Sad stories of the death of kings

One day in late July I was driving home from Northumberland. I was still south of the river Tweed on some unremarkable road when I spotted a sign pointing towards the site of the Battle of Flodden. I knew about Flodden but I had not realised I would be passing right by it and I had not planned to visit. Therefore, as often happens when driving, a potentially interesting thing just whizzed by and I thought: “Nah, too late now”, and carried on until a couple of miles later I saw another sign. Clearly, this sign was a sign now, so turned my dinky rental car to where it directed me.

Reminiscent of changing the guard at a remote watch tower I arrived at the battle memorial as a lone cyclist was leaving. We exchanged our good mornings and I was left gazing over the fields, cows, streams and the nearby village with my hands stuffed in my pockets. The monument was on a peaceful hill where the mild breeze carried nothing but the chirps of birds and the distant sounds of rural life.

FloddenI studied the information board and worked out where the Scottish troops were positioned on 9th September 1513. We lost a king that day. Slightly to my left on the high ground opposite was James IV, and the low ground in front of me was where everything then turned into carnage with earls, lords, knights, their sons and nameless soldiers being slaughtered by their thousands alongside James, the last king on the British Isles to die in battle.

And a curious thing: I felt a gust of sadness blow through me. That should not have happened. The battle was fought over 500 years ago by people that were not my kin at the borders of a country I am relatively new to. And yet I was sad for the King and his men.

Flodden kept returning to my mind in the following weeks. I thought that somehow the stop by the battlefield had a place here among my favourite things despite being rather more sombre than my usual encounters with all things ancient.

Evidence is accumulating that reading fiction develops empathy in children improving attitudes towards outgroups, and neuroscience is beginning to explore how fiction could wire our brains to better understand others. I was thinking that if made-up stories can give us such perspective, then surely history will too when it’s told right. Analysis is all well and good, but evidently the dusty old monuments and crubmling historic sites at the ends of bumpy roads in the outskirts of nowhere can have the same effect as fiction: they are there to supplement the facts with imagination and the tangible human story even when it is terrible, unjust, brutal or sad.

That “the North remembers”, as it were, must be why the Battle of Flodden belongs with the things that make me happy: that the site is looked after, that it is protected, that it is not forgotten; that in its own small way it is there to evoke empathy and perspective, both of which the world would seem to desperately need.


Putts askew

“I like words” is a statement that undoubtedly goes to the same pile with “I have always liked colours” and “I have always quite fancied breathing”, but it is also true. I do like words. Learning new ones is rewarding: new words are like rare nuggets of silver that I find when shifting through the everyday muck of common parlance. Sometimes I am astonished that I have made it so far in life without knowing a word like ‘ramekin’ or ‘pernicious’, but at other times it isn’t at all surprising that I find my vocabulary lacking: I have had no reason, for instance, to discuss architecture in any detail. But it just so happens that I like buildings too – old ones – and I have made a modest effort to learn to date Scottish houses by their appearance. Some architectural features, as it turns out, have the best names, which only adds to my enjoyment.

Very soon after moving to the East Neuk I learned what crowstepped gables are. There are crowstepped gables everywhere, and they do not just look attractive but come with such a good name to boot: ‘crowstep’ immediately evokes the image of a bird stepping smartly up and down between the chimney stack and the gutter, humming to himself as he paces in his fashionably tailored feather suit.

There’s also no mistaking why a catslide dormer is called a catslide dormer. Imagine cats ruling the roofscape, patrolling the pantiles cool as they please until…

But my absolute favourite has to be skewputt. I don’t know why I find the word so funny but when I learned that the structural stones with sharply protruding lips in the meeting points of wall heads, gable ends and roofs are called skewputts, I went out for a walk around the village just to look at them thinking: “There’s another skewputt! He he he! Skewputt!”

Catslide dormer

Here’s a catslide dormer lurking in the shadows, and a crowstepped gable with a skewputt for good measure.


