Saturday, 29 August 2009

Hundy Mundy

After taking up my post as security-caretaker/tour-guide at Mellerstain many hours were spent learning and discovering everything I could about this fabulous place. Gazing out of the south-facing windows one morning something in the distance puzzled me. It looked like some sort of entrance to a building, except there was no building! Just this structure, standing 'twixt some trees about a couple of miles away. I soon discovered it was a part of the Mellerstain estate called Hundy Mundy. A Gothic folly built to draw the eye to the southern extent of Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders. Built by William Adam circa 1726 it is just a tall archway between square towers, each topped by a stone pyramid. It was built with stone from an old tower house which had once guarded this area from marauding 'reivers' and other thieves. A Pictish Princess called Hunimundias was said to have lived in this tower. Because, so the story goes, the children of Mellerstain couldn't pronounce Hunimundias they called it Hundy Mundy. That name remains today and is on maps and documents concerning this area. There are quite a few of these old 'tower houses' in the Scottish Borders. There's one in the town of Gordon and another in the village of Smailholm, both close to Mellerstain. The Smailholm Tower is a most interesting place to visit. Perched on high ground it commands an extensive view for miles around. These towers were built to house and protect the locals from those who would invade the territory, thieving and murdering if they got half a chance. Using my basic video gadget, which has no optical zoom, it's not possible to show Mellerstain House - other than a smudgy light gap in the trees. The digital zoom feature is next to useless, but heigh-ho - you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear This old folly, Hundy Mundy, is now the centrepiece of a woodland or natural burial site, known as Hundy Mundy Wood, but still owned by Mellerstain Estate.
The front of Mellerstain House looks north. An expanse of parkland and a good variety of old trees create a peaceful panorama when viewed from any window in the main house.

The east and west wings were designed by William Adam and building started in 1725. A corner stone in the east wing has the date carved into it. The west wing, the home of the 13th Earl of Haddington and his family, was originally used as stable blocks and home for staff.

Work on the main mansion house did not begin until some 45 years later. William Adam's plans for this were not implemented. His son, Robert Adam, was commissioned by George Baillie to build the main house; George had been on "the grand tour of Europe" and, as he'd inherited Mellerstain, thought Robert Adam was the guy to do it. There's a fuller bit of history here:

Friday, 28 August 2009

Hello, How Now, What Cheer - What's in a Word?

Stephen Fry had a thirty minute program on BBC Radio4 a few days ago, all about 'Hello'.

I like Mr. Fry; he's an entertaining erudite chap, both on TV and radio. He recently did a sort of tour of America.

Surprised that a small word like 'hello' could fill half an hour so well.

Is it just a greeting? Oh no. It can be an exclamation of surprise. Or a shout.

I was surprised to learn that one of the most used words, worldwide, has only been around since about 1830-something. Before then Shakespeare used the word Holla, a dog shout (holler?) or the greeting then was "How Now" and "What Cheer?" which turns into the cockney 'Wotcha'. My brother used to phone me and say "Wotcha", and I sometimes use it when meeting an old friend. I didn't know, until listening to Mr. Fry, that it was a sort of corruption of Shakespeare's 'what cheer'.

There's an old song which includes the verse:

"Wot cher!" all the neighbors cried
"Who yer gonna meet, Bill
Have yer bought the street, Bill"?
Laugh! I thought I should've died
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road

The last line above is the title of the song from the movie "The Little Princess" (1939) starring Shirley Temple!

I was surprised also to learn that 'hello' was probably first used in North America and imported into the UK by none other than Charles Dickens! It seems that in a play about Davy Crocket he says: "Hello, friend, don't forget that vote."

Dickens toured American around that time and in his "Christmas Carol" he uses the phrase "Hello, my fine fellow..." So, like the grey squirrel, we imported the word from the U.S.A. - according to Mr. Fry!

Then came the telephone. Bell invented it in around 1876. He apparently wanted the word "Ahoy" to be used when answering this amazing new invention. However, Edison, who also had wished he'd invented this before Bell, voted more for the word "Hello" to be used. And quite right too! Just imagine answering your phone "Ahoy there".

According to Mr. Fry, George Bernard Shaw once did a spell on a telephone exchange, as an operator and answered all calls with "Hello, what is wanted?" Well I never!

In 1913 a well-known song was written:

"Hello! Hello! Who's your lady friend?
Who's the little girl by your side?
I've seen you with a girl or two.
Oh! Oh! Oh! I'm (I AM) surprised at you."

Here the word "Hello" is used as a greeting, then as a word of surprise!

Then of course we have the famous "Hello, hello, hello.. what's going on 'ere then?" used by policemen! (in the UK I hasten to add)

A joke:

A policeman arrives home unexpectedly and finds his wife in bed with three strange men.

"Hello, hello, hello ..." says Mr. Policeman, whereupon his wife bursts into tears.

"Why are you crying, my love?" asks the husband.

"You never said hello to ME" sobs his wife! Boom, boom.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Formal Gardens at Mellerstain on a Windy Day.

