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Posts from the ‘Scotland’ Category

Of Singing, Storytelling & Spirits

Edinburgh is the friendliest big city I have ever visited. That is probably because of it’s history. There used to be a toll to leave or enter the city centuries ago. Since most people could not afford the tax, most people never left. The buildings were built higher and higher to accommodate the increasing population. Interestingly enough, the architects of the Middle Ages discovered how high they could actually layer a building when it did not collapse upon itself. A pub stands at the edge of the city called, “The End of the World.” For most of the inhabitants, at that time, this was near the end of their world; inside the walls was the only world they knew and the people here had to learn to get along with their neighbors since they could not just leave.

The city survived three plagues and villains such as the famous murderers, Burke & Hare, who killed wayward travelers and locals, “no one would miss”. They sold their corpses to the medical school down the road. I was amazed at how many of our colloquial sayings come from this area: such as “laughing ’til your head falls off” and “graveyard shift”. People here seem to know how to tell a good tale from their history. If the teller embellishes, “just a little”, to make it a better yarn; then, you bet, the history will be highlighted with a few extra tidbits.

I heard three different versions of the Stone of Destiny and all guides told me that they had the historical truth. The tales of the dead and the spirits which still walked or haunted the living in underground vaults, the graveyard, city streets and old buildings were a main attraction among the ghost tour guides. The later the tour in the evening hours, the more scary the tales….”Boo!” Things can get a little jumpy with the slightest of sounds. Even though I originally wanted to also attend the 10 PM night tour I found that the stories at the 8:30 PM session was all I wanted to handle before bedtime.

Guides of ghosts tours aren’t the only ones that are famous for their story telling around here. This is one of the few cities I have ever found a literary museum celebrating the work of home town authors; Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) remain a few of their greatest from Edinburgh. But the Elephant Cafe is an even more bustling place than this museum as it is the “Birthplace of Harry Potter.” Yes, J.K. Rowling started her famous series here and you too can sit in the place of her creating for only the cost of an overpriced burger….By the way, wifi is extra.

So when you tire of the spoken or written tale you can listen to the rhythm of the story. You will always find a lyrical version of the stories you hear in the plentiful, yet local, pubs. I loved the fast moving jigs but often, if you listen to the words, you’ll hear sad Scottish stories coming through; such as in the song, “I swear I killed my liver over you.”

Which leaves us with the other type of “spirits” in Edinburgh. Instead of Beer Pubs, expect Whiskey Pubs in Scotland. There are full menus of the variety of aged and processed Scottish whiskey. “We drink it straight or with only a few drops of water to unleash the flavor”, I was told. It is an expensive drink in Scotland and not my favorite; but, I found it was the only thing that could get a few bites of the traditional haggis down. Don’t ask me what it is made of…you don’t want to know.

So, in this city you can find two kinds of spirits and many types of story tellers. I learned that I should not always believe what I hear, approach any spirit with caution and the music is never too far away in this capitol of Scotland.

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Let Me Tell You A Tale Of Scotland

The speed train from London whisks me past the fertile green slopes of the midlands on my journey northward to Scotland. The flourishing green parcels of earth are divided by hedges and rock walls falling in on themselves. Sheep graze lazily on the unending feast before their eyes. Trees speckle across the land. It seems that dirt roads, which lead to no particular place, get little use as people are nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly fields of bright yellow waken tired eyes. Canola flowers are in full bloom and happily glisten in the afternoon sun. The train whistle blows as we approach a small village. On both the left and right water emerges on either side of the train….I know I am in Scotland and from that time on the presence of water on the land never really disappeared.

I continued on bus up through the highlands. There were freshwater lakes, flowing rivers or saltwater firths observable from almost any viewpoint. The peat moss marshland covering the highlands were sponges for all liquid and a mistake to step upon.

Just look at the landscape before you and keep your feet safely on the dry path. Imagine the heather that would bloom in the fall from the small clumps now sitting everywhere on the marsh. All the brown would turn to carpets of purple covering the hills. But I would have to return to see that glory. My treat for this season was the blanket of Scottish Blue Bells in the green meadows under the protective trees.

“The winter was long and it seemed we had no spring this year….So, all the blue bells came out all at once. They are glorious. Wouldn’t ya say?” Our guide relays to us as we watch the view pass by our window.

