Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Napier's Treasure Hunt Location


My focus is very much on mathematician John Napier these days, especially since I was able to get to Scotland this summer (2021), the pandemic notwithstanding.  I had tried for years to figure out how to get to Fast Castle, a very remote location, and there was just absolutely no way I could do it on my own trying to use public transportation no matter how I combined things like trains, buses, or even taxis.  Because of Toby, a wonderful tour guide that I connected with I was finally able to get here!  The reason I'm so interested in this spot is that it is the site of a treasure hunt undertaken by "my" mathematician, John Napier.  I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about this intriguing story, but I'll just share a bit and then get on with posting pictures.  Napier had a reputation as a sorcerer, which is a dangerous reputation to have had in the 16th century.  People often ended up executed if they were suspected of being sorcerers.  Napier was not only a scholar and an elder in his church, but he was a delegate to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the author of a major theological work, and did some advising to King James VI/I (who was particularly well known for burning "witches").  So it seems to me that he had this reputation among the locals and at least one peer, Robert Logan of Restalrig.  Logan owned Fast Castle, which had (and has!) a reputation for being a location for hidden treasure - perhaps even Templar treasure.  There is a contract between Logan and Napier for Napier to go to Fast Castle and use his sorcerous skills to search for treasure.  There is a great deal to the story, but I'll leave it at that (for now!).  I should add that the hunt may or may not actually have taken place, but the contract exists and is in Napier's own hand, and so off I went to check it out!

After driving to a location that was a close as we could get to the site, we still had quite a trek across farmland and hills to get there!
I'm really thankful that the land owners allow people onto their property, mark it so well, and maintain the path!
First we walked across grassy farmland, and then the grassy landscape gave way to hillsides so full of heather that they looked like purple hills.

The heather gave way to bracken fern, and it was then that we began to see the ruins of the castle out on a promontory far downhill.  This whole trek was really quite a scramble.  We are quite far above the castle here, but the castle itself is on a cliff 150 feet above the water.
The bracken gave way to grassland again.  I love the rocks in the sea at the base of the castle cliffs.

This is the view I have always seen of this site.  It has never looked big enough to me to hold a castle.
Across the drawbridge we go, and this too was quite a scramble - even with a few little steps to help out; it was hard to get to the steps in the first place!
In order to get some scale or perspective on this, I took a picture of Toby working on getting up that slab of stone in order to even get to the helpful few steps on the far end.

Even though we have already descended very far in elevation, we are still atop high cliffs.
The promontory is actually quite spacious.  I'll post some pics to try to represent that, but it is hard to see because the promontory is made up of about 4 plateaus with steep drops down to each one, so they are rather hidden whether you look up or down.  I have no idea how anyone built a castle here!  I also can't quite imagine how large retinues traveled here.  For instance, in 1503 Margaret Tudor, the sister of King Henry VIII of England, spend the night here on her way to Edinburgh to marry King James IV of Scotland.  I know horses are sure-footed, but I imagine if they came overland that Princess Margaret would have been in a carriage of some sort, as would her ladies in waiting, and this is very steep terrain.  It's more likely at that time that they would have come by sea, but I don't know how they would have gotten up to the castle along these sheer cliffs.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, also stayed here for a time in 1566.)
Looking back up from on the promontory -- again, far larger than you might think given the view as you approach.

We explored every nook and cranny of this place.  I cannot imagine that anyone has more pictures of it than I do.  I may be exaggerating, but I think I took 200 pictures of this.  It took so long and was so hard to arrange a trip to get here, and it supports my research and my writing, so I wanted to document it well - and I was just really happy!

I don't know that this formation will still be standing even a few years from now, so I was happy I didn't have to wait any longer to get here!

