Sunday, September 27, 2009

Today was supposed to be a quieter day. All we did was walk along the River Ness which runs right through Inverness, houses from the 17th and 18th Century on both sides of this shallow river that runs into Moray Firth and then to the North Sea. We walked out to the Ness Islands to find a forest bordering the river, cedar and pines and the first real changes of autumn, dappling leaves green and yellow mirrored in the sometimes swift, sometimes slowly moving water.

I'm drawn to the song "Loch Lomond" and trying to find out its historical context. I read somewhere that "you take the high road" means you'll be living, while "I'll take the low road" (the road that those who have died all must take), and "I'll be in Scotland before you" means the singer who has died will return home well before his friend who must travel by horse or by foot. Most sources tie the song (written in 1841) to a reaction to the lost cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the fierce reprisals taken against his supporters following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The song is widely sung at the end of any gathering, much like the "Tennessee Waltz" by another generation in another land and time. But the plaintive "Loch Lomond" recalls real suffering and somehow fits so well these Highland hills, emptied of people by war and emigration.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Castle Urquhart . . .

There by the shores of Loch Ness, no monster in sight, we spent the afternoon, under cloudy skies and intermittant light, wandering around the ruins of Castle Urquhart, a romantic spot, even as the cold wind blew and the light changed constantly over the water, the rocks and this quiet place, far from ocean, but not protected from Viking raids or medieval politics. Once held by Robert the Bruce, fought over by Stewarts and MacDonalds, we could see a trebuchet (a wooden seige machine some 30 feet high) outside, and inside explore a three story Gordon Tower to look out at Loch Ness. Remains of a watergate, a dovecote, a smithy, a chapel, and kitchens allowed us to reconstruct what life might have once been.

On the waters of Loch Ness, the tourists boats heaved up and down, making us grateful we had taken the much less expensive bus. And we discovered the Rowan tree, plump with red berries.

Check Webshots (on the right) for more pics of Scotland. I'm sorry to be so far behind on blogging where we've gone. Each day has been so full, this week at Fort George, then Culloden Moor, and our last days in Inverness are winding down as we waddle out each morning, full from Scottish breakfast (porridge, yogurt for me and eggs and all the rest for Allen). But at least I can say the writing goes well. It's turning cold at night here, down to 36 degrees by Tuesday, with highs during the day of upper 50s. Enjoy the last gasps of summer!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fort George and Culloden . . .

Earlier this week, we visited Culloden Moor, a World Heritage site, with a new visitor center, and I found it very hard to write about, for the visit challenged our long-held beliefs about which side we favored. We saw maps, read excerpts of documents from both sides, and then walked around this open field of battle, marked by stone walls and memorials, still echoing with the deaths of nearly 2,000 men.

Culloden Battlefield, Scottish side

In fact, I couldn't take my usual number of pictures here. The battlefield feels too hallowed by war and loss, too much an icon of Scottish history. This picture from Webshots shows the expanse of the moor on the Scottish side, the purple heather just now in September beginning to bloom.

The famous Highland Charge resulted in more than 1,500 deaths for the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. His battle plan was one disaster after another, with men exhausted from an all night march. The cloudy day, the empty moors, all combined to give us a feeling of loss. MacLeans, MacKenzies, MacDonalds, McGillverays. And after the battle was over, the Lord of Cumberland, known ever after as "Butcher Cumberland", issued pretty much a scorched earth policy for Highlanders in general, "Find the rebels and destroy them."

Government troops, rested, well trained, and primarily Dutch, English and some Scottish, used this house to outflank the rebels. The Jacobites, exhausted after an all night march, fired once and began their dreaded Highland Charge, over 7,000 Highlanders screaming across the open field, up to the ramrod straight shooting line of Government troops. They fell by the hundreds before the unbending line of Government steady fire, a tactic that was unsuccessful in North America not too many years in the future.

So as a long-term supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, did I change my mind? Prince Charlie, the underdog, was a royalist through and through, and believed vehemently in the divine right of kings to rule. The House of Hanover, supported by some Highlanders as well, balanced the concept of absolute divine right with some religious tolerance and a role for an expanded Parliament, hotly contested issues in 1746. In fact, unrest in France (I'm remembering the excesses of the French Revolution later) terrified both the upper and middle classes; when Bonnie Prince Charlie's revolution was presented as a rabble, people flocked to the Government side. But speaking of sides, neither side moved too far away from the issue of divine right of kings. These were early, hard days for any concept of democracy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We crawled out of bed at 6am Friday morning to catch the Northlink Ferry from Stromness on Orkney, south across the Pentland Firth, an unreliable strait famous for treacherous tides and sudden storms, to Scrabster, a ride of about an hour and a half. this picture shows our last look at Stromness, by early morning light.

