Travel Blog-the Mature Wanderer 10....
Scotland and Spain
Scots have always been travellers. When you consider where Scottish explorers got to in the 19th and 20th centuries there seemed to be no part of the planet, however, hot or cold, disease- ridden or desolate, which Scots did not prefer to staying at home in their native land. Once I stayed in a youth hostel in Berlin and chatted to a man who claimed to be 30, but had a face like the map of the London underground with lines and branch lines that should have taken decades to excavate. However, he told me he had travelled ceaselessly for most of his life and had been in some of the most abandoned parts of creation. "One thing you can be sure of," he told me persuasively," is that you`ll never have to look very far but somewhere at a nearby campfire or cave or run-down shack will be a Scotsman. " Well,I have always liked comfort too much to be that kind of Scotsman, but there are countries I love and, as anyone who has read my books will know, one of them is certainly Spain. I put a possible, although extremely unlikely, explanation for this love in my novel "Masks of Venice" but really I think most people with any interest in food, beautiful towns, great history, unique culture and good weather is likely to feel the same. This led me to read the blog of Molly on Piccavey.com. In fact I spent far more time reading it than I meant to. Molly lives in Spain, although she is English, but she clearly loves the place. That love is infectious and even a short read of it shows you what an abundance of interest there is for someone who likes good food, varied scenery, exciting shops and much more. I had been struck by the fact that the man with the much excavated face in Berlin ,despite his many travels, had very little of interest to say about anywhere. Molly`s blog shows you don`t have to go very far to be a very absorbing travel writer.
Ossian and Macbeth
If you drive on the A9 north of Perth you will go through pleasant scenery with a view of hills on either side. After about 14 miles you can take a turnoff that leads to a car park. The car park is surrounded by tall trees, mostly oak and rowan. On one side is the river Braan which , in rainy weather is fast-flowing and turbulent. You can then take a broad path through the woods until you climb a gentle slope to be met by a small domed building and a stone bridge which crosses the river. Without crossing the river you can look across at some of the tallest trees in Britain. The tallest is a Douglas fir which has reached a height of over 200 feet ( about 70 metres.). If you go into the domed building you will find it has no rooms as such. It leads you through to a little platform with a strong iron railing. This is needed because below you is now a thundering torrent of peaty brown water tumbling down over and around great granite rocks that have survived this pummelling for millenia. This spot is known as The Hermitage and is a magnificent sight in any weather. In the depths of winter there is often ice on the rocks and heavy snow in the woods. You can then look at the walls you passed in the small building. They contain drawings of bearded men and ethereal women in long dresses in a landscape of trees and rocks. Some of the writing might cause you difficulty because it is in Gaelic. However, if you can manage that or simply read the English translation you may discover these are extracts from the works of the celebrated Gaelic poet Ossian, whose poetry became a raging mania throughout Europe in the 18th century. They celebrated the deeds and thoughts of ancient Celtic gods and heroes from a more gentle age. Apparently they were discovered by a man named James Macpherson by writing down oral recitations. Sadly, Macpherson eventually had to admit that in fact it was all a hoax. By that time his work had been translated into most European languages. It was favourite reading of Napoleon and the German folk story collector,Herder. It was particularly followed in Hungary and Poland and an opera based on it appeared at the Paris opera in 1804. To his credit Dr. Samuel Johnson had doubted its authenticity from the start. The famous critic W.P. Ker later commented that only aman with considerable literary gifts could have created such a successful hoax.
If you now return to the path and go further into the woods you will come upon what at first appears a surprisingly high pile of large boulders. However, as you walk on you will see that it has an entrance, a window and a stone bench. This is known as "Ossian`s cave" where the great Gaelic scribe allegedly had his visions of gods in the Celtic mist. The idea that anyone could have survived even a poor Scottish summer,let alone many winters in this construction is laughable. The whole thing was devised by a Duke of Atholl as a folly. However, it is entertaining and amusing, but also takes you along by the river Braan which is not broad but is wild and spectacular and ,if you have come prepared, you can go far into the woods and up to the hills.
If you then return to the A9 and drive less than a mile you will reach Birnam, whose forest played a major part in Shakespeare`s Macbeth. I`ll pursue that subject soon.