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, there are lots of treasure stories associated with this castle.  Part of that is the sea caves at its base, which may have connected to the castle at some point.  The word "fast" in the name of the castle was initially "faux" or "false," because the owners of the castle would hang out deceptive lights to get sailors to think they were in port, and then the ship would wreck, and the wreckers would claim the spoils.  There was also a lot of smuggling activity along the coast.  It's also the case that Templars did flee to Scotland after the dissolution by the pope on Friday 13, 1307, and so there are rumors of Templar treasure.  (Side note: We were visiting on Friday 13th!)
After scampering around and exploring EVERYTHING, we found a lovely picnic spot and got refreshed.  Not a bad view for a picnic site!

While we were eating we noticed beautiful wildflowers, and Toby noticed something about the stonework of the ruins near us.  There were corbels - a structural piece of stone intended to carry weight, as of a roof - so this part of the ruins was actually atop a wall and tumbled down from the top:

There is a huge sunken area, and I'm not sure what to make of it.  Maybe a quarry?  Maybe a dungeon area where the floor collapsed?
It's all just so beautiful!
We stayed until quite late.
Looking back as we headed out.  How would you like to have been a bricklayer on this castle?!  (Again, from here the promontory is looking to small to accommodate a castle.)
While we were there we saw a rainbow that stayed longer than any rainbow I've ever seen in my life.  What was amazing is that we could see the end of the rainbow, which is something I'd never seen before.  I guess that means there really is treasure here, and, given the position of the end of the rainbow, I suggest that further searches take place on the hill just above the castle.

The other end of the rainbow was in the farmer's field - perhaps treasure here too!
All in all a BEAUTIFUL day - and a joy and privilege to finally get someplace I'd been trying to get to for many years now!  I am so happy and grateful!

I took some video for myself - to help me remember the scale of the place.  If you're interested, check out the 6 1/2 minute video below:

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Napier's Merchiston Castle Today

After having had to end my sabbatical so abruptly in March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, I have kept my eyes open for opportunity to return to the UK and continue my studies - especially wanting to get to Scotland, given my focus on John Napier.  This post is about Merchiston Castle, which is an important site in my studies because it is the castle (or tower house) where Napier was born and where he died.  I have visited here in each of my 4 trips to Edinburgh and have taken many pictures of the outside of the castle.  This time I had a guide who was able to work magic for me (magic = hard work and lots of emails), and I got to explore inside - every nook and cranny of the inside, in fact.  This was quite amazing since the academic year is about to start and this is a very busy time for the administrator who set this up and for the building manager who showed me around, and I am very grateful.  A primary goal for me, always, is to walk in the footsteps of the mathematicians I am studying, so though Merchiston Castle has been renovated many times in many ways over the centuries, it is still the case that I got to get more of a sense of Napier from this tour - especially so from roof-top views I was able to get, which allowed me to see what he would have been able to see from the top of his tower house.

The castle (which you can just see peeking above the modern building on the right above) is the center-piece of Edinburgh Napier University, Merchiston Campus.  The university was built in the 1960s, and restoration work was carried out on the castle/tower.  The inside has been completely modernized, of course, and consists of conference rooms, professor's offices, storage areas, etc.  There seem to be a few original details here and there if you look closely.  I have to admit that I'm sort of cringing as I write because there's such a history here, and I'm treating it very casually, but it would take more writing than a blog post can support in order to be fully detailed and fully accurate.  The castle was probably built in 1454 on lands acquired by the Napier family before 1438.  Over the centuries it was remodeled and added onto, so there were already many changes before the university took possession and incorporated it into their campus.  One reason I wanted to get inside - actually wanted to get on the roof - was to get a sense of location and what would have been visible to John Napier from the windows and roof of his home.  I'm not just studying his life and work but am also writing a novel in which he is a character, and I really need to be able to set the scene.  I also needed to dispel some myths.  For example, there is a small round tower on the roof.  It has been said by some that this is where John Napier carried out alchemical experiments.
Now that I've been inside, I can verify that it is just a small area that provides roof-top access at the top of a spiral staircase.