This decorated skewputt belongs to the crowstepped customshouse in Crail…


…but in this building the functional shape of the skewputt is clearly visible.

There’s a saying in Finland: “Lunatics have cheap pastimes.” Collecting good words is indeed affordable entertainment, and if that makes me an eccentric… Ach, well.

Visible spectrum

You know those days when you are feeling a bit sorry for yourself and end up watching video clips of dogs greeting their owners after a long absence, or people with cochlear implants hearing for the first time? I had a day like that and wandered into the corner of the internet where people with colour vision deficiency try on glasses that help in separating wavelengths – typically perceived as reds and greens – that to them seem similar and perhaps quite dull.

That made me think of what it would really be like to see colour for the first time had my world been, say, entirely greyscale like in the movie Pleasantville.

I have always liked colours. (And I do realise saying so is rather like stating the blindingly obvious along the lines of: “I have always quite fancied breathing.” But bear with me.) When I was little I would sometimes pilfer my father’s wall paint colour charts out of the cupboard just to look at the neat rows of dozens and dozens of hues. I tried to decide on favourites but never quite managed. It was more the overall effect that pleased me: the way the colours rhymed like poetry; flawless poetry one could read forwards or backwards.

I do not, however, surround myself with lots and lots of bright colours. Quite the opposite: I prefer my home neutral so I can change the colours of the rooms according to season with little effort. I like my colours in meaningful portions, and I like them to match. I have a hard time wearing colours that don’t go together: if I ever have to, I feel awkward and uncomfortable.

And then, occasionally, I enjoy a recharge: being immersed in flaming colours whether they come as art, as sunsets or as flowers. Which is why this is as good a time as any to keep a promise I made two years ago:

South-African spring turns the rough and arid terrain into a festival of blooms. On a good flower year the hillsides are awash with the fiercest shades of orange, yellow and purple, and one day I will show you pictures of it because it truly is a sight to see.

Behold, the fiercest shades of orange, yellow and purple:



Namaqua National Park

Goegap Nature Reserve

Goegap Nature Reserve

Goegap Nature Reserve

I thought: imagine if I had never experienced those. Imagine, if I had seen a pasty Pleasantville field instead of the boisterous symphony of colour that is spring in Namaqualand. But I have seen it in all its exuberance because I have the full visible spectrum at my disposal.

I felt a little less sorry for myself.


Broken windows to the past

It is no news to anyone that I have a weakness for medieval buildings, and I believe I have left an unambiguous record of how much I like them even when they are in ruins. But I have surprised myself with how excited I get about very, very fragmentary remains of them.

One spring day I was touring the York Minster. From the vantage point of the central tower I feasted my eyes in the amazing city walls and gates with the 15th century portcullises still in place; in the ancient streets criss-crossing the patchwork of tiled roofs, and of course in the masonry of the stunning minster itself. And then I looked this way:

YorkSee that thing left of the tree that has just turned green? On the back wall of that brick building? When I spotted it, I stopped in my tracks and thought: “Holy sh*t, is that a 12th century window?” I probably said that out loud as well. I mean, I will admit I am no expert, but just look at it!

C12th window

Intriguing, is it not?

The window was like a scab that was left behind when two buildings from different centuries that had been joined together with mortar were ripped apart again. It seemed as if it were about to dry up and fall down any day. Despite having the whole town at my feet, it was this tatter of an arch I returned to gaze at more than once.

Some weeks later, back on my side of the Hadrian wall, I made a point of visiting the Scottish Fisheries Museum. It is only ten minutes away from home, and yet I had never darkened its doorway. I browsed the exhibitions educating myself about boats and the lives of herring lasses, but it was this oddment in the inner courtyard that captured my attention:

Scottish Fisheries Museum

Excuse me, but what is this doing here?

