Leaving Scotland, we drove into the English county of Cumbria. The first major town we came to was Carlisle and this is the part of the world that was the home of my Brisco(e) ancestors.
The village of Brisco, named for that family, is just south of Carlisle, but about six miles south-west (on the A595) is the Village of Thursby and a little further along, just before crossing the River Wampool is the entrance to the former Crofton Hall, the family estate. This area was previously known as Cumberland.
The stone arch entrance is almost all that remains of the former elegant house and grand estate that was the home of the Brisco family from about 1400 to the early 1900s. My particular branch of the Briscoes, together with a chance in spelling moved to Ireland, probably in the 1600s, but my ancient roots are still here.
A great deal of history can be learned from local churches and graveyards, so after visiting Crofton we decided to see if there was any family history to be found in the village church at Thursby. The small St Andrew’s church offered up a real surprise because inside was the Crofton Chapel with memorials to a number of Briscos of Crofton. These were not all my direct ancestors but certainly distance relatives.
The time had come to leave Edinburgh and Scotland. The Kildonan Lodge Hotel had been our home for a total of seven nights on our two stays in Edinburgh providing a wonderful base for our brief visits exploring that City and sights in the nearby countryside.
Edinburgh also provided some culinary highlights among the best being a number of pub soups-of-the-day, a steak with wonderful peppercorn sauce at Kildonan and probably the best minestrone I have ever enjoyed at the Isola Italian restaurant.
Putting on my engineering hat, it is hard not to be impressed by the challenges of building the majestic castles at Edinburgh and Stirling, structures that will last as long as humans. But Scottish engineering always seems to throw up examples of how its people meet the challenges of their land. Modern engineering wonders would have to include the Falkirk wheel that joins two canals by lifting and
lowering boats though an elevation difference of some 35 metres, and of course the bridges over the Firth of Forth. The new road bridge is under construction and well advanced and as equally impressive as its predecessor.
Leaving Edinburgh on a beautiful clear sunny day, we took the A702 and this proved to be a most enjoyable drive. The two lane road snaked its way between the green rolling hills dotted with sheep and their new lambs in cleared fields up to the golden gorse and the heather (that is not yet in bloom). Fields are divided by dry stone walls that criss-cross and run up the steepest hills and look as though they should topple over, but these are built by experts, and to last.
The road tends to follow the valley streams and passes through numerous villages where it was almost possible to reach out and touch the old stone house.
The British love to drive and these windy roads are made for driving rather than just steering the car. Manual transmissions are most common and add to the driving experience when encountering the recurring bends and changes in speed limits through villages. I must have some British me…
Another objective on our tour was trying to track down more information about various ancestors. That was the main reasons why the Bruce girls, Margaret and Jenny, wanted to spend time in Scotland.
Great great grandfather Thomas Bruce arrived in Australia sometime between 1851 and 1865 and based on NSW marriage and death certificates we believe he was born in Perth, Scotland and his father was Alexander, a weaver. The Scottish censuses of 1851 to 1871 show an Alexander Bruce, a weaver born in Perth living in Galashiels. One of his children in the 1851 census was a Thomas, also born in Perth, but who was not with the family in later censuses. This may or may not be our Thomas.
Time did not permit any extensive family research but we were able to visit Perth and Galashiels where we believe they used to live. Perth is about an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh over the Firth of Forth bridge while Galashiels is a similar distance south in the Scottish Borders. A couple of day trips.
We decided to follow our Bruces south on Friday taking a pleasant detour via the Rosslyn Chapel. This charming little chapel has been the beneficiary of the success of Dan Brown’s novel after which the increase in tourists has funded restoration to a far better condition than otherwise.
Galashiels was a predominantly a woollen mill town in the middle of the 19th century and we were searching for No. 12 Roxburgh Street (identified in the census) where Alexander Bruce and his family lived. Roxburgh Street is still in the commercial area off the High Street and the sturdy stone buildings of No. 12 and its neighbours could be of the right age to have been the Bruce home and workshop. The local library was not able to provide further information and unfortunately the Borders Family History Society is not open on Fridays, so no further information was available on the day.
Saturday saw us off to Perth. We didn’t have any specific objective here and we just soaked up the atmosphere of this pleasant town on the River Tay. St John’s Kirk of Perth in the main church dating from the 13th century. We then planned to visit nearby Scone Palace which is where many of the kings and queens of Scotland had been crowned and resided, including Robert The Bruce.
On our driving tours we have also been following another Bruce. My TomTom from home, a present years ago from my three girls, travelled with us together with UK maps. We set up the TomTom with a distinctive Aussie voice and vernacular and naming him Bruce seemed like the obvious thing to do.
Now I expected Bruce to bring the latest GPS maps with him but it seems he didn’t. This hasn’t been a major problem but at times rather amusing as we have tended to take a more roundabout route than we should.
The Palace is almost immediately north of Perth and having been there previously I thought I knew the way but took the wrong fork in the road and ended up miles away. So we called on Bruce to guide us back to nearby this Point of Interest, and away we went.
