Visit to an Island Nation, Part I: Coming Home to Scotland
Thursday 21 December 2006
Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II, "England's Green and Pleasant Land," is coming next week.
For several years now I've had a hankering to go abroad. Though I lived in Germany as a child, I hadn't been out of North America since the age of ten. After 9/11, America, always provincial, seems to have pulled in on itself even more. I needed to peek out from under the covers and see for myself what life outside the Homeland is like, so I decided on a trip to Great Britain.
My trip would be partly a personal pilgrimage to experience the land of my ancestors and partly a quest for answers to the question of our times: how to live peacefully and sustainably on our small planet? I was curious to see how 60 million people inhabit an island smaller than my home state of Oregon while using half the per-capita energy.
I landed in Edinburgh on a sunny morning last July, and from the air I could see a stark difference in the way things are arranged in Europe. There is countryside, and there are towns. Houses are clustered in villages and for the most part, the only buildings that stand alone in the countryside are working farm buildings.
The lack of sprawl was even more startling on the ground when I took a bus from Edinburgh the five miles out of town to see the Rosslyn Chapel of Da Vinci Code fame. From the city center, we traveled through a dense neighborhood of townhouses and single homes on small lots. Passing a modest shopping center, the bus rounded a traffic circle and headed out into fields of nothing but thistles and sheep. No strip malls? Some American tourists next to me gasped loudly at the suddenness of the transition.
Rosslyn Chapel fascinated me. Chockablock with enigmatic, slowly eroding sandstone carvings, it had everything from angels to monsters, and a curious depiction of Moses with horns; but Dan Brown to the contrary, there was no sign of the Holy Grail.
I took one more day to savor what I could of Edinburgh's medieval castles and closes, and then headed west by bus to my next destination, a village near the coast called Kilmartin Glen.
The bus system in Scotland made for a pleasant experience, with clean and timely buses. Scottish residents who are retired ride for free, so there was an abundance of lively older folks headed out to the islands for a wee holiday. Free rides for retired folks strikes me as a great idea, not only for the benefit to the retirees, but for providing a guaranteed number of passengers that can keep the system robust and functioning. I've had the experience recently of trying to get relatives passage on the Greyhound in Oregon, and not finding available seats. The rise in gas prices has unexpectedly increased demand, and the system, long in the doldrums from slack ridership, is not able to handle it. Gas prices in Britain were about $8 a gallon when I was there.
Kilmartin Glen is an amazing prehistoric site with hundreds of standing stones, stone circles and hill forts, and an excellent small museum. I settled my things at the Burndale Inn and walked up the road to the Kilmartin Hotel for dinner.
After a nice lamb chop and veg, I retired to the bar to taste some whiskey. I passed two evenings there, and got to know a few of the locals. Peter, the proprietor, his cute cocker spaniel underfoot, guided my whiskey-tasting experiment. I discovered that Brian, a local road engineer, was a fellow fan of guitarist wunderkind Stevie Ray Vaughn. And then there was Nigel McPhail, a regular leprechaun who seemed to pass exactly two hours there every evening from seven till nine. A large, old fashioned key sat on the bar right by his drink. I asked him what it was for. "I lock up the church after," he said. "Don't let me forget now."
The next day, I got up early and headed out to explore the Glen. I chose this place partly because I would be able to walk to all the sites. There was a lot to see - a line of burial mounds, the Temple Wood stone circle, many large standing stones and pictograms. To help me make sense of it all, I engaged a guide, a Celtic storyteller, named Scot Ansgeulaiche (he gave me the pronunciation, but I promptly forgot it). Scot showed up in a well-worn kilt with a hand-stitched leather sporran, and we walked out amongst the stones.
According to Scot, the stone monuments were placed by newcomers to the area, the first farmers, who moved onto land already occupied by hunter-gatherers back in about 4,000 BC. The stone circles may have been solar observatories for marking the planting and harvesting seasons. Planting at the wrong time during a winter warm spell could result in disaster if the crops were destroyed by a late spring frost. Insurance was bought by submitting to the discipline of the solar calendar.
Scot told me that the burial mounds were originally intended as initiation chambers. We sat in one for a moment and I imagined being shut up inside for three days with no food or water, receiving visions. A light rain was falling outside and water dripped from the stones. At least I would be able to wet my tongue.
The Kilmartin Museum was also a great help in imagining the Neolithic life. There I saw pre-Bronze Age stone tools, baskets and eagle bone whistles that reminded me of Native American ones. I've always felt a sense of loss that my country has no deep history, when of course it does. Native Americans have occupied this land at least as long as people have lived in Britain. It's just not my history.
Leaving the museum, I wandered into the churchyard next door. Peter, at the hotel, told me there were Templar knights buried here. The church, established in the 14th century, has a collection of about a dozen carved medieval grave slabs lying in a crypt, depicting knights in armor and decorated with Celtic swirls and knots. But there are no inscriptions, so it's impossible to know if these are really Knights Templar.
Going by the number of graves, the population of the village must have been higher in times past. I recalled what I knew of the Highland Clearances Act. Beginning in 1792, the landlords ended the old clan system of land tenure and systematically priced the people off the land, replacing them with sheep and cattle. Many emigrated to Australia or America. Some of them were my ancestors. Here was my history.
I ambled back to the beautiful stone circle at Temple Wood, skirting a herd of cows lying in the path, crossing a style over a fence, picking raspberries growing along the burn. There are places for 20 stones, but only 13 stones remain. They are each about the size and shape of a great armchair back. Perhaps they were not a solar observatory at all, but seats for a council of elders. The 13th stone is broken, its top half gone. I took my place there, resting my back against it, and I wondered what we can learn from ancient cultures and their ability to live sustainably for long periods. On the way back I climbed up to a rock outcropping and picked myself some fragrant, early-blooming purple heather.
A Deep History
Back at the Kilmartin Hotel that night, I am sitting next to Nigel McPhail again and I tell him that I'm traveling on my own because my husband is a bioregionalist. "He doesn't like to leave Oregon," I say. A taciturn leprechaun, Nigel nods slowly. "Aye," he says, "I don't ever leave Scotland."
"The world is going to hell, isn't it?" I say.
Nigel looks up from his pint with dark eyes, seeing me. "The children," he says. "That's what I can't stand."
"In Lebanon?" I ask. It has been nearly a week now that I've been severed from my daily news fix, but still, I've seen a few headlines in passing and I know that Israeli bombs are killing hundreds of innocent people in Lebanon and that the US is doing nothing to stop it.
Nigel nods, and stares down at his pint once more.
My eyes sting now. "I am so ashamed of my country," I say. I've been prepared for this. I know that everything we have done in the Middle East for the past five years has fueled what's happening now and even though Tony Blair has been right there with us I'm prepared to take some heat for America's leading role in this Armageddon. But Nigel surprises me. With fierceness, this quiet man says, "Never be ashamed of your country. I could never be ashamed of Scotland."
I don't know what to say. I shrug. Maybe that is what having a deep history does for you, makes you unable to turn your back and say, it's not my country, really. I'm ashamed of those people, it's not me.
Nigel takes his leave. I have another whiskey and joke with Brian - and Jeanette, who runs the little village store. Then I toddle off to bed to dream heather dreams.