Saturday, 31 December 2011

Northern Wonders


My life began in the Mediterranean, despite which I am drawn inexorably northward. Over time I have acquired a fondness for the landscape and culture of northern Britain - and a corresponding aversion to those of the Home Counties. Fortunately my partner shares some of my preferences and so joined me on a recent northern excursion which included hikes along part of Hadrian’s Wall and the Northumberland coast, a visit to the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel and a peek at the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Hadrian’s Wall (true to the fate of all such artificial barriers to human migration) was ultimately ineffective and, as soon as the Romans went home, it became a source of free, ready-cut stone for local building projects. In this respect at least the wall brought some benefit to the locals – unlike its modern-day equivalents made of massive concrete slabs. What remains of the ancient wall, however, certainly demonstrates the Romans’ remarkable engineering skills and their appetite for grand projects. It is also testament to their human endurance for, when we were there, in that remote and hilly place, the weather was so hostile that it was difficult to imagine how they could have accomplished such a work without the benefit of Goretex.

The outdoor-clothing industry would have us believe that there is no such thing as bad weather so long as you have appropriate clothing - but the next hike, along the coast, called this principle into question: the prevailing gale-force wind battered us into submission and, within a few hours, we were obliged to bring forward the ‘indoor’ section of our tour.

Rosslyn Chapel, a symphony of carved sandstone, was built about 1000 years after the Romans had left Britain and about 600 years before the next significant event – the invention of waterproof, windproof, breatheable, hi-tech fabrics. Its myriad carvings are not only extraordinary but also fascinating because the meaning and significance of many of them is now obscure. Were it otherwise the chapel would hold less mystery, the legends that surround it would not exist and Dan Brown would have had to find some other setting for the denouement of The da Vinci Code.

Whereas the interior decoration of Rosslyn Chapel was accomplished entirely by stone-carving, that of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was achieved by the application of colourful murals and skilfully crafted woodwork, rendering the interior itself a thing of wonder - especially if compared with the stark, neutral interiors of many contemporary exhibition spaces. This building holds no mystery; it is a hall of fame containing a well-documented, pictorial record of those who feature in the nation’s history and, traditionally, the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful who could afford to commission portrait painters. But egalitarianism and photography have combined to level the ground so that, on these walls, a much broader section of society is represented and the historical record is more comprehensive.

But early Scottish history had not the benefit of contemporary painters and so has been visualised here in retrospectively painted murals. One of these represents St. Columba brandishing a wooden cross as he preaches to a group of Pictish warriors who are paying (incredibly) polite attention to his message.  Others depict imagined scenes of battle in which muscular natives repel fearsome invaders. They are romantic interpretations and I am inclined to question their authenticity, especially given the inadequacy of the characters’ clothing, which appears to have been modelled on the Mediterranean style circa 2000 B.C. – and there’s not a thread of tartan to be seen!

Driving back (without let or hindrance) across the border and through the remains of Hadrian’s Wall I pondered the fact that people nowadays may well be more suitably dressed for the weather but many are nevertheless still employed in the futile building of walls.

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