Thursday, March 16, 2017

Before The Internet Existed

Over on Twitter, #BeforeTheInternetExisted is currently trending. (Well, it's trending as I write this; by tomorrow something else will no doubt have overtaken it - #whatmycatjustdid or some such vital thing). I'm not sure I can confine myself to 140 characters on the topic of "What did we do before the internet?" so here's a blog post instead.

I'm not going to list all the things we did before the internet existed, and I'm definitely not going to go the full curmudgeon ("when I was a child we played outdoors on the main road/cleaned cars for a shilling/wrote 6 page letters to our grandmothers using a quill pen and parchment" etc etc). Personally I love the interwebz and cannot stay off it.*

One thing that I do remember with a certain fondness, though, is communicating with my loved ones when I was away travelling, in the days before smartphones, wifi, and - gasp! - even before internet cafes. Yes, dear friends, I have lived so long that I can remember such primitive times.

These days, when friends or relatives travel in far-flung places, they very properly post photographs to Facebook and Instagram the very same day. Sometimes they post them while they are actually doing whatever it is they are doing in those places. Back in 1992, when I travelled overland from London to Kathmandu on a Bedford truck, this was not so. Not only were there no internet cafes, the camera I took with me was one that had to be loaded with rolls of film, which were developed when you got home at the end of your trip. There was no Facebook yet, so the only way you could share your pictures with your friends was to show them the prints. You can imagine how time consuming that was. Nowadays, if I go anywhere interesting, I can show my snaps to 438 people with a few mouse clicks. Let us hope they are grateful. *cough*

In 1992 I did not have a mobile phone either. So the only way I could keep in touch with home was by using landlines (where I could get at one) or by post. Using a landline mostly meant waiting until we got to a city and then going to the telephone exchange, where I would pay extortionate amounts (in local terms) for a crackly two minutes talking to my boyfriend (now husband) in England. This was rather unsatisfactory, so mostly I used the post instead.

In the four months that I was away that time, I wrote to my other half pretty much every day, posting the letters whenever we got to somewhere with a posting box. I also wrote to my family. They wrote to me too, via a series of poste restante addresses that I gave them before I left. It was always rather a tense moment when we rolled into a town large enough to have a poste restante address, and went to see whether there were any letters! If there weren't any, it might be a wait of weeks before we got to the next poste restante, with no word in between.

I still have most of the letters exchanged on that trip. My husband kept all his, and I kept all the ones I received too. Nearly every single letter I sent on that trip and during my various other travels arrived safely. One from my mother addressed to me in Islamabad failed to turn up, and some postcards I sent from Uzbekistan took four months to arrive, but nothing else went astray.

Once in a blue moon I get all the letters out of the drawer where I keep them, and read some of them again. When I photographed them for this blog post (above), I picked out one at random and read, "I do not know when I will get to post this! We are rough camping on a hillside near Ephesus. It is dark and incredibly humid! This is our second attempt at a camp - we got moved off the last one by an irate farmer wielding a loaded shotgun (we know it was loaded because he fired a few warning shots)..." Ah, fun times.

Anyway, that's what we did before the internet existed.

Above: photo from the Karakoram Highway, taken with an old Pentax ME Super

* even though last time I used the word "interwebz", people actually wrote to me pointing out that "it is either the internet or the world wide web". Thanks.

Perthshire, "interspersed with anecdotes"!

Winter is nearly over: it's no longer dark at four o'clock in the afternoon, and last week I spotted the first daffodils. Even better, the wonderful Library of Innerpeffray (left) has opened again after its annual hibernation.

The other day I went over there with no more specific plan than to see if I could find some interesting tidbit to post on this blog. In the past I have posted extracts from A Treatise of Specter and from that perennial favourite, Reginald Scott's The Discoverie of Witchcraft. I still recall with affection Scott's warning to his readers: "A request to such readers as are loath to hear or read filthy and bawdy matters, which of necessity are here to be inserted, to pass over eight Chapters." I wonder if anybody ever did pass them over?

(NB: for the full story on those filthy and bawdy matters, take a peep here:

Anyway, on this occasion, rather on impulse, I asked if there were any books about local country houses. I am very fond of visiting the historic sites of Perthshire, whether Historic Environment Scotland properties such as Huntingtower Castle, or those other lonely and seemingly unowned ruins that are dotted about the countryside, quietly crumbling into rubble. 

The library volunteer very kindly fished out three small volumes for me, one of which proved especially interesting. It was called "A Picture of Strathearn in Perthshire; or, a topographical description of its scenery, antiquities, & c. chiefly from Crieff to Lochearnhead. Interspersed with ancedotes." The book was written by "John Brown, Teacher of English, Writing, and Accounts, St.Fillan's, Comrie", and published in 1823. 

I think John Brown must have been an interesting person, and I wonder if I shall ever find out anything more about him, but that will have to wait for another day. I always feel very grateful to those nineteenth and early twentieth century local history fiends, who preserved so much interesting information. It was thanks to a German local historian, Father Krause, that the legends of Bad M√ľnstereifel that inspired my novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden were preserved for posterity. 

Anyway, one particular passage in this book was of especial interest to me, and that was the part about the Dunira estate in Comrie, not far from where we live. One of my recent walks through the Perthshire countryside took me past the remains of old Dunira House, built in 1851-2 for Sir David Dundas, a.k.a. Viscount Melville. The property had stunning formal gardens laid out in the 1920s by Thomas Mawson. The house itself was mostly destroyed by fire in 1948, and eventually demolished within the last two decades. All that remains of it is the border of the terrace on which it stood, and overgrown staircases like the one pictured below. 

