MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 1989

Once on the main road, Jon tilted the passenger seat and dozed until I woke him to inform him I’d achieved fourth gear on the reasonably smooth road and the giddy-making speed of forty miles per hour.

We passed the turning to the Valley of the Dragon, named after the dragon-slaying feat of Hazrat Ali. It had been terrorizing the citizens of the area, wreaking havoc and devouring everything until the king made a deal with him. Providing the dragon was given sufficient sustenance each day, including, amongst other fodder, two camels and a virgin, he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Valley of the Dragon, near Bamiyan. Pic from Wikipedia

Understandably, many families were still upset by the way their daughters kept disappearing.  Given the task of destroying the dragon, Hazrat Ali, split it in two with his sword, Zulfiqar, leaving its dead body blocking the entrance to the valley. Blood and tears poured from its body and head. The illusion is retained by mineral springs trickling from the giant beast’s head, and the groans of the dragon can be heard at the place where Ali’s sword sliced the dragon.

It was late evening, and bitterly cold when we reached Bamiyan. At the hotel we were given a small back room to ourselves. Rahimy took the sheep for a short stroll down the street but couldn’t find fodder for it. It was singularly unimpressed by the dry nan it was offered and so went to bed hungry.

Shahr-i-Gholghola also known as City of Screams

There was a strong smell of sheep clinging to our bedding, but by then I was coming down with a heavy cold and was spared the worst of it. We huddled close together, under assorted layers of blankets and sleeping bags while we ate our kebabs. I was shivering when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, feeling wretched. Everyone else was equally cold and miserable, but in the morning we cheered up, after the hotel’s breakfast speciality. 

Our first task, before becoming tourists, was to find the clinic run by a French medical organisation. We hoped their doctors could operate on Ghulam Ali, thus sparing him the hardship of the long journey to Pakistan. There were two French doctors, one male, one female, on duty, and they invited us for coffee. A warm sun had banished the previous night’s cold and we sat in the garden admiring the late roses in bloom. A table was laden with goodies: breakfast cereals, jam, biscuits and drinking chocolate. Our hosts looked surprised when the three Afghans ignored the pot of tea, clearly brought for their benefit, and helped themselves to the instant coffee. 

On the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola looking over the Bamiyan Valley

The doctors said they could perform the minor surgery on Ghulam Ali the following day which would allow him to return to his home before the road was closed by snow. When they heard we were staying in a hotel they invited us to spend the night in the clinic buildings. There was an empty room if we didn’t mind sharing it. We accepted gratefully, hoping it would be warmer than our room at the hotel. As Ghulam Ali was unable to walk far we left him sitting in the sunshine outside the room.

Rahimy let the sheep out for some exercise and fresh air. Finding food for her was still proving difficult but a man, who seemed remarkably unsurprised at the sight of a sheep being driven around in a Toyota by foreigners, kindly shared the fodder he’d just bought for his own five sheep. 

The first visitor attraction on our itinerary was the giant Buddha. I’ve already written about the visit HERE.

From there we drove through what had been Bamiyan’s ‘new’ city, built in pre-revolution times. The Government offices, hospital and tourist hotel, all of which must have been incredibly ugly edifices of concrete, had been bombed out of existence. We gazed up at the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola, the ancient mountain citadel of Bamiyan. A mujahid yelled an invitation for us to climb up.  

Defending the city

We followed a well-defined path which twisted and turned as it rose steeply towards the top.  Just off the path some areas were roped off, like valuable exhibits in a stately house and, thinking one of them looked suitable to be used as a loo, well hidden from view, I was about to step off the path over the rope when Rahimy gave a shout of alarm. “Those are mined areas,” he explained. I decided to wait.

Three mujahideen welcomed us, as we rounded the final bend and, delighted in their role of tour guides, proceeded to show us around. We scrambled about on the earthworks, in between and over sandbags, all the while being given a detailed account of the battle which had forced the Russian troops to flee. Apart from the path up which we had climbed there was no other route to the summit, and seeing the awesome, sheer drop it was easy to imagine that whoever held that position must have felt reasonably safe.

Earthworks and foxholes, all part of the defence system

We stood drinking in the tremendous view of the fertile Bamiyan valley below us, until our guides led us to inspect the rubbish tip which was full of empty tin cans left by the Russian soldiers. The mujahideen spoke with such dismay and disgust about this environmental vandalism he gave the impression he thought the invaders should have had the decency to take their rubbish with them, or at least bury it deep in the mountain. 