I loved every part of Scotland and it’s special geography. It is so open and quiet. I have never seen so many shades of green. Amidst the trees and on the hills mustard yellow scotch broom flourishes. Castles and stone towers remind us of ancient days. Dogs are happy at play in the forest or found walking themselves on well trodden paths. Paved roads are narrow and one vehicle must choose to pull over and give way to oncoming traffic.

Centuries ago it was considered a hard land to reach with unknown natural resources and a fighting people; therefore, the Romans decided to leave this “worthless” land to its “unruly” inhabitants. However, the Romans were mistaken.

It seems that the north did prove to be a challenge to live in without the modern conveniences of electricity and transportation; but, the Scottish were survivors. The people believed that they did not own the land but that they belonged to the land; hard working, resilient people who lived off the earth and created their own unique culture.

They are a people of story tellers and not “Disney tales” mind you. Most tales include mythological creatures such as elves, fairies or water creatures. The legends often explain geological formations or historical events. Often the stories do not conclude with happy endings. I learned from my guide that if I ever see an elf, who often does not have the best interest of others, it would be better not to trust what he had to say.

The people here were relatively free until the English decided to take an interest in the north. My heart ached as I heard their stories and the struggle for freedom and torture endured. In fact, it is a triumph to their people that anyone survived the mass cleansing of their culture after the last Jacobite uprising.

Scotsman were sold as slaves, forbidden to speak their language, play bagpipes or wear their traditional dress. They were not allowed to gather in groups of more then three, even among immediate family. The land, families lived for generations, was given to English Lords. Many, especially any that were part of the last uprising against the English, were killed. In fact, it was attempted to eradicate entire clans by death during that time.

Many immigrated to other countries such as America, Australia and Canada. Scotsmen continued to keep their traditions alive in other parts of the world. It is amazing that the people found a way to save and preserve their culture. I found that the people in this country are some of the friendliest in all the world. It is a culture that moves on from challenges or mistreatment and does not harbor grudges.

This fall people have an opportunity to vote to make Scotland a independent country separate from the United Kingdom. It will be interesting to see how the people choose to vote. A country that fought so long and shed so much blood over this land are now free to simply cast a ballot for independence. However, when I asked locals what they think of the upcoming vote the reaction is mixed.

Everyone will say, “we are independent” and then they will point out that they ‘have a separate educational system, their own Scottish courts and laws and they have their own Scottish pound.’ The Scottish people are very proud of the ways in which they are different and independent from England. On the other hand, they recognize some things “may be better together” when it comes to a standing army or banking system. From a political viewpoint, people will say that the atrocities of the English “was a long time ago” and the current system “works okay” for now.

Yet, it was curious that I was not on one walking tour that a guide would not tease, “Do we have any English here with us today?” As no one ever raised their hand the guide would add, “Well if there are, they would not admit it. If there are English here, welcome to the better side.” It was as if the Scottish tour guides joked about the English in the same manner that the English teased the French. Which demonstrates that even the most difficult wounds can heal and people can come together. Yet the slight tinge of “old rivalry” pokes through the teasing and serves as reminders of former enemies.

The history of Scotland is full of sad tales which can also be heard in the music they sing….and Scotland sings. Music is part of the culture. Once used to keep the beat of the work, such as in the long process of making tweed, now the music is everywhere. I was not in one place, small coastal village to large city, that did not have music happening somewhere every night. The quick playing flutist, the bag pipes, the fiddle or guitar….Every night something to lift the soul.

One thing I will miss about Scotland is the Seafood. It is everywhere. Freshest and best mussels I have had in my life. They do Fish & Chips better than anywhere I have tried in England. Beware of the seagulls if you are eating outside; they will circle around until they obtain the courage, and that won’t take long, to dive-bomb toward your meal and steal your supper. The fish on my plate was almost an inch thick and a foot long on a large bed of hand-cut fries. Fish & Chips in Scotland is on a whole new level and the seagulls expect your leftovers!

Scotland was everything I dreamed and more. The sheer cliffs down to the sea. The boats on the glimmering waters. The mist that appears out of nowhere, rises up from the water and overtakes the earth. The slow coal train chugs through the marshland and over arched bridges. The music of Caledonia makes one feel like they’re home in this magical, mythical, amazing land of Scotland.

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