A study visit organized with financial support of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków brought four students of English at its Institute of English Studies to the remote places that Chopin visitted in the summer and autumn of 1848.
It was very early in the morning on the 24th day of March that we embarked on our expedition to retrace Frédéric Chopin's steps in Scotland in 1848. His journey from London to Caledonian soil lasted twelve long hours, ours from Kraków to Glasgow nearly three. He travelled by railway laid just a couple of months before, we covered a longer distance, yet enjoying the comfort of the place.
It was quite a challenge to wake up early enough to arrive at the airport at 5 am, but all of us made it on time, despite a limited amount of sleep we got the previous night. The drowsy time of the three-hour flight was disturbed by a strong turbulence which came over Glasgow, yet we landed happily. Scotland welcomed us in a very Scottish way - with clouds, drizzle and cold wind. Suprise...
The turbulence was the first of two unexpected, even fearsome experiences that day. Hardly had we gotten in the hired car that were hit by another customer of the rental company, perhaps still trying to work out the British rules of driving on the "right" side of the road. Thank God the incident did not cause any damage. Otherwise, we would probably have had no choice but to explore Scotland the same way Chopin did in 1848 - on foot or by a carriage. Or by ship.
After settling that nothing serious happened, we finally set off to the first post on our list where we had an appointment with representatives from the local community - Wishaw - just a 30-minute ride from the airport. Our main objective was to see the ruins of what once was Wishaw House sadly demolished in the 1950s - a home of Lord and Lady Belhaven, hosting the forlorn Chopin in early October 1848. Graham Butt and John Smillie, from Wishaw's Campfire History, and other members of Coltness Community Council were already waiting for us to take us on a guided walk in the nearby woods to the the ruins of the forgotten Wishaw House.
Completely demolished, or perhaps one should say, barbarously savaged some 60 years ago, Wishaw House is there no more. You can see the traces of the mansion, though. As we were approaching our destination we were shown the remains of a dove court or the bureau of a former coal mine. And by remains I mean few moss-covered stones. And then a heartbreaking sight emerged: the place there Wishaw House was once located was now a touching area covered with the woods and other plants. The ruins of the Belhavens' once spectacular residence have now been covered with moss, symbolically illustrating the power of nature that has taken over the area in the past six decades. To think the place where our Great Romantic stayed 171 years ago could so easily fall into oblivion.
The walk culminated in a campfire with hot coffee and marshmallows served. In the walk there also participated Mrs. Catherine Stihler, a former member of the European Parliament, who altogether with her family invited us afterwards for a dinner at a local golf club. Our hosts were interested in our concern about Chopin's visit to faraway Scotland, which we discussed with great pleasure over the meal.
It was already around 4 pm when we decided to drive to our hotel in order to check in and take a short break as the day so far had been exhausting. We gave up on Hamilton Palace, another demolished residence of Chopin's stay and went to the Merchant Hall in the center of Glasgow instead. This was the place of Chopin's only recital in Glasgow. We could not make it inside the Hall, but we photographed the facade; it was the last item on the list of the first day of the expedition Scotland in Chopin's footsteps 2019.
It was not surprising that chilly Scottish weather greeted us again on the 2nd day of our Scottish expedition. Dressing hastily, we bounded down the stairs, eager to try the famous English (or Scottish- similar to the English version but with haggis) breakfast. We were not disappointed, though the lack of bakery fresh bread was keenly felt.
Though we gladly would have sipped our coffee for an hour longer, the professor was adamant - Chopin was waiting, after all. In a flash our suitcases were piled into a heap in our rental car and off we went. I wish I could say we were already accustomed to driving on the left side, but entering a roundabout on the 'wrong' side caused the same wave of panic as it had the day before. Other problems were caused by the steadily falling temperature in the vehicle - later we realized that setting the AC to low didn't decrease the speed of the fans, but rather that the temperature in the car was as low as the system (and we!) could handle. We solved the problem in the end, and by that time we had reached our first destination - Johnston Castle.
