and we would be met/dropped off at Giffnock when travelling by train or Moscow when travelling by bus, from the old Clyde Street bus station which was nearby. 

There was a Rangers match on the day of our visit and there were announcements that congestion was to be expected in the Ibrox area on the Subway.  We caught the 19:05 train to Edinburgh (the old Caley line which stopped at Bellshill and Shotts).  There is a large shopping area in St Enoch’s/Argyle Street.  This seemed to be a popular train for people shopping in Glasgow as it's one of the early trains with a restricted ticket.  There are small windows on the train which were suddenly closed as we experienced the odour of muck spreading in the mid Calder area.  For those who have some sensory deprivation, this was an added ‘bonus’ not fully appreciated by some!