The Mature Wanderer - Old Hippy?
1. So what is living in Scotland like?
I`ve been travelling and writing for a long time now. It`s only now that I`m publishing and getting readers and reactions. One of the many results of travelling is to learn what people in other countries think of Scotland. When I taught in France several decades ago my pupils really only wanted to know how draughty my castle was, how frightening was the ghost and how often I had seen the Loch Ness Monster. A very nice waitress in New Jersey was fascinated to learn that I was from Scotland. I asked her if she had ever visited the country. She said she had. I asked her which part she had visited. She enthusiastically answered "Naples". I didn`t ask her whether she thought Scotland was in Italy or perhaps Florida or even the island of Crete, all of which do have a Naples which Scotland does not. On the other hand, I know a family in Tenerife who could find Perth, Edinburgh or Glasgow on a map and could tell you how beautiful Loch Leven looks on a summer`s day. I once met an American in Edinburgh who had no difficulty giving me great detail about Thrums, the family home in Kirriemuir of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
So, as I blog I`d like to tell people a little about what it`s like to live in Scotland.
Carnegie and Pittencrieff
Today is the 13th of April and at last the longest winter anyone can remember seems to be ending. The sun is shining and the temperature has risen from the 4 degrees centigrade we have been "enjoying" for months to 11. Little risk of sunstroke but I walked today through our marvellous park. I live in a village just outside Dunfermline, the former capital of Scotland and now a town of around 40,000 inhabitats. On my way into town I can walk through Pittencrieff park. It used to be privately owned and intruders were chased or worse. One of these intruders as a little, boy was Andrew Carnegie who was born just minutes from the park. Of course he grew to become one of Scotland`s most famous and successful emigres. He went to the USA as a young man and first had success owing to his remarkable speed with Morse code. He invested in reinforced concrete just as Manhattan was adopting high rise building. He became by far the richest man in the world. As an adult he fulfilled his childhood vow to buy the estate from which he had been barred as a child and donate it to the town. Now it is the very beautiful Pittencrieff Park . It has a formal garden, lots of mature trees, steps down into a little valley through which the Lyne Burn flows, a wonderful sight when frozen in winter. It now has an excellent cafe where on a warm day you can sit outside as you eat or drink and look over the slopes of the park across to the two great bridges over the River Forth beyond which is Edinburgh. You can even see the Pentland Hills beyond the city. Dunfermline even has a Carnegie Hall. It too has a cafe in which you can see an original stained glass by Carnegie`s friend Louis Comfort Tiffany whose name lives on in the Fifth Avenue jeweller and in the book by Truman Capote followed by the Audrey Hepburn film, Breakfast at Tiffany`s.
Golf and the work of the fairy
I have been busy finishing my book on Spain: "Coffee,Castanets and Don Quixote" which will be available on Amazon shortly and a little later on the other sites. I have almost been glad of the unusually poor weather since the temptation to go out and not finish the book would have been stronger. I did go out today for golf. I am a hopeless golfer but I regularly meet with Ben, the one person I know whose golf is as bad as mine and who shares with me the characteristic that he doesn`t get any better, however much he plays. The course we play on is on a hillside overlooking Loch Leven in Fife. The loch is magnificent in any weather. This view is shared by the natural world since it is one of the finest bird sanctuaries in Europe with a large number of native and visiting species. It was raining too much today for us to play but the hills around the loch look mysterious with their veil of cloud, some with waterfalls running down to the loch. When the sun shines the scene is spectacular and you can climb up the escarpment behind the golf course and see as far as the great mountain Schiehallion by Aberfeldy. The name "Schiehallion" means " the hill of the Caledonian fairy" and Aberfeldy means "the work of the fairy". The older residents of Scotland had a strong belief in the little people and their power. It would be unwise of me to mock that belief since it is known that the little people, the fairies or leprechauns or uirisgean , can be quite spiteful at times. This may explain some of my golfing performances which fall below even the miserable standard I expect to attain. With the book published I`ll hope for sunshine and some warmth so I can visit the lochs and forests of the Trossachs.
More work of the fairy
I was challenged in quite a learned way about my explanation of Aberfeldy`s name meaning "work of the fairy". It is an intelligent challenge which points out that "aber" in Scottish place names means "a river mouth" or "confluence of rivers". That is quite correct but if you go to the lovely little town you will not find a river mouth or a confluence. The river Tay (which also means "the fairy") does flow through it but that would not be enough to justify the normal use of aber. I`m afraid it is one of these deceptive place names. Old manuscripts reveal the trick because they use the word "obair" meaning "work" and "ti" meaning "fairy". English scribes trying to map the country hundreds of year ago simply wrote down what they heard or thought they heard. They were familiar with place names beginning "aber" and thought that was what they were hearing.
Independence-what does it mean and who has it?