Of the gardens, somewhat more remains. Some years ago, they were briefly restored as part of a TV series - you can see the episode in question here: Lost Gardens - episode 5. It is still possible to pick out features such as fountain and pond. (NB since I wrote this blog post, the YouTube channel on which this programme was available has been terminated, so it is no longer available. 20/4/17)

You can see a photograph of the house itself on the Canmore database alongside the architectural plans and some modern pictures of the site. The photograph is from about 1900. 

The house of 1851 was actually a replacement for a previous house at a different (but nearby) location, which had been prone to flooding. You can read more about that in Edward Rushworth's interesting History of Dunira. Given that
"A Picture of Strathearn in Perthshire" was published in 1823, it would be that previous house to which the book refers. 

This is what it says:

"Pursuing his tour for nearly a mile, with tall, flourishing plantations, and rich, level pasture-grounds on his left and right, the stranger at length arrives at the only open spot of the road from which a full view of the princely seat, velvet lawns, and variegated domains of


is enjoyed. He will readily admit, that it would be difficult to find a spot in Scotland so singularly well adapted, in all respects, as the honourable retreat of a man who had figured so long and so conspicuously in the councils of the nation, and cabinet of his sovereign, as did its once noble proprietor, the late eminent statesman, profound politician, and patriotic Scotsman, Lord Viscount Melville. During a period the most critical and eventful in the history, and as regarded the destiny, of Europe, Lord Melville assisted in directing the helm of public affairs – and when he had at length resolved, at an advanced age, to retire from the fatigue and bustle of a public, to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a private country life, he made choice of the charming recess of Dunira as a fit place for spending the remainder of his days, and viewing with composure, the mighty events on the continent of Europe, resulting from the measures of himself and colleagues, when one of the heads of administration. 

Dunira House is a large square building, only about thirty years old, and designed somewhat in the ancient palace style, - the four fronts corresponding in height, and nearly so in breadth. They are studded with eighty-four windows, which, when darted upon by the sun's rays, as he declines to the western horizon, - assisted by the cheerful, whitened walls of the stately edifice, - the beautiful level green stretching for half a mile in front, encircled with a profusion of the thickest foliage, and of every hue, - the whole closely surrounded with mountains of stupendous height, covered with wood almost to the very summits, - form altogether a scene so enchanting, lively, and magnificent, as to defy the ablest pen or pencil to convey but a very inadequate idea of.*

Such as may feel inclined, and are at leisure to survey these premises more particularly, will be amply accommodated with private walks for that purpose. It is ascertained, that within the compass of less than two miles from the house, there are of these, measuring one with another, more than thirty miles in extent! They are in some places cut out of the solid rock, when leading to ravines, waterfalls (of which last there is a very curious one a little above the house,) fog-houses, or arbours, open rocky promontories, & c. The occasional views commanded from these situations, are romantic in the extreme; and indeed it require a whole summer day to do justice to the interesting environs of Dunira."

* A rather enticing footnote is inserted here, reading as follows:

"In one of the apartments of Dunira House, is an article of furniture singularly curious and valuable, being no other than the identical JEWEL CASKET which once belonged to the celebrated Indian prince HYDER ALLY, and which General Sir David Baird obtained among other precious spoil, when the cruel despot's stronghold at Seringapatam was at length totally demolished, after he himself had fallen in its defence, and amidst part of its ruins. Sir David made a gift of this splendid relic to his noble friend and countryman, the late Lord Melville. It is difficult to convey, by writing, an idea either of its construction or value. Its hinges, supporters, massy handles, and several large plates, are all of the purest gold! – And the various other materials of which it is built, are made to blend together by knobs and branches so exquisitely minute, and yet with the exactest order and design, as to render it an object of admiration, and one of the greatest curiosities ever brought to this country. Leave to see it may be obtained by application at the house."

I wonder what became of that jewel casket! Certainly it did not meet its end in the fire of 1948 because the estate had long since changed hands by then. Incidentally, there is a very large painting in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, depicting Sir David Baird at Seringapatam, lording it over the body of Tipu Sultan, the son of Sultan Hyder Ali of Mysore. Presumably this was shortly before he pocketed all the loot, including the golden casket. 

I have probably thought about Sir David Baird more often than anyone sensibly should, because there is a monument to him close to Crieff, and the path to it is one of our favourite summer walks (there are raspberries to be picked on the way back). It takes the form of a large obelisk situated at the top of the small hill called Tom A' Chaisteil (left). The area is very overgrown, especially in the summertime. 

A few miles along the road in Comrie there is another hilltop obelisk, this one dedicated to that same Lord Melville to whom Sir David Baird presented the jewel casket. We have often idly speculated that the pair of them were trying to outdo each other ("my obelisk is bigger than yours"). 

Where, you may ask, is all this going? And I should have to answer: nowhere in particular. I simply love poking about in historic sites, and identifying the traces of history that proliferate everywhere. I love that "Ozymandias moment" of melancholy that comes from contemplating something that was once grand and important and is now largely forgotten. I love visiting abandoned places, and listening to the silent tales they tell. 

If I ever find out anything more about John Brown, I shall be sure to let you know. 

--> -->