Even if I hadn't been inside, it should have been pretty obvious that the space was too small to have allowed for anyone to do anything in here, let alone have an alchemical lab set up!
The original main entrance was on the first floor (or what Americans would call the second floor).  This was for defensive purposes.  A wooden staircase would be in place, but in case of attack, it could be removed.  It's quite a lovely entrance.
But now I know what's behind it -- cleaning supplies!  Fair enough; the college needs to function, after all!
Here are a few other pictures of peeking into nooks and crannies.  When I explore, I leave no stone unturned.

Let's look at things that are a bit more polished.
This fireplace is in the original floorplan, and some of the stone could be original (or close to Napier's time).  Caveat: I'm making my best guess.
Here is the ceiling in the same room.  It's possible that a ceiling like this could have been here in Napier's time - see third image below for more comment on this.

The pictures above and below were taken during a previous trip (2016) and are in the Royal Palace inside Edinburgh Castle.  The name above the mantle is James I of Britain (i.e. James VI of Scotland).  He was born in 1566, was king of Scotland but inherited the English throne when Elizabeth I died in 1603, at which point he high-tailed it out of Scotland for the throne in wealthier England, and, as far as I know he never returned.  Therefore I would imagine that this ceiling was here prior to 1603, and therefore this type of ceiling would have been in use during Napier's lifetime (1555-1617).  It seems possible to me, then, that the ceiling in Merchiston Castle could have been there during Napier's time or could be a reproduction of what had been there.  I had always thought of Napier's tower house as being dark, and with vaulted ceilings of dark stone, so this is a bit of a revelation to me (if I'm even correct about my surmising here).  I fear sometimes that I know just enough to be dangerous!
The wear on the steps of the spiral staircase makes me think they could be original.
Although my guide, who is an architectural historian, thought there wasn't enough wear for this to date back to the 16th century.
The top floor is a conference room.  It contains a minstrels' gallery, which is a feature that almost certainly was not there in Napier's time.  It also contains a painted wooden roof that is contemporary to Napier but is not original to Merchiston Castle, rather was brought here from elsewhere.  It's nice that it was able to be saved!  Toby felt that this would have been on a lower floor, though, if there was such a ceiling in this building originally.

I've seen ceilings like this before in other 16th-century buildings in Edinburgh: Gladstone's Land and the John Knox House.

We asked if we could get onto the roof and were told no, which was really disappointing, because I wanted to get that sense of place and surroundings.  However, we were allowed on the roof of a building next to Merchiston Tower, a taller building (which you can see in the second picture in this post), so I got to not only look at the surroundings, but I also had a bird's-eye view of Merchiston Tower itself!

And, as well as a bird's-eye view of the tower, I did get that view of the surroundings that I wanted.  Yes, Napier would have been able to see Edinburgh Castle from the top of his tower.  (And there would have been few, if any, buildings between these two castles, unlike today.)
He could have seen the Pentland Hills to the south (and also the Firth of Forth to the north).
Oh, and there's J. K. Rowling's former home (nearest in the photo below), but, of course, Napier wouldn't have seen that!!
And what a view of Arthur's Seat!!
As with Wardlaw Museum in St. Andrews (and as I know there is in the National Museum), here too was a nice Napier display.
The display has everything from his coat of arms and its history to a canon ball that lodged in the wall during a siege to samples of his calculating devices to the black rooster so closely associated with him.

Unlike at St. Andrews we have multisided rods here, which allowed more flexibility because you have more copies of each digit to work with.

At first the part of the display on the bottom center looks like another set of rods, but it is a different calculating device known as a promptuary.  I think you can calculate faster with this, but it requires more moving pieces and doesn't seem as elegant to me.
And just across the hallway and down a bit is a sculpture of Napier with his rods, a very fitting tribute, I think.

It was wonderful that Scotland opened up again a few weeks before the start of the academic year - allowing me to gain more knowledge about "Napier places."