People from aborad, whether in Europe, the US or further afield are often quite puzzled by the campaign for Scottish Independence. After all, as a Russian friend said to me a couple of years ago: " People in Scotland have more personal independence than almost anyone on the planet". A Greek friend put it more succinctly: " So you are campaigning for the same kind of independence as North Korea has. Why are you doing that?" He chose an extreme example , but it made an important point. In reality,the Scottish National Party are campaigning for a separation of Governments in the belief that many of Scotland`s problems have been caused by English domination. The SNP was founded in the 1920s by a group that included the poet,Hugh McDiarmid (real name Christopher Murray Grieve), Oliver Brown, a charming and learned man whom I knew quite well and Robert Blair Wilkie, a former teacher of mine. They were all convinced that socialism of the Soviet type was the only way forward. McDiarmid wrote several "Hymns to Lenin" to express his view. Inevitably, as history has illustrated time and again, that course involves very severe restrictions on personal independence, but that was always felt to be nevessar for the greater good. Much of this mentality survives in the SNP as illustrated by its hostility to NATO, now being partly suppressed for electoral reasons. The fact that the party leader Alex Salmond attempted to hide from the Scottish people the fact that he had no legal basis for his belief that an independent Scotland would remain part of the EU is rather consistent with Soviet ways of doing things. It is very difficult to get any answer to the question of what problem separation would solve and it is clear it will give us a whole set of new ones:e.g, very long negotiations with the EU, the UK ,NATO, the UN etc about our new status. That would go on for years. We would probably be in a monetary union, either the euro or sterling where the major decisions and influences would come from one or more foreign countries. It is not clear who the head of state would be. The SNP seem to want it to be the present Queen which seems odd. Much has been made of ancient battles we fought against England hundreds of years ago as if that had some relevance to the modern world. I`m afraid a consistent charactersitic of the world`s failing states is a passionate but selective memory of wrongs done to them and a belief that their problems were caused by "others". Conversations with members of the SNP can all too often suggest their political grounding went no further than watching Mel Gibson ( an Australian) in Braveheart.In the meantime, the very real problems of poor housing, replacing old industries, vocational training, education and crime get scant attention as the heated debate about "independence " goes on. Having said all of that, the SNP administration in the devolved Scottish parliament has in some respects performed very well. Its presence and success has been very important in shaking a very complacent Labour party to make some feeble attempts at reform.
The joys of living in Scotland: its scenery, its cultural variety, its safety ( other than one or two notorious parts of its cities) , its open spaces, its relatively harmonious cultural diversity, its colourful history, its huge variety of good cuisine, are there to be enjoyed in total personal independence.
Glasgow and Curious Collections
One of the great advantages of living in central Scotland is that we have easy access to two great cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow. Glasgow is the larger of the two although Edinburgh is the capital. About half of Scotland`s population live in the conurbation around Glasgow. It is a city that grew rapidly in the 19th century , largely because of heavy industry, the extreme suitability of the River Clyde for shipbuilding and commerce and its contacts with the emerging giant, the United States. It suffered badly from the decline of heavy industry and further in the second world war when its industrial capacity was ferociously targetted by the Germans. These enormous blows have left a legacy of social problems which remain intractable.
Having said that, the city has regained much of its former pride and prestige because it has a great deal to offer. Its centre has more than 20 streets of some of the finest Victorian architecture in Europe. That comes as a surprise to many Glaswegians who, like most of us, spend their days looking at the pavements as they worry about the electricty bill. Those who look up see magnificent work. It has always been quite a cosmopolitan city and a friendliness, cherfulness and vitality that not many cities could match. Its Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani comunities are amongst those who have greatly enriched the city, part of the reason why it has a wide range of quality restaurants and cafes.
It is also well known for its art collections. Kelvingrove art Gallery, near Glasgow University is a building of magnificence with huge collections, including one of the largest of French Impressionist paintings. The City also has the astonishing Burrell collection. This is a treasure of more than 8000 objects amassed during his long life by the shipping magnate, Sir William Burrell. In its range and quality it is fully a match for the wonderful Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid. I have often wondered how his wife, Lady Constance, felt about his ventures. No doubt she was happy enough when he turned up with a miniature Buddha from Burma or a Degas that could hang on the wall. She might have been a little more disconcerted when he brought home a thoughtful, but very naked man in the form of Rodin`s Thinker, weighing as much as a small rhinoceros. When he got to the stage of bringing home entire Roman archways designed to allow chariots and Roman legions to pass through I wonder if she felt this was more dusting than she really wanted. The collection is very satisfactorily housed in the city centre but in one of Glasgow`s many large and fine public parks, of which it has 59, more than any other city in Europe.