I thought: “Holy sh*t, is that a 13th century window?” It reminded me of the shattered double lancet I had seen in Aberdour Castle (and yes, I must admit the style of the window there was probably too late for Ada de Warenne to ever have looked through it but it was a nice thought. Anyway…). I stood below the out-of-place stonework pondering at it probably for longer than the busiest tourists spend at the Colosseum.

I may have surprised myself at first but I do know why I did that. It was because of the mystery. There is a story to what these buildings were, what happened to them and why these sorry shreds of them have survived to this day. Only it is the story of the characters who can no longer speak: these windows are their eyes that say: “Can you hear me?” But I can’t. That’s the mystery. And who isn’t fascinated by mysteries?

Country commute

I spend nearly an hour on the bus every working day. What I do with that time has evolved through several phases. First I thought I should make the most of my commute by reading work-related publications. Well, that phase didn’t last long. I moved onto non-fiction, then fiction, and on winter evenings I have opted for listening to music: Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto covers the journey one way.

For quite a while now I have been happy to just look out of the window thinking about nothing much, and engaging in a bit of casual drive-by wildlife spotting. Buzzards are a common sight over East Neuk, and so are herring gulls, wood pigeons, rooks and carrion crows. It is also a rare day indeed when I don’t see pheasants feeding and breaking into comedy sprints if anything alarms them. Whilst curlews dotted the fields in the winter, spring brought lapwings to replace them. Sometimes there have been more starlings than you could shake a stick at.

Herons make me smile because they look like slightly hunched old-school spies glancing furtively from behind the upturned collars of their long trench coats. Yesterday I saw ten herons gathered where there are usually only one of two. Spies don’t go to conventions, do they?

Rabbits do not surprise me at all, and roe deer make an appearance every once in a while, but I have seen only one red deer from the bus window, and only one fox.

On the days when I make the journey on my bicycle I have enough time and resolution to focus on the smaller creatures. I can hear them too. Larks that started singing already in February still insist on belting their verses from the skies. Flocks of chattering goldfinches cross the road right in front of me, house sparrows chirp in the hedges, pied wagtails hop on and off the dykes, and yellowhammer after yellowhammer places an order for “little bit of bread and nooooo cheeeeeese!” Now that spring is turning into summer I can also smell the fresh green leaves, the flowering rowan trees and the rapeseed fields, and suddenly pedalling to town before eight in the morning no longer seems like such a bother.

Easter Balrymonth

I do sometimes wish I could just be where I need to be in ten minutes. But then I would not have that hour every day when I have a legitimate reason to just be.


Behind the canvas

There are a number of ways different artists have become “my” artists. A few of them live in my village, and some appear every year at the Pittenweem Arts Festival. One or two of my artists are family members, others I’ve learned about by accident, and then of course there are, for instance, the big names of the Finnish golden era whose work I remember studying and copying at school. But Fife artist Sophie McKay Knight has captured my attention in a unique way.

Last winter my university hosted a series of informal meetings where women scientists from all career phases got together to discuss, well, being women scientists and all that goes with it. Sophie McKay Knight was there to listen to us and to learn about our research; she then went on to create a series of images interpreting the themes that interested her about our work and our lives. The pieces were exhibited in St Andrews a year ago, but I was reminded of them again when the news reached us that Hidden Learning was a prize winner in this year’s Wellcome Image Awards.

Hidden Learning by Sophie McKay Knight

Hidden Learning by Sophie McKay Knight (mixed media, 2016; with kind permission of the artist)

I remember stopping by Hidden Learning at the exhibition because I recognised myself in it. Hidden Learning is not a likeness of any sort but it explores “what women feel they keep hidden in the work environment”, and that rang a bell. Although I have never bothered with disguising who I am as a person, I have always felt like a pretender among real scientists. And although good science is done with integrity, honesty and self-criticism, there are still instances when one has to dress it all up and put a bow on top, and that does not sit well with me. Particularly when applying for funding I have had the uneasy feeling of shrouding my true professional self in a polished sugar molecule veil.