Took a snap video of the formal gardens at Mellerstain. It is a blustery and dampish day and the noise of the wind in the mike is unavoidable with this little handheld gizmo.

It'll get better in due course (or so I kid myself!).

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side on a Wet August Day

I went for a walk around Mellerstain House this afternoon with my new toy, a Flip video thingy. After traipsing all round the main gardens, looking for Gordon Low, the gardener, I eventually found him in the old tea-cottage.

This tiny two-roomed cottage was built in circa 1840 and at one point housed one of the house-keeping ladies!

The Flip Ultra video is cheap and cheerful. It is very, very simple to use. Just a big red button to push when you want to start and stop. Plugs directly into a USB port to transfer clips onto the laptop/pc. Basic editing stuff included.

I may be trying to upload a few more clips later on. OK, OK, you don't have to watch! It's not compulsory. ;-)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Jacques Brel: Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me)

This is my favourite song. I discovered it just a few years ago. Jacques Brel puts so much pure emotion into this version it really gets to me.

I don't speak French. Yet I love this video. I think it cannot be bettered by any other recording. The Brel lyrics are superbly poetic. The French language is so beautiful, even to a muppet such as I, who cannot speak it.

Brel was born in Belgium but lived half his life in Paris. He died in a Paris suburb of lung cancer; he was a very heavy smoker, giving up near the end of his life - far too late.

Jacques Brel died in 1978 aged only 49. His death was widely mourned in both France and Belgium. He is buried close to the painter, Paul Gauguin, on the Island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands.

I have most of his recordings; he sings with such passion. His recordings of "Amsterdam" and "Jef" are great, but Ne Me Quitte Pas is superlative, in my opinion.

There have been hundreds of different recordings of Brel's works. The English version of Ne Me Quitte Pas is "If You Go Away", recorded by numerous singers such as Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey. This version is very good, but you just cannot beat the original French version, especially the Jacques Brel rendition above.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Freedom of the Town of Echt, Holland

Click on the above photos to enlarge.

I took the above two snapshots on a beautiful Sunday in August 1955. All the RAF personnel at Bruggen, W.Germany, had been given the freedom of the town of Echt, a lovely small town on the Dutch/German borders.

One evening, some weeks earlier, the Mayor of Echt arranged for a concert to be given by the Echt town orchestra in the RAF Bruggen camp cinema/theatre. It was a great evening and introduced me to some lovely light classical music.

Our commanding officer was asked by the Mayor if the pipes and drum camp band would return the compliment and entertain the people of Echt. Now, some of you might well consider that a bagpipe band is not in the same league, entertainment-wise, as an orchestra. And I would agree with you.

However, many others will say that the bagpipes stirs the emotions, especially if you are a Scot, (which I am not). Our commanding officer was a keen bagpipe man - and he was not a Scotsman either! He was only too pleased to arrange for our band to play in the town square of Echt and the Mayor then said that all the RAF chaps who attended would be given the 'freedom' of the town.

Saturday came and the C.O. was upset to learn that one of the bagpipes had been damaged. He immediately ordered that one of our jet fighters fly from Germany to Scotland to pick up either a new set or a replacement part; I cannot remember exactly which. This was speedily carried out. All was now well.

The parade through Echt was a great success. It seemed that the whole town turned out to watch and applaud the pipe band. We were all treated with great friendliness; I've never yet met a Netherlander who was unpleasant. Many speak excellent English, putting most Brits to shame.

The Mayor gave a 'thank you' speech that day, during which he said how grateful the town was to the RAF during world war 2. Not one brick was damaged throughout the war. No person was killed or injured by our bombers as they roared over the town, seeking out enemy targets day and night. It was a genuinely emotional speech by a man who had been through those terrible years.

A day in my life that remains vidid. I wonder what's happened to all the bag-pipers?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tree Planting at Mellerstain

Mellerstain house

Planting a Hornbeam tree.

Planting a tree in recognition of the work of volunteers working for Guide Dogs of the Blind in the east paddock at Mellerstain. This was one of the charities supported by Lord and Lady Haddington.

These snapshots I took show Lady Jane Haddington shovelling compost into the hole dug by Gordon Low, the gardener at Mellerstain. The picture below right shows Lord John Haddington watching the ceremony of the planting in readiness to take a photograph when he feels the time is just right!

The smallish lady in the centre is Miss Kay Brownlie. She was president of the local branch of the Guide Dogs for the Blind at Mellerstain for many years and has now retired from that post.