Over tea, Mukhtar, the self-appointed spokesman, told us tales of another invader of long, ago: Genghis Khan. He and his army had surrounded the citadel of Bamiyan but the besieged inhabitants, despite dwindling food supplies, refused to surrender. The wife of the ruler, however, realising defeat was an eventual certainty and, not wishing to share the fate of her husband and his people when it happened, decided to negotiate with Genghis Khan.            

Slipping out of the palace one night, she secretly met with the Mongolian warlord, telling him of a secret water supply to the citadel and where its flow could be stopped. Once the water supply had been cut Bamiyan soon fell. Genghis, who was always hardest on those who withstood his forces for longest, ordered that every man, woman and child be slaughtered.  The king’s wife was suitably rewarded by Genghis – he had her publicly executed for her treacherous behaviour towards her own people.

MarySmith’sPlace – #Book launch #Successful

Keith Kirk and I enjoyed our launch party for A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History. I think the folk who turned out on a filthy wet miserable evening enjoyed it too.

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Our lovely, receptive audience

I was in my usual panic mode, convinced no one would turn up, especially as a trickle of ‘sorry, I can’t make it after all’ emails came in and the rain never stopped all day. The first thing we did when arriving at the venue was to haul chairs out and hide them in a store room so the place would not look too empty. Then, as people started arriving, we had to haul them back out again.

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Standing room only at the back

Keith’s granddaughters did a sterling job, meeting, greeting and directing people to the room then taking round the bowls of nibbles.

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The three lovely helpers in the front row (photo credit Keith Kirk)

We kept the introduction to the book fairly short – Keith talked a little about the photography aspect, I read out a few of my favourite entries in the book and we answered questions before urging everyone to enjoy some more Prosecco. And, of course, we pointed out A-Z of Dumfries is a wonderful Christmas gift and offered to sign books.

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Keith and I doing our stuff

Since then we have done a book-signing in the museum on Saturday morning and it was lovely to see people who couldn’t make the launch come to buy a book or two.

Next Saturday, December 07, we’ll do our final book signing, which will be in Waterstones – just perfectly timed for Christmas shoppers – as long as they don’t have to post them abroad. I took in some posters and fliers plus photos from the book so they could make a display in the shop – ousting Billy Connolly from his advertising spot!

If you are in Dumfries on Saturday, we’ll be in Waterstones from 11am to 1.00pm

After that, we are available to talk to groups and organisations about the writing and photography process that went into A-Z of Dumfries – a fine companion to Secret Dumfries.

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A few people have asked about book launches and whether it’s worth doing them so after our last book signing I’ll put something together with a more detailed account of what we did and how successful – or otherwise – it has been.

MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House

In a previous post about my summer as a museum attendant in the Old Bridge House, Dumfries, I showed our Victorian dentist’s surgery, which you can read here. This time, let me introduce you to Granny Black who was a resident for over forty years.

Granny Black

Granny Black

In the early 1900s, the council divided the building into two, three-roomed flats. The three rooms consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and parlour. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. The latter was probably dealt with by emptying the contents of chamber pots into the river. Fresh water was certainly being piped into the town by then so drinking water would have been available, possibly from a nearby standpipe or  a well.

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Dressing table in the downstairs flat

Annie Black (nee Lind) and her husband, John, moved into the first floor flat around 1910. Annie was illegitimate and worked as a farm hand before she married. They had six children, including one set of twin girls.

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We know very little about John Black. He’s been described as earning his living as a ‘jobbing painter’ – guessing this means painting houses rather than pictures. The only other things we know about him is that he liked to drink – his grandson James Murray said it was his greatest talent – and that he died after an accident when drunk. Outside the building are large sandstone ‘skite’ stones, put in place when the house was built to protect it from being struck by wagon wheels. John Black fell down drunk and cracked his head on the skite stone. This may be why the couple only had six children at a time when families of ten were not uncommon.

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Cradle and child’s high chair

Annie, or Granny Black as she became known, worked as the local midwife. She also laid out the dead. A number of visitors of the museum told us their grandmothers or great aunts did the same job, attending to both the beginning and end of life.