But the sun came out, and except for mild swells which began at 4-6 feet and increased to 10-12 feet, the sea remained billowly calm (I could say bilously calm). Allen couldn't eat breakfast, but I downed good Scottish porridge happily and staggered outside to see the Old Man of Hoy, a 450 foot high column, a sandstone stack completely separate from the cliffs around it, etched with morning fog, whitecaps at its base. This picture from Wikipedia on a sunnier day (mine were way too foggy):
We were somewhat sad to leave Orkney; the first two weeks of our time in Scotland are now behind us. But yesterday we walked all over Stromness and admired the old stone houses and fishing stations still present that speak of the 19th Century life here. At the small but very rewarding Stromness Museum we poured over beaded and carved artifacts from the Ibo in Africa and the Cree in Canada, as well as background on whaling and the Hudson's Bay Company, for Orcadians were highly regarded and comprised nearly 70% of Hudson Bay recruits.

A special exhibit at the Stromness Museum highlighted the trials of Eliza Fraser, the intrepid wife of a sea captain, who was shipwrecked near Australia. She was captured by aborigines there, lost her baby and her husband, struggled through wilderness with some of the surviving crew, and was enslaved (a common treatment of captives by North American tribes in the 18th Century). Mrs. Fraser was ultimately rescued by an Irish convict who had been transported to Australia and who was knowledgeable in the way of the natives there. She returned to England as a sensation, and ultimately remarried and returned to Orkney. We saw her simple stone house in Stromness.

This month's SCOTLAND HISTORY focuses on the connections between Scotland and Australia, with one article about Eliza Fraser.

Landing safely in Scrabster, we hopped on a bus that followed the coastal highway past Wick, Helmsdale, Dunsbeath, Cromarty (all important to the herring fishing trade), and finally to Inverness.

Of course we passed the infamous statue of Sutherland along the way, a monument nearly 100 feet high that sits at the top of Ben Bhraggi, a high hill near Golspie, and looks out over the sea. We understand some Scots prefer this statue be pulled down, given his estate's role in the clearances. The Duke of Sutherland evicted 15,000 tenant farmers to clear and “improve” his land by importing sheep, certainly more profitable in the early days of the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1820). The rolling countryside next to the deep blue sea is beautifully green, marked by immense fields still populated by a mix of cattle and sheep, but I'm remembering the crofters who were evicted.

The islands of Orkney and Shetland are now behind us. Inverness awaits for the next week or so, with its many stone buildings of the 19th Century to explore. We feel a little cut off from news of home with no regular internet access, but these intense weeks here in Scotland are going very quickly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I survived yesterday's challenge, driving a stick shift on the left side of the road. And the stick was located on my left side, not right. And I was sitting on the left side. And the traffic was coming right at me.

We spent the next-to-last day in Orkney dashing all over, from the Kirbuster Crofter Museum (a 19th Century black house, so called for the smoke from the peat fires that blackened the walls inside), the Brough of Birsay (Pictish and Norse ruins on a small island accessible only when the tide is out in a tiny 4 hour window), Skaill House (a country house, upper class, 19th Century), and Maeshowe (a Neolithic burial tomb complete with Viking graffiti).

At the Kirbuster Museum, we spotted this mystery bird. A duck? Your guess is as good as mine. We couldn't find it in bird books OR in any nature exhibit of birds. Suggestions?

I cannot get the Brough of Birsay out of my mind for the sweeping views of the coast (once we crossed over the small tidal beach). This picture is from the very top of the island, near the lighthouse, looking back at the coast. The other side of this tiny island fronts on the Atlantic Ocean with wild waves and steep cliffs. On the quiet side of the island, people built a stone community, later a church, and later still, we come, tourists, but still under the spell of sea, island, and sky.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In the Shetlands.

