This has been a challenging year for artistic types, with so many opportunities for expression and development abruptly taken away. But we’re committed to supporting makers of all kinds here at Burntisland Studio, and want to help to keep these fires burning in any way we can.
Throughout December, we’re offering artists and makers of all kinds one free night for every three nights booked. We know artists come in all shapes and sizes, so we’re not ruling anything out. Writer? Dancer? Sculptor? Chartered accountant who always wanted to work on your poetry but never had a good reason to? This is your moment!
Just let us know what sort of thing you might make while you’re there, and we can talk about how we can work together to turn some of it into a fun bit of shareable content that will benefit us both.
From natural beauty to Gothic spires, Fife and the surrounding area have a huge amount to offer. This part of the world is steeped in stories of adventure and discovery, and we know you’ll find inspiration here. Get in touch for a chat; the founder of Burntisland Studio had a career as an artist and curator, and is happy to help advise and steer these visits as ‘residencies’ as much as guests require.
We’re still offering free cancellations, too, so there’s nothing to lose by booking now. End 2020 on a high note!
Yes, we have some information about our beautiful building, known in Victorian times as ‘Downie’s Stables’.
The building Burntisland Studio is in had an important role to play when the industrial revolution brought many new visitors to the town. When I wrote to local historian Ian Archibald of the Burntisland Heritage Trust to ask him for more information about the building, he revealed the exciting information that he is in fact related to the famous carter who ran the building, Andrew Downie!
In this section of our chat we look at an old map, find out about Burntisland’s important history as a ferry port and rail terminus, and glimpse an incredible railway model of the area that will certainly be the subject of a future video! For more about the work the Heritage Trust does, see burntisland.net.
Let’s talk about this gorgeous bridge. You can see it from Burntisland on a clear day, and it’s just 15 minutes drive away, should you get the urge for a close-up.
It is of course the famous #forthbridge. It (some say ‘she’ but I need to work up to that) was completed in 1889 after 7 years of construction. In normal circumstances 200 trains a day cross the Forth Bridge, and it’s a listed building as well as a World Heritage Site.
The Forth Bridge is a cantilever style, a design that’s been used for thousands of years. The designers demonstrated the principle of tension and compression in the bridge in 1887 by seating Japanese engineer Kaichi Watanabe between the bridge’s designers Fowler and Baker sitting on chairs (see pic below, grabbed from Wikipedia). Fowler and Baker are the cantilevers here with their arms in tension, the bricks are the cantilever end piers which are weighted with cast iron.
The cantilever’s three towers are each seated on four circular piers. The little #firthofforth island of Inchgarvie supports one of the bridge’s cantilevers. Inchgarvie itself has a fascinating history (ancient fortifications, mistaken for a warship, used as a prison, etc). It was used as a construction office for the bridge, and some stone from its castle ruins was used in the foundations of the bridge!
You can get great views of Inchgarvie from the train, look out of the left hand side as you go over to Edinburgh!
Author Robert Louis Stevenson famously hails from Edinburgh, but did you know our coastline inspired a number of locations in his books? He is of course, the creator of Jekyll & Hyde, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and many poems and travel writings. Most interesting to swashbuckling visitors to Burntisland Studio, though, is perhaps the beautiful village of Limekilns just down the Firth of Forth on the other side of the bridges.
Just look at it!
Amid the row of pretty cottages lined up along the waterfront, you’ll find a rustic-looking white building called the Ship Inn. This pub is the setting of a crucial scene in Kidnapped, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can find the section here just by searching for ‘Limekilns’.
In the story, the barmaid helps the main characters find a boat to cross the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh. Alan convinces the bonnie lass that David is a dying Jacobite, much to David’s embarrassment, and she takes pity on them and helps them out.
A couple of bonus RLS facts for you today… he hailed from a family of lighthouse engineers, and his grandfather designed the lighthouse on the Isle of May (visible from many places along the Fife coast) among many other beautiful towers. RLS’s father, Thomas Stevenson, was a renowned lighthouse guy too, and also invented the famous Stevenson’s Screen – those beehive like things that are used for taking weather measurements. Interesting that his famous son would tell tales of dramatic navigation around coastal waters!