The image I identified with the most, however, was Dulcet Breath. I stood in front of it for a good while thinking: that’s exactly how I feel almost all the time! I have often described my head as a Tardis: so much bigger on the inside. My head is never quiet. Several strands of thought (which are not revelations on how to cure cancer, you understand, just a jumble of the interesting and the mundane and their unpredictable tangents) are always weaving past each other in there. There was something introverted about the woman in Dulcet Breath: her closed eyes and slightly tilted head reminded me of those days when the sheer weight and noise of constant thought corner me into inactivity and insulate me from everything else.

Dulcet Breath by Sophie McKay Knight

Dulcet Breath by Sophie McKay Knight (mixed media, 2016; with kind permission of the artist)

Still, what I found most remarkable about Sophie McKay Knight’s work was what happened before any paint touched canvas. Particularly in a time when it seems women are again treated as second class people, and scholarship and expertise are mocked and equated with elitism or detachment from whatever each individual believes to be reality, it amazed me that someone ‘from the outside’ was genuinely interested in the world of women scientists – my world – and wanted to see who we are and hear what we had to say.

It’s a rare thing, being heard.

Ada was here, part III

Ada de Warenne, countess of Northumberland, outlived her husband, Henry of Scotland, by 26 years. Henry died on the 12th of June in 1152, and was buried shortly after in Kelso Abbey, a Tironesian monastery his father David I had founded across the river from his castle at Roxburgh. In the odd idle hour I have wondered whether Ada missed her husband. Did she like him? Did they get along? The passing of over 800 years has erased all clues of how Ada felt, but I thought with a bit of reading and poking I might be able to figure out whether Ada could have been at Henry’s funeral.

Kelso Abbey

The west end of the Abbey church survives as ruin, but the east end where Henry’s grave must have been is all gone.

The itinerary of David I shows that he attended his son’s funeral, and some charters Ada witnessed place her at the king’s court for at least some time between 1150 and 1152. Admittedly that is very little to go on. Still, for better or worse Ada was married to Henry and they were both public figures, so why would she not have been among the mourners at Kelso?

Pregnancy would have reduced travel and public appearances if you happened to be a 12th century countess. One of Ada’s daughters, Matilda, died the same year as Henry. Some sources suggest Matilda only lived for months, so it is just possible that Ada would have been expecting and off other duties in the summer of 1152. On the other hand, based on one line in one article I read, Matilda could have been as old as six years at the time of her father’s death. So, all in all, as diverting as they were to poke at, Ada’s whereabouts during Henry’s funeral remain a mystery to me.

Kelso Abbey, north-west transept

Bummer. I would have liked to know for sure whether Ada was here.

A few years after Henry’s death Ada rolled up her financial sleeves and founded a Cistercian nunnery on her lands in Haddington. The ruin of St Martin’s Church that belonged to the nunnery still stands there, and because Ada lived in Haddington, I am willing to bet that here, at least, Ada has been:

St Martin's Church

(…although the original chapel was later greatly altered. The buttresses, for instance, seem to be a 13th century addition.)

And where is she now? Ada died in 1178 but the place of her burial is not on record. However, as the Finns say: “Evidence points to the brawn factory”. A seriously loaded medieval person would have installed a nice group of monks or nuns of their own in a wee priory or nunnery, or at least they would have endowed a monastic establishment so generously that it would have bought them a grave near the altar of the church and professional prayers for their soul in perpetuity. And hey, presto; enter St Mary’s nunnery in Haddington! I’m going to hazard a guess that this unassuming field where Ada’s nunnery stood is also her final resting place:

Site of St Mary's nunnery in Haddington

Obviously it greatly irks me that not a single stone of the nunnery survives, at least not above ground. I mean, the place only closed 400 years ago…

In the odd idle hour I still wonder about her, though. Was she missed, was she liked? What was it like to be Ada de Warenne, Lady of Crail?