We're now in a youth hostel in Stromness, back in Orkney, right by the waterfront. We're sitting in the common kitchen with a group of kids and a tour guide, trying to catch up with the international flavor here at nearly 10:00 pm. This is my first time ever in a hostel, no locks on the doors anywhere, a common kitchen with shared food (and shared bathrooms). Someone is now telling a story about a Bulgarian FLK (funny looking kid) who hated Jack Kerouac (ha!).

Actually the internet here is pretty good. We've been immersed in history and culture these last few days, with a 7 hour ferry ride back to Orkney thrown in. We went up to Shetland, spent two days there, with yesterday morning at the Crofthouse Museum, a reconstructed "black house" (from the smokey peat fires) from the 19th Century. On the way back from the Crofthouse Museum, we saw this amazing vista at an old Free Church. Who can imagine how beautiful it is here when the sun is out, these rolling hills so green and yet so close to the sea.

Back in Lerwick, we spent the rest of the day at the Lerwick museum, to see everything from a letter from 1399, complete with archaic script and small coin-shaped seals, to this old fishing station, still a key meeting point for sailors and fishermen.

Tomorrow we will tackle our biggest challenge -- driving a car on the wrong side of the road.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Italian Chapel . . .

Up this morning in a misty sort of rain, onto a bus, past rolling open fields mixed with shaggy sheep and equally shaggy island cattle, past the Highland Distillery, over Churchill Downs, built by Italian P.O.W.'s during World War II to prevent the Germans from entering Scapa Flow (where the British Navy took shelter), and finally to the Italian Chapel.

We walked into a corrugated Quanset hut transformed by paint and plasterboard into an extraordinary chapel, its very walls resembling tiles, bricks, pillars, arches, and foils.

At the very heart of the altar, an exquisite painting of the Virgin with Child, so modeled after a pocket prayer postcard carried by Domenico Chioccochetti, the primary artist and designer of the Chapel itself.

Found materials and pure talent were used to embellish this little Chapel, including two "stained glass" windows (actually painted on mirrors) on either side of the altar.

We found this little Chapel full of peace and hope. The notes on site suggest the Italians, even as they worked on Churchill Downs, won the hearts of the Orcadians with their piety and love of beauty.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Travel to Trumland.

Yesterday we took the car-ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall to Rousay to visit Trumland, an estate famous in Orkney for its singular clearances of tenant farmers in the 1840s and 1850s. The seas were moderate to rough in this small 25-minute crossing, and as we sat over steak and ale pie at the Pier restaurant, we could watch the "roost", a swift and dangerous tide running in this narrow strait separating Rousay Island from the Mainland of Orkney. Fishermen drowned in this fierce tide, which today our car-ferry surmounted easily with powerful engines.

in 1846, the "Little General", George William Traill, 1792-1847, cleared his land of 210 people to enclose the fields and modernize his "farm" and it is this history I have come to understand, the only clearance in all of Orkney. So we walked up the hill and onto the infamous Trumland Estate, up the sweeping entry, past two guardian English lions. Only the gardens were open, but we could see much evidence of reconstruction on the house and gardens. A fire damaged the roof of this large estate in 1986 after a ghostly sighting of the "Little General", but the new owners have persevered, perhaps one day to open the house to the public. We wandered through the small garden; here, fuscias grow as large as trees, warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The slideshow includes some pictures of the very beautiful St. Magnus Cathedral here in Kirkwall, begun in 1147, and stunning in its size and use of Orkney red sandstone. Inside the Romanesque style columns bring your eye up and up to the ceiling. We heard an organist practicing here, the sounds rising and echoing throughout the church. You'll also see the Ring of Brodgar and one shot of Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village. Today, a somewhat foggy day, it's back to the library and research in the archives, for tomorrow we leave for Lerwick in the Shetlands.

Orkney and Shetland

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A little about Kirkwall . . .

Maybe it's the clouds that remind me of Oregon, or the misty rain that comes now and then, but I feel absolutely at home in Kirkwall. The wind from the North Sea blows, at times fierce and constantly; today, we're told to expect near gale force winds but sun in the afternoon. Nothing stops the wind here. The land is mostly flat, neatly divided into fields. We can see, from our lovely second floor room at Mrs. Muir's Guesthouse, all the way past the town's edge and to the sea.