Edinburgh -The Athens of the North
Our capital city is often referred to as "The Athens of the North" although I have been unable to find out who first used that phrase. I used to work for a Londoner who tended to check his last will and testament before coming north of Watford and when I met him at Waverley station one cold November morning he said: "I think of this more as the Reykjavik of the South". I have never been in Rejkjavik so I can`t give a view on that comparison. I did however visit Athens one recent November when it was actually colder than Edinburgh, a rare event I think. The comparison is apt in some ways. I was surprised at how awe-inspiring I found the Acropolis although I had seen many photographs of it. The centre of Edinburgh is similarly favoured with the ancient castle that sits on a high rock and is visible from miles around. The road running down from it, the High Street or Royal Mile , is a splendid street with the majesty of St. Giles cathedral as one of many fine buildings and the little "closes" or alleys which run from it in narrow passages down the mound overlooking the extensive gardens at the foot of the rock and the wide main street,Princes Street. There you will easily see the multi-pinnacled building on the edge of the garden which is ,allegedly, the largets monument to any writer in the world. It is the Scott Monument built to commemorate Sir Walter Scott. He is perhaps not much read now, but it is difficult to appreciate what international fame he achieved in the early 19th century with his novels and poems. It is often said that he invented the Scottish tourist industry and certainly the evidence of his fame is clear from the fact that Medelssohn came all the way from Germany as ayoung man because of him and ended up writing "The Hebrides Overture" after heroically sailing to the cave of the giant Fingal at Staffa in the western Isles. Bizet, Bellini and Donizetti all based operas on his novels and the communist critic, Georg Lukacs considered him to be the first novelist who had really explores class conflict, a curious source of admiration for the conservative Scottish lawyer that Sir Walter was.
So, like Athens there is immense history in Edinburgh, although it doesn`t stretch back quite as far. The modern city however is full of interest with great galleries, museums, restaurants, architecture and, in August, the world`s largest festival of the arts. It is astonishing to visit the city in the weeks before the festival when the population swells with visitors from all over the world followed by the arrival in the city of some of the world`s most renowned performers along with some who are not renowned but wonderful and others who are not renowned and certainly not wonderful but making their doomed bid for fame
One of the many pleasures of writing and publishing is that you make contact with people in other countries who are interesting. I have exchanged messages with the American writer ,Pamela Warren, who should probably be better known than she is. She is a very gifted musician and her books are set against a background of American types of music like Bluegrass and Cajun. I knew nothing about them but I know more now. They are romances with a strong biographical element. Pamela took up writing when, three years ago, she had the first of a series of catstrophic health issues. Being unable for much of the time to practice the music she loves she took up writing. She is well read and she took to writing easily. That has provided something of a positive from very negative experiences. I now know something about Bluegrass,Cajun etc which were mysteries to me before.Pamela has been getting interested in Scotland from various points of view, including the music of Dougie Maclean, Silly Wizard and others. I have been learning something about Scottish music from her. Apparently it is likely that her next book will feature a Scottish character. One of the interesting things is the minutiae of life in the USA. If a girl from Boston wants to play Bluegrass she may have to take a journey the equivalent of driving from Scotland to Hungary. The size of the USA is difficult to grasp if you have never explored it. I was recently in the state of Georgia which is twice the size of Scotland with less than twice the population. People who say the Americans should use less fossil fuel. No doubt that is true, but how on earth do you get from one place to another without using quite a lot of the stuff.
The Lake of Romance
It has been the coldest beginning to a year that I can remember. Occasional days are springlike for a time and then get cold again. For farmers, gardeners and builders that creates problems. For others like me, it`s merely a nuisance. Normally by this time I would have paid at least one visit to The Trossachs. This is an area of Scotland which some people consider the most beautiful. There are many others that compete for that title however but it is certainly very lovely. It lies a bit north of Glasgow and it consists of hilly,densely forested land with a number of very beautiful lochs( a loch is simply the Scottish word for a lake, like the Irish lough). They are beautiful in any weather but on a sunny day with blue sky when the sun gleams on the water the effect is mesmerising. One that has particular fame is Loch Katrine. Its fame rests on one very practical fact and one highly romantic one. The practical fact is that it supplies the water for the large conurbation around Glasgow. The astonishing thing is that there is no visible sign of the huge engineering project that was involved in laying the necessary pipes. The land around the loch looks as it probably did a thousand years ago, other than the access road which is quite recent. It can supply an amazing 50 million gallons per day and is at times supplemented by Loch Arklet beside it. The other reason is that it is the setting for a poem that was one of the most famous in history and is now hardly read. Its contribution to the tourist industry and the culture of Europe is vast. The poem is "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott. In the early nineteenth century Lord Byron explored Europe and excited British readers with his exotic accounts of Portugal, Spain, Greece etc. Sir Walter told Europe about the beauty of Scotland and the romantic effect of its scenery. The poem is rather dated now, but you can sail on one of the passenger steamers on the loch and the rather unearthly charm of the surroundings can make Scott`s poem still quite effective. You can also cycle along the private road which goes part of the way around it. You should however, take heed of the sign at the head of the loch which warns visitors of the "uirisgean" .These are rather mischievous supernatural beings who can ruin your day if you upset them. I have to confess that I don`t know what you have to do to upset them and they do not, unfortunately, issue any guidance on this matter. I have visited it on many occasions, alone and in company, by car, on foot and on bicycle. I have sailed on it and eaten in the restaurant overlooking it. I am not aware of having suffered any unfortunate consequences from these little beings, but of course I have never suggested within their hearling that they might not really exist. Perhaps that would annoy them.