As we approached our destination, at a T intersection we were confronted with the Gate in the high stone wall straight ahead and were directed by Bruce to proceed. It did not look familiar and as we realised later we had come in the staff and deliveries (tradesman’s) entrance. It led us to a quite large white gravelled square area at the front door of the Palace. We could see the visitor parking area in the distance behind barriers. Understanding our mistake we proceeded to do a U-turn and as we did a very official looking lady with a stern countenance emerged from the Palace glaring and heading in our direction.
We were two minds. Should we confront this staff member and say “the Bruces has arrived back home”, or beat a hasty retreat (within the 10mph speed limit, of course). We chose the latter laughing all the way.
Did I say the Orkney weather forecast was for fine weather – wrong! For our two days stay it was windy with rain squalls and cold (although there was brilliant sunshine the morning we flew back to Edinburgh). Having said that this did not deter us from having an enjoyable stay.
Let me start from a roads engineering perspective. The roads on Orkney were overall the best we’ve experienced so far anywhere on our trip. This is probably because of the smooth driving surface and also for not being subjected to heavy traffic volumes. It certainly made for pleasant driving on almost deserted roads which we did from one end of the mainland to the other. We also liked the stone pavements in the centres of the towns of Kirkwall and Stromness. These were narrow single lane thoroughfares used as much by pedestrians as vehicles. Our little hired Ford Focus was a pleasure to drive (a smooth manual gearbox) through the completely treeless countryside where there is water everywhere, either lochs, the coasts of the North Sea and the North Atlantic, or the vast maritime sanctuary of Scarpa Flow. To the south, a number of causeways link the Mainland with smaller islands and eventually South Ronaldsay. Some of these causeways are known as Churchill barriers intended to prevent the entry of German shipping, particularly U-boats, into Scarpa Flow. Nearby is the Italian Chapel, constructed by prisoners of war and another reminder, together with the remains of numerous ship wrecks, of other aspects of that period of Orkney history.
But what else did we experience in Orkney? The two basic aims were to see some of the world’s most ancient historic sites and, on Jenny’s bucket list, to see some puffins. We succeeded nicely in the first but failed to catch a glimpse of those cute little birds. It was probably a little early in the season.
On Orkney some wonderful history has been revealed not only in standing stones and circles but also at the village of Skara Brae and at Maeshowe where neolithic civilisations left their marks from some 5000 years ago. The chambered cairn at Maeshowe under its large earth mound was particularly impressive. This site like many others across the Orkneys also have Norse (Viking) connections. At this site there was Viking runic “graffiti”. The tidal island of the Brough of Birsay has Pictish as well as Viking ruins, but unfortunately we missed another major site at the Broch of Gurness because of the bad weather.
More recent history is on display in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – it is only 850 years old. This is a church on a grand scale which was quite surprising in this remote part of the world. Nearby are the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces.
The weather was not our friend during our stay and “forced” us the take refuge for a couple of delightful and refreshing interludes at lunchtimes with delicious bowls of soup. Firstly, at the Brough of Birsay and then a most memorable break at the southern end of South Ronaldsay where we were able to look across the water to John O’Groats on the Scottish mainland.
Next it is back to the Scottish mainland and then south.
Things have been going quite smoothly on the tour to date but yesterday was a reality check. Hit by the curse of travellers – we missed our flight (to the Orkneys). It was my own fault for misreading the eTicket and it seemed we were in a real jam. I currently have a Lee Child on my kindle and I could have had a Jack Reacher moment taking out frustration on something or someone. Perhaps I should read better literature instead of action fiction that doesn’t lead to fast and even skim reading.
However, luck was on our side and we managed to get a later flight. It seems air traffic to Kirkwall is not heavy at this time of year or maybe it was because of the bank (ie public) holiday Monday for May Day. Anyway there was plenty of space for us on the 34 seater Saab 340B and it was a smooth and relaxed flight even for those who aren’t fans of smaller planes.
The overall result was the loss of about 4 hours but we all agreed that with 2 full days here we will still have enough time for a leisurely tour of the Orkneys. The dent to my pride as an organised traveller will eventually rebound and I will regain my sense of humour after this somewhat depressing episode.
As I mull over these thoughts, in a better humour, with the light from the early-rising sun trying to squeeze through the curtains I realise that I haven’t introduced our travelling band. Most readers will realise that we are Jenny, Arthur, Margaret and Rowan. Accordingly, I am calling this the Jammer Tour (JAMR) which in a couple of weeks will split up into two as we go separate ways and I will then only write about the Junior Tour (JR).
The sun rises early in Kirkwall because we are 59o North of the equator and in spring with up to 15 hours of sunlight in May. You can compare this latitude to Queenstown, Tassie at 42o South or Queenstown, NZ at 45o South to get a sense of the relative climatic conditions. Even though the weather comes straight off the North Atlantic Ocean, the forecast for the next couple of days is fine with temperatures up to 12oC. So it augers well for touring around the “Mainland” of the Orkneys.