Granny Black and her downstairs neighbour went together every week to the public laundry where she always had the use of the best tub. She could also have a bath as above the laundry was the public bathhouse where people could pay for soap, towel and half an hour’s soak in a hot bath. She also liked to sit in the doorway to the flat and knit while watching the world go by – she would have known everyone and everything that went on in the area.

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The laundry and public baths on the right, sadly, demolished as is the swimming pool pictured on the left.

She died around 1955 at the age of eighty-six. After Annie passed away the council made the decision to turn the building into the museum it is today.

Her grandson, whose mother was one of Granny Black’s twin girls, James Murray remembers going to stay with his grandmother in the Old Bridge House. He is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at University of Washington and University of Oxford, known for his authoritative and extensive work entitled Mathematical Biology. What a leap in two generations. I am pretty sure Annie Black made sure her children did their homework!

MarySmith’sPlace – Visiting Neverland

Today a friend and I went to Neverland, that magical island which was home to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. We were visiting Moat Brae in Dumfries the garden of which J M Barrie maintained was his inspiration for Neverland. As it was Doors Open this weekend, entrance to the house and garden was free and we were amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors taking advantage of this. Normal entrance fees are £6.50 for adults, £5.00 for children aged five and over and £2.50 for toddlers.

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The exterior of Moat Brae

In 2009, owner of the historic building, Loreburn Housing Association planned to demolish it and build affordable housing on the site. An action group was formed to save and restore the building and garden and it has now opened as a visitor attraction and a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

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The dining room can be hired for events

Moat Brae, which takes its name from the motte or earthwork castle which once stood on the site, was designed in 1823 by local architect Walter Newall for Robert Threshie, a local solicitor. He lived in Moat Brae with his family until 1841 when it was bought by Mrs Babbington, a minister’s widow followed by, on her death in 1863, by Henry Gordon. This is where the J M Barrie connection comes in for Henry Gordon’s two sons, Henry and Stewart, attended Dumfries Academy where they became friendly with James who was living with his older brother Alexander, a schools inspector.

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Peter Pan

The boys spent many hours playing in the gardens by the river. Barrie wrote later: “When shades of light began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and crept up trees and down walls in an odyssey which would long after become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”

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The house passed out of private ownership and was for many years a private hospital and nursing home. In 1914 it was purchased by the Royal Scottish Nursing Institution and was given the title Moat Brae Nursing Home providing a private facility for surgery and medicine and also respite care for the elderly. Later, a businessman from Paisley bought it but was unable to secure the funding he needed to turn it into a themed hotel and sold it to Loreburn Housing Association.

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It is a beautiful house, possibly better appreciated when it is not full to overflowing with excited children and harassed parents. Plenty of activities are available for children in the various rooms including staging a play with scripts available, creative spaces, and lots of things to see and do. The garden is lovely but I have to admit I didn’t feel the magic. Children were obviously having a great time playing on the Jolly Roger. Part of me couldn’t help thinking (grumpy old woman coming to the fore) J M Barrie didn’t need a whacking great pirate ship to feed his imagination.

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Peter Pan flew round the room and also Tinker Bell, which I couldn’t capture. One little girl had a total melt down, floods of tears, every time Tinker Bell flashed by.


MarySmith’sPlace – O is for Old Bridge House #OpenWide

In A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and O is for Old Bridge House in Dumfries, where I have been working as a seasonal museum attendant this summer.

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The kitchen – no sink as there was no running water when it was occupied.

Dating back to 1660, and built into the structure of the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, it is the town’s oldest domestic building. James Birkmyre, a cooper (barrel maker) built the sandstone house as both his family home and workshop. The town council of the day, worried about his house blocking the bridge insisted the front of the house did not protrude beyond the line of the bridge parapet. He doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of such planning restrictions.

Seen from the bridge, the building looks as though it is only one storey but from the back it can be seen there are two and in fact, when it was built, there was a lower floor which is now beneath the level of the ground. Over the years the house has been an inn, possibly a secret meeting place for Covenanters (using the principle of hiding in plain sight?), a family house and two council flats (more about that in another post) before eventually being turned into a folk museum. Most of the six rooms are crammed with artefacts depicting every-day life from the last couple of centuries.

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Recognise items here?

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The school room/toy room

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The scariest doll ever!