Though the name suggests otherwise, all that is left of it today is a two-story building with a small turret attached. In the times of Chopin however, the building and the surrounding grounds took up a comparable amount of space to that of the town of Johnston today. It was here that Chopin nearly met his end in a potentially fatal carriage accident (one of the horses reared and bolted, causing the carriage to crash into a tree with Chopin still inside). Unfortunately, our attempts to enter the residence were unfruitful, but that did not stop us from admiring it from the outside and taking a few memorable photographs.
Luck was not on our side, as our next stop, Milliken house, proved to be impossible to find. Despite hours of wrestling with two faulty navigation systems and desperate attempts to acquire information from passersby, we were forced to turn back. Milliken house (with its famous, fairytale-like Milliken tower) was the main residence of Sir William and Lady Napier, one of the many sisters of Jane Sterling, this of course being the reason for his stay in the refined estate.
We were not disappointed for long, as in a mere hour we arrived at Strachur House, located in western Scotland on the banks of Loch Fyne. Before entering the house, we took a stroll down by the edge of the same water which Chopin walked by, soaking in the heavy air of the now murky water and admiring the nearby clusters of daffodils. Having taken some beautiful photographs and contemplated a bit, we left for Strachur with a small pang of regret stemming from our wish to stay longer. However, we were expected at 1 P.M. and Sir Charles McLean - the owner of the house - was waiting for us. After some brief introductions, we were taken on a brief tour of the house in which Chopin rested for many happy days. Shortly we were being ushered through Victorian-style rooms until we reached our primary destination: the music room. Here dr Jaroszek discussed the possibility of a concert of Chopin's music being played on the 200-year-old pianoforte, in the company of an equally advanced in age harpsichord. As we had seen all of the house that was available to visitors, we said goodbye to our kind host and started our long drive up to the Scottish Highlands, where the nearest reasonable accommodations could be found.
Thus ended day 2 of our expedition, and exhausted as we were, we called it a day shortly after reaching our lodgings in the quaint, highland town of Fort William.
Chopin never visitted Fort William. We just needed some rest.
We started our day with the rich breakfast because there was a long way to Gurgunnock ahead of us. Although we were not delighted by the perspective of this long haul, it turned out to be an amazing ride. Such was our enthrallment by the views of the untamed Scotland that we had to stop our car very often to take some more pictures. We managed to admire even the rainbow which was the essence of the Scottish weather then. The trip was also an opportunity to raise interesting discussions about variable subjects from contemporary education in Poland to Chopin's way of transport. He may have been "dragged around" Scotland, still he must have been inspired by the Scottish landscape. Who knows, maybe if he hadn't been terminally ill, he would have composed some sonatas or mazurkas with a hint of Scotland in them.
Our destination welcomed us with another ration of the wonderful views. We reached Gurgannock House and its marvelous park and garden which owes its present appearance to the last of the Stirlings of Gurgannock - Miss Viola H.C. Stirling. The house is considered as a place where Chopin was brought by Jane, where he stayed a while and probably played a grand piano which has stayed in the house to this very day. Unfortunately, we weren't able to come inside the building; however we could enjoy its surroundings. We were fascinated especially by the abundance of golden daffodils which made us feel like William Wordsworth. We had also an opportunity to admire an old and large sequoia which, for sure, remembers Chopin's visit in Gurgannock. After one of us had said that hugging trees reduce stress and have apossitive effect on our health, we hugged it without much consideration. We left Gurgannock in high spirits, with Wordsworth's poems and Chopin's music in our thoughts.