We’re lucky to have a lot of inspiring, smart and enterprising women in our neck of the woods these days, but this is nothing new! Set your time machine to the 1780s, head to Burntisland, and you might just come across a gifted young girl called Mary Fairfax.
Mary was interested in everything, but educating women was not the norm, and there were several attempts to squash her aptitude over the years. Her voracious reading was quickly replaced by the more appropriate needlework, and eyebrows were raised when she hoped to learn to write and read more than just the Bible. All this only stoked her determination and sense of justice and she rapidly became a leader in many fields – even besides her huge scientific achievements, she was the first signatory on John Mills’ petition for votes for women, and protested against slavery.
Mary was incredibly accomplished, learning Latin and Greek alongside modern languages, and taking advantage of her family connections to develop her interests in the sciences. She was a student of chemistry, geography, microscopy, electricity and magnetism, and best known today for her work in maths and astronomy. She started solving mathematical problems posed in a well-known maths journal, and was awarded a medal for her abilities.
Mary continued to mix with the great minds of the day as she published pioneering scientific research. She hung out with writers and artists such as Walter Scott and JMW Turner, and was the maths tutor of ‘first computer programmer’, Ada Lovelace. In 1831, she published an exposition of the workings of the solar system, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens. It made her instantly famous.
Mary’s calculations cannot be underestimated. She resolved many great blocks in maths and science, promoted calculus in a Newtonian country, and even accurately predicted the discovery of Neptune. Her great passion for astronomy stemmed from a sense it connected the sciences very elegantly:
We perceive the operation of a force which is mixed up with everything that exists in the heavens or on earth; which pervades every atom, rules the motions of animate and inanimate beings, and is as sensible in the descent of a rain-drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon
Her books were incredibly successful and she was very well known in her own time. Her name has been immortalised in a Cambridge college (Somerville College of course), Somerville Square in Burntisland, a school and even an island in Canada. She lived until she was 91, writing right into her old age.
If you take a day trip from Burntisland Studio to Edinburgh you could easily miss this one, nestled modestly among the towering buildings and rocky outcrops near the castle, but it represents a profound chapter in Scottish history.
The Witches Well can be found on the wall of the Tartan Weaving Mill, on the East approach to Edinburgh Castle – here it is on the map. It’s a rather beautiful cast iron Victorian fountain, commemorating over 4,000 people (mostly women) executed on this ground through the 1500s and 1600s. It might feel incongruous today among the whisky and cashmere shops, but during the witch trials, more women were murdered in this beautiful place than at any other location in Scotland.
Needless to say, those killed were not ‘real’ witches. Anyone could be accused and unfairly tried – not just those who experimented with herbal medicines, but often vulnerable individuals suffering mental or physical illness. Increasingly, just upsetting the wrong person was enough to get you killed. We’ve all heard the tales of women being submerged in water to test their innocence. If they drowned they were in the clear! Not much of a victory!
The fountain was commissioned by philanthropist Sir Patrick Geddes in 1894. His friend John Duncan, a famous artist known for his interest in Celtic mythology, designed the fountain. Here’s what Atlas Obscura has to say:
The small plaque, which features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. The relief contains the image of a Foxglove plant, from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health. The Foxglove plant, though used medicinally, can also be poisonous depending on dosage, and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil […] The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the Evil Eye with frowning eyes and a nose. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl, meant to represent healing hands.
Evil, certainly… but nothing supernatural about it.
Another creepy story for you today as Halloween looms.
Have you heard the tale of the Arthur’s Seat dolls? Arthur’s Seat, for those who don’t know, is the angular hill that rises up out of Edinburgh – you can clearly see it over the water from the Studio window!
Back in 1836, five boys out hunting for rabbits stumbled across some spooky treasure in a cave on Arthur’s Seat: 17 tiny coffins containing little wooden dolls. They are now on display in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum.
The origins of the dolls remains a mystery. At the time of their discovery it was thought they were something to do with witchcraft, but the list of theories is long, and getting longer all the time.