Yesterday we took an orienting tour to this island, joining a bus up from John o' Groats. Our witty driver told very bad jokes along with snips of history and culture as we drove past Scapa Flow, stopped at Stromness, and then on to the Neolithic Skara Brae and Ring of Brodgar. Scapa Flow, a very large bay, opens to the Atlantic, so we're on the far part of the Mainland (this main island of Orkney, which is norse for seal-land, though we haven't seen any seals -- yet).

We wandered around Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village dated to 3,100 BCE, some 5,000 years ago. This amazing stone settlement was discovered in 1850 after a fierce storm blew the protecting sand dunes away. Today, we can walk through one restored house and see the remains of some 7 stone houses built into the ground and connected by tunnels. The houses feature stone beds, stone dressers, even a stone cooking pot built into the floor, and a hearth in the center.

While researchers don't know what the roof covering was, the replica shows a kind of grassy covering, making the settlement nearly invisible from the sea. The doors are locking, which is somewhat unusual in Kirkwall, where no doors are locked, except for one house which was locked from the outside. The skeletons of two women were found inside; we can only guess why. And the mystery of why the people left is unsolved. Some say sea water contaminated the settlement's fresh water pool. Certainly the sea is much closer than it was so many years ago. But as we looked at the tiny bone needles, the strangely shaped stone ritual tools (function unknown), I realize this place must have been a good home, for its temperate climate, easy access to fishing, good farming and hunting.

We then visited the Ring of Brodgar, the northernmost such site in Britain, and walked around its remaining circle of 27 stones, once 60. The site, encircled by a deep trench, is tilted towards the rising and setting of the sun, with several important burial mounds nearby. We walked its 340 feet diameter path and could feel the power of this ancient place, so similar to Stonehenge, for the people came by water and in reverence.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

If it's Thursday, it's Edinburgh

We're here! Safely landed. Left Philadelphia in a haze of freeway traffic, summery blue skies, goodbye hugs, then on to Air France, a blast from the past with its bag of goodies for passengers (eye mask, really good earphones, ear plugs), and it wasn't so easy figuring out how to put on the earphones (they hook over your ears). We each had our own little individual TV screens with touch pads and a good sampling of movies – I watched The Proposal (chick flic) and Allen laughed himself silly with The Hangover (guy flic).

Then the good looking, urbane French-speaking steward brought us hot food. Air France gets an A+. We attacked a small appetizer of salmon,goat cheese and coos-coos, moved on to lemon chicken and curried barley with very fresh, crusty French bread, and finished with something that looked like a chocolate torte with tapioca pudding, and, the finale – a nice creamy camenbert-tasting cheese right from Tillamook, Oregon. Switched planes in Paris (too bad, only a 2 hour wait), and have now landed at The Laurels, a small b&b in Edinburgh. Outside, a comfortable soft rain (about 55 F) is falling and tomorrow, we'll begin exploring this Georgian town, small, friendly, and very accessible with many street and place names after King George himself.

Here's our travel plan (Lynda, this is for you!);
September 3-5 Orientation in Edinburgh (pronounced something like Edinburr-eh)
September 6-11 Kirkwall on Orkney (Kirkwall is a capital of these northern islands just off Scotland's mainland)
September 12-13 Lerwick on the Shetland Islands (the farthest north)
September 14-17 Stromness back on Orkney (an important seaport on Orkney for fishing and history of Hudson Bay Company)
September 18-30 Inverness
Then a month back in Edinburgh. I don't know how we did it, but we found an apartment right on the Royal Mile, in central historic Edinburgh.

Time right now, 2:44 am, some 6 hours ahead of whatever time it is back in Philadelphia. The internet is up and running. We had our first pub experience at the Robin's Nest, just half a block down the lane from our bed and breakfast. Yes, the cars run on the opposite side of the street, rather disconcerting when crossing the street. Absolutely delicious roast chicken penne, toasted garlic bread, and "green leaves" on the side (salad!), with some kind of pale ale (Allen couldn't understand what kind of draft we were getting). The atmostphere -- nonsmoking, friendly, tables for dining on one side, brightly lit, lots of people, including a table for poker full up with young men nursing their cards and their beers. On the other side (we peeked in on the way home), the more serious drinkers, maybe beers and bitters.

The internet is up and running (and it wasn't earlier). The little Samsung netbook (2.3 pounds) is working great. Allen's snoring. I can't believe we're really here. All is well.