Our next stop was Dunblane when we were to meet with direct descendants of Jane Stirlig - Patrick and Susan Stirling-Aird of Kippenross. On our way we stopped to admire a foggy view of the Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument lurking from afar. Dunblane came out as an atmospheric, cozy town with its monstrual Dunblane Cathedral - the place where Jane Stirling was most likely buried. The Cathedral is one of the few surviving medieval churches in Scotland and it is incredibly impressive. Welcomed to sightseeing by a lovely Scottish custodian of it, we quickly headed for to the north aisle of the nave which is also known as the 'Keir' or the 'Stirling' aisle. There we found a golden plaque with the inscription: "To the glory of God and in memory of those members of the House of Stirling of Kippendavie interred in this aisle from 1595 to 1859". This suggests Jane is among them as she died just in 1859. That was a magical moment when we could nearly touch the history. Or herstory. Further in the aisle we saw also a memorial of John Stirling - the father of Jane, and Patrick Stirling - her brother.
Leaving the cathedral we were still enraptured by its greatness and majesty, but we were also in a hurry for our appointment with the owners of the Old Kippenross House. This is the place where Jane Stirling grew up. As a Scottish tradition has it, we bought flowers for Mrs. Stirling-Aird and we left the centre of Dunblane to find the road to old manor. For an unacquainted visitor it could be a hard task as the house is well hidden from the public, but for dr. Jaroszek it was a child's play. He know which turnning to take, once or twice and here it emerged - a fifteenth century house , painted pink to symbolize support for the Jacobites in the 18th century. We were welcomed by Patrick and Susan Stirling-Aird, their daughter - Lucinda and their lovely border terrier. It was a short, but fascinating meeting. We were allowed to take a look at the New Kippenross House, also unavailable to the public, and look around the garden and the marvelous park surrounding the property. We came across some horses and even a young beautiful deer. So idyllic was the atmosphere that we started talking about Chopin's loss when he decided not to come to Kippenross. We pictured, in our mind's eyes, Jane, who visited her birthplace alone, walking through the path, thinking about her Frederic and picking a rosary leaf for him.
We left Kippenross in a melancholic mood and decided to make a quick stop on our way near the Old Stirling Bridge. Thence we hit the road to Edinburgh where we were to discover more about Chopin's Scottish expedition.
We began exploring our planned destinations for the last day of our fascinating expedition in the evening of day four. The story begins on August 5th 1848 when Chopin, after twelve hours of an exhausting journey, arrived at the Lothian Road Station and met with Dr. Lyszcynski who was meant to guide Chopin through his recovery.
The fifth day began in the early hours of the morning. Ready for new adventures, we eagerly left our rooms and rushed out down to enjoy our last Scottish breakfast. Despite having to wait for quite a few moments for our food to be served, our enthusiasm for grasping the last bits of Scottish beauty did not fade away. After a nutritious meal and a slightly too strong coffee we were ready to investigate new destinations.
The first location we explored this day was what used to be Hopetoun Rooms where Chopin gave a public concert on October 4th 1848. It was, in fact, the last concert that Chopin gave in public, hence the place is of unique importance. The place was under reconstruction and we were not able to see its interiors. Still, we certainly felt the spirit hovering over this area.
After arriving at the Lothian Station on 5 August 1848, Chopin spent two nights at Douglas Hotel in St. Andrew Square. We managed to locate the doors of the building that used to serve as the hotel. We were afraid, however, that the front door would be the only part of this building we would see this day, but much to our surprise the door suddenly opened and we were greeted by a very kind and welcoming lady, who generously agreed to give us a short tour of the place.
Our next and sadly last stop was Dr. Lyszczysnki apartment at 10 Warriston Crescent in which Chopin used to recover under the watch of his hosts. It was fairly easy to track down the place. On the wall is a plaque commemorating Chopin's stay in this very apartment. The place itself was unfortunately locked down and, as we have recently learned, has been put on sale. Let us hope the new owner will appreciate the legacy of the place and will make it available to history and music lovers at times. ,
We concluded our expedition with a short tour around the city of Edinburgh, trying to photograph the view of the city covered by the beams of sunset and buying souvenirs which of course included fridge magnets and traditional Scottish Shortbread. Satisfied with our successful journey, with a big smile on our faces we set off to an airport.