John Haddington is, in fact, a first class photographer and used to run a business as a pro photographer when he was Lord Binning, before acceding to the title of the 13th Earl of Haddington.
The first son of the Earl is always given the title of Lord Binning. The present Lord Binning is George Edmund Baldred Baillie-Hamilton, the only son. He is now 23 years of age; I've known him since he was about 9 years old. He is a great lad, now at Glasgow University after being at Eton.
We went to his 21st birthday party a couple of years ago and it was a truly happy affair. One of the tenant farmers gave a little speech as he gave young Georgie a new fishing rod. Tom S., the farmer said: "Young George, I wish you a very happy birthday and many, many happy hours of sitting in the wind and rain on the banks of the Tweed with this rod..."
What next in the chain of events? Well, hopefully in the not too distant future we shall hear the whisper that Georgie has popped the question to some nice young lady. Then the wedding. Then, with fingers firmly crossed, Lord and Lady H will have a lovely little grandchild. What a wonderful event that will be. Mellerstain

Monday, 17 August 2009

A Snapshot of the Two of Us

My only grumble about this cottage is the amount of grass cutting I have to attend to. This shot is of our 'front' garden. I have another area of grass to keep under control in our 'back' garden!

The above was taken about a couple of years ago my wife, Pat, was still smoking cigarettes. A month later she gave up the nasty weed, with the aid of nictotine patches. It's not easy to quit this habit but she was ordered so to do by the medics. She succeeded, with just one minor backslide, and has now been nicotine free for virtually two years. I gave up in 1972. Just stopped it; felt so enslaved by it and hated it.

I need a gardener. One who would tend the grass, the plants, and the weeds!

No takers for the 'Pick you own' weeds even though I asked no fee. Can't understand it. I have some of the best weeds in the Scottish Borders.

Friday, 14 August 2009

A Child and Understanding Death

On the 14th December 1995 Lord Haddington's mother, the Dowager Countess, Lady Sarah Haddington, died. She was a few months short of 100 and had been quite frail for some time.

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain for just a couple of months. The winter snow blanketed the countryside; pristine white and beautiful.

Lord Haddington's mother, Lady Sarah, was brought back to Mellerstain from the Nenthorn House nursing home. Her coffin was laid on trestles in the centre of the library. She laid there facing south, looking towards the serene snow-white back gardens.

Here she would stay for a few days; her many friends and relatives would come to say their final goodbyes.

Four large candles were at each corner of the coffin. I would light them at about 8 a.m. and douse them at 8 p.m. each day.

On the second morning Lady Jane Haddington came into the library just after I'd lit the candles. With her was little Isobel, aged five. Isobel (full title Lady Isobel Jean Baillie-Hamilton) is the youngest of the three children.

The two of them stood there quietly for a moment or two, Isobel holding her Mum's hand. It was very quiet and Isobel was looking up at the coffin.

She then looked at her mother and, pointing to the coffin said: "Is Grandmama in there, Mummy?"

"Yes dear." That was all that Lady Jane said. There was a pause for a few moments.

Isobel then said: "Well, can I see her Mummy?"

"No dear." And another few moments went by.

Isobel: "Well why can't I see her?"

"Darling, it's only her body in there; she's gone to live in Heaven."

Isobel was still unsure. "Yes, but why can't I ..." and with that Lady Jane headed for the door, still clutching little Isobel's hand.

I can remember that episode as though it were just today. I went to the west wing in June this year to give Isobel her 18th birthday card and small gift. She is still that young pretty-faced girl to me. I retold the above story to her; she had no recollection of it. I am not surprised. So much has happened in the intervening years; prep school and then boarding school down in the south of England.

She had recently returned from a few months in South Africa, working at a Lodge in her gap year. She will soon be going to uni, reading philosophy. How fast this tempus fugits!!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Dowager Countess, her Sister, and the Lady's Maid

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain House for about a year or so. The mother of the 13th Earl of Haddington was living in a private nursing home at Nenthorn. She was almost 100 years of age.

Her sister,who had never married, about 2 years older than old Lady Haddington, also lived in this same nursing home.

A third elderly lady also lived in the Nenthorn nursing home. This was Chrissie Crombie, old Lady Haddington's personal maid.

At the top of the east tower there is "the Crombie flat". This was once the home of Chrissie Crombie; it is still called the Crombie flat even though it has not been occupied for a good few years now.

My wife and I used to visit the nursing home on Sundays. We used to see the three old ladies. Two of them were always asleep in a chair when we called in. Chrissie was always awake and she loved to talk about her days "in service".

Chrissie was now wheelchair bound. She laughingly blamed her clapped out knees on old Lady Haddington! Traipsing up and down the many stairs to and from her flat at the top of the east tower had been the cause of her knee problem.

She laughed as she told us this. In fact, it was really a fall she'd had that had caused the damage. Chrissie was a cheerful soul. She said she'd loved her job as the lady's maid and she meant it.

We never did get to speak with old Lady Sarah Haddington, nor to her sister. They were always having a nap when we called. They both died before Chrissie.

The Nenthorn House home was closed down soon after the two old ladies died. Chrissie was moved to another home, much to her dismay. She too died soon after the move. She was about 95.

Chrissie's reminiscences about her 'lady's maid' days made the tv series "Upstairs, Downstairs" seem so true to life in those long gone Edwardian days. In Chrissie's case she was the 'upstairs' one; in the tv series all the staff were the 'downstairs' ones.

A totally different world now though. Fewer servants, butlers and even gardeners compared to only 60 or so years ago. Apart from the Royals that is; though I think perhaps the Queen is cutting back to some degree!