Some believe they were placed there as surrogate burials for the 17 victims of Burke and Hare, others think sailors placed them there as protective charms. At recently as 2018 new theories have emerged about the figures being created by the workers who built the ‘Radical Road’ around Arthur’s Seat, to keep the flames of the rebellion alive and honour those who had lost their lives in an uprising in 1820.
Halloween season continues with more local magic and mystery!
Our neighbouring town up the coast is famous for producing two financial wizards, Adam Smith and Gordon Brown, but a less well-known son of Kirkcaldy is the extraordinary character of Michael Scott. Shrouded in myth, he was known as ‘The Wizard of Fife’.
Head up into the woods of the stunning Beveridge Park, and you’ll find a fanciful wooden sculpture of Scott en route along the ‘Wizard’s Walk‘ which, if you want, can take you all the way to the ruins of Balwearie Castle.
There are lots of exciting legends about Michael Scott. He zipped around on a flying horse, ‘cleft the Eildon hills in three and bridled the river Tweed with a curb of stone’, and turned the devil to twine in the sands of Kirkcaldy beach.
None of the stories are quite as remarkable as the truth though. Scott is generally accepted to be Scotland’s first scientist, alchemist and astronomer. He wrote books, worked for Kings, and generally led an incredible life.
In 1210, Scott left Scotland for Toledo, where he learned Arabic, studied Jewish literature and ancient philosophy, and became so famous he was head-hunted by King Frederick II – the Holy Roman Emperor! He helped Frederick out with philosophical enquiries (“Where do rainbows come from?”; “What causes God?” etc) and became his Royal astronomer. There was a darker side, too. Stories swirled about him drowning people in an attempt to weigh their souls, and conducting cruel sleep deprivation experiments.
Scott was hugely famous within his own lifetime, and he turns up in literature for centuries – usually as a master of the dark arts. He’s even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno!
In later years he was a member of the group of nobles who travelled to Norway to bring Princess Margaret, the Maid of Norway, back to Scotland as Queen after the death of King Alexander III in 1296. Margaret’s death precipitated Scotland into the Wars of Independence against England. Read more about him here.
Main photo here is Kirkcaldy beach by Gilbert Townsend, a photographer who stayed at the Studio over the summer.
It’s connected to the history of St Andrew’s Castle, and another spooky tale in the run-up to All Hallow’s Eve!
St Andrews Castle was originally the grand residence of the Archbishops of St Andrews, dating back to the 13th Century. It enjoys a stunning location on the coast, as you can see, and at just an hour’s drive from Burntisland Studio is a no-brainer for a day trip. Don’t stick around after dark unless you have nerves as strong as the Forth Bridge, though – a few unhappy ghosts have been seen in the shadows!
Cardinal Beaton, the Archbishop of St. Andrews in the 1540s, was known to have imprisoned Protestants in the dungeon under the castle until they went insane in the darkness, at which point he has them killed. Karma’s a bummer, as we know, and he met a grisly end himself; Protestants broke in and served their justice…
Beaton’s body was suspended over the castle walls by an arm and leg, a popular crucifixion shape at the time that formed what’s now the famous cross of St. Andrews, the saltire, the Scotland flag! You know: this one!
Beaton still roams the castle, albeit perhaps lopsidedly, while a white lady has also been spotted – often during the early evening in autumn. Clearly this is the best season for ghost spotting, get over there and see if you can see her before it gets too…. cold? dark? for ghosts!
When I decided to bring a business to Burntisland I had no idea how special the small business scene here is. Look beyond the stunning scenery and elegant stone buildings and you’ll find a quality of enterprise here that really is incredible.
You start to get some clues when you search for the town online: everyone from beauticians to butchers seem unusually good at social media, for example (not least thanks to resident digital media guru Jo King).
The high street is small – you can walk down it in 5 minutes – but it’s packed with incredibly high quality independent shops and cafes. The retailers weathered the worst of lockdown the old fashioned way – by being decent, staying in touch and helping one another out (they’ve certainly made me feel welcome, too).
Justifiably, Burntisland is starting to get a bit famous for this, as you can see in this film. Our bakers, butchers and fishmongers have all been featured on different TV shows recently, and STV News visited last week to make this item about how the town has managed to defy retail doom & gloom. Wishing a very successful run-up to Christmas to this hard-working street!