One room is filled with Victorian dental equipment. I really hate going to the dentist. When I was five or six years old I was thrown out of the school dentist’s caravan because I wouldn’t stop screaming. The fear has remained ever since, exacerbated by being given gas before having teeth removed because the dentist said my jaw was too small to accommodate all my second teeth. I still remember the horrible smell of the gas and coming round thinking I still had to endure the ordeal, despite spitting blood everywhere.

You can imagine how I felt about having to show visitors the Victorian dentist’s surgery in the museum. All the equipment, including the dentist’s foot-operated drill, the stand for the gas canister, the cabinets full of false teeth, the pliers and the chair, were donated by the son of a dentist – Dr Dykes – who had a practice in Dumfries.

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Sorry about the reflection in this pic – those are teeth.

The smell of dentistry assails you as you enter the room. One visitor asked if we had a special spray to make it smell that way but, no, we don’t. The odour has seeped into the fabric of the red velvet chair – red velvet, I heard my colleague inform a tourist, disguised the blood stains.


Countless people have stood in that room over the summer telling me their personal horror stories of the dentist. School dentists in the 1950s have a lot to answer for with regard to the state of population’s (of a certain age) teeth. Jane was treated to the story of a woman who even remembered Dr Dykes. One Christmas Eve, aged twenty-one, pregnant and suffering from toothache she called on him. She remembers him putting the gas mask over her face and when she came round it was to find he had removed not only the troublesome one, but all her teeth. She said she went home and cried all night. He probably believed he was doing her a favour.

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The Chair

At one time, people were given the removal of all their teeth as a wedding gift or a twenty-first present. At one time, children were paid to have healthy teeth extracted. At one time, soldiers lying dead on the battlefield had their teeth extracted for use in dentures. We often shake our heads and mutter that the ‘progress’ we make in many areas of life does not always make things better but in dentistry things have definitely improved.

I still hate going to the dentist – have an appointment today for a check-up so didn’t sleep well last night and the horror stories I’ve heard over the summer are not helping. Does anyone else remember the school dentist coming round in his caravan? Or the smell of gas?

MarySmith’sPlace – How I’ve been spending my summer

The title sounds a bit like those essays we were set in school on ‘How I spent my summer holidays’ except this isn’t about holidays. I had to take a blogging break this summer to focus on writing a local history book for Amberley Publishing: A-Z of Dumfries- Places-People-History, in collaboration again with photographer Keith Kirk. Also, because I am once again working as a seasonal museum attendant, this time at the Old Bridge House museum.

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Old Bridge House Museum – the oldest house in Dumfries, built in 1660

The deadline for the book was August 01 and I’d really hoped to finish it before then as I started my museum job on July 01 and I didn’t want to be coming home from working one job to spend the evening working on another job. Of course, I didn’t succeed in finishing it early – but did make the publisher’s deadline.

Each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and some letters have more than one entry. While most A–Z guides are designed as route finders, this one invites readers on an alphabetical tour of discovery of some of the places and people, past and present, which have contributed to creating the Queen of the South, the town of which Doonhamers are, rightly, so proud.

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The Caul (weir) on the River Nith

Many of the town’s streets were named after the topography; others were named in tribute to worthy citizens whose names probably mean little to younger people nowadays. Work on the book has been enlightening, on occasions frustrating – street names change for no apparent reason; Doonhamers have an endearing way of giving directions that take in landmarks long since knocked down such as the swimming pool (‘you know where the swimming pool was?’), or have been under a different name for many years – such as Young’s Corner (‘We always met at Young’s Corner’). It will be interesting to see if future generations continue with this practice or if one day the site of the old swimming pool will no longer be a referral point.

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The Globe Inn, favourite pub of Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns. Under new ownership it’s currently being refurbished but should be open soon.

Some letters provided an abundance of place names and names of famous people or landmarks (we could have filled the entire book with Bs and Cs) while others, X and Z were a bit thin on the ground. We think we’ve come up with really good entries for both of those!

As always, the research has been fascinating and we made some exciting finds – a medieval sandstone carving of a bagpipe playing pig above a fish and chip shop being the most exciting.

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The Piping Pig

Publishing date is November 15 – perfect for Christmas sales. It’s already on Amazon for pre-order even though the publisher hasn’t yet put up the cover. Keith and I think we know how it will look as he sent in some cracking images for it. I’ll provide more info nearer the time with some more sneak peeks into the book.

Credit for all photos in this post to Keith Kirk.