Birnam,Dunkeld and Macbeth
"Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him."
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.1
These are among the various prophecies made by the three witches in Shakespeare`s Scottish play.They should be a warning to anyone who believes in fortune telling that even when the prophesy is correct it may not mean what you think. Macbeth was a king of Scotland in the 11th century who appears to have been a nicer man than Shakespeare`s dark creation. It does appear however, that even nice men in those days did occasionally have to kill a few people. In the play he is prompted down the road of unbridled ambition by seeing three witches on a `blasted heath`. Once he has ,with his frightening wife, killed King Duncan and shown a willingness to dispatch anyone else who gets in his way he feels quite insecure on the throne and asks the witches what they see next. They give him the apparent reassurance quoted above. Macbeth`s castle at Dunsinane was in fact probably at Collace, in the hills just north of Perth. Even if he had seen the film of Lord of the Rings and been persuaded that trees could start walking he would have felt quite safe because Birnam is beside Dunkeld and would be a long way for even quite a fit young tree, given that there was no public transport to speak of in those days and not much of a road. However, his enemy, MacDuff, had ordered his men to carry branches taken from Birnam Wood to act as disguise so that their advance would not be noticed. It is not recorded whether Shakespeare had a low opinion of Scottish intelligence or perhaps tolerance of alcohol, but even so, most Scots would find their attention more arrested by seeing a forest wandering along than lots of bearded men with swords, which appears to have been quite a common sight in those days.
Nowadays the little vilage of Birnam is very pretty and despite many visits to it, I have never yet witnessed pedestrian trees on its High Street. From its centre you can however follow a trail under the railway bridge and up Birnam Hill. It`s a relatively gentle walk of about four miles, rising to a height of around 1300 feet ( 420 metres). From there you can see for miles over farmland to high hills on either side. If I recall correctly, you can even see the tiny but very beautiful Loch of Lowes at Butterstone.
The Scotland of Harry Potter, Dr. Jekyll and literature
This is a rash subject for me to venture on. If I do it properly I`ll still be writing it as the winter snows return. I have therefore given myself permission to mention some interesting highlights and promise to return to the subject which,of course, I have touched on already.
Harry Potter is the biggest Scottish literary phenomenon of modern times. There are at least two cafes in Edinburgh which claim to be the ones in which,as an impoverished young mother J.K. Rowling sat and wrote, never expecting any of her subsequent fame. She now has several houses, not all in Scotland, but one in the same street as the thriller writer Ian Rankin and the creator of the "No.1 Ladies` detective Agency" Alexander McCall Smith, giving rise to someone`s bright notion to refer to the area as "writer`s block". Edinburgh also gave birth to Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote the spinechilling "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." You can visit the pub of that name in Hanover Street. You can also go a little north to South Queensferry to the Hawes Inn beside the River Forth. This was said to be one of the models for the Admiral Benbow Inn in "Treasure Island". That does take a little imagination.
The railway viaduct used in the films for the Hogwarts train is in the wonderfully beautiful village of Glenfinnan near Fort William. A steam train still runs along it every day, taking nostalgic enthusiasts for the steam age from Fort William to Mallaig,a very memorable journey.
There have been literary references to parts of Scotland at least since Adamnan`s biography of Saint Columba in the 5th century. There he records the encounter of one Lugne Mocumin with the Loch Ness monster after diving, at the saint`s request, into the cold deep waters to fetch a boat. That was probably the single greatest contribution to Scottish tourism at least until Sir Walter Scott.
Then in the twelfth century we got the Orkneyingar Saga, set mostly in Lerwick, about the jocular but merciless Earl Rognvald, one of the many vikings who invaded Scotland and left a permanent record in hundreds of placenames like Skye from the Norse word for a cloud or St. Kilda. There never was a St. Kilda. It was a misunderstanding of the Norse word skildir meaning a shield since the Norsemen thought that was the shape of the island.
In fact the north west of the country,including the islands, was the principal Gaelic speaking area and still is. It is unfortunate that Gaelic culture was almost exclusively an oral culture because it has an immense wealth of poetry and stories, much of it recorded from native speakers and stored at The School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Gaelic is a difficult, but very musical language, and its poetry gives wonderful insights into close-knit and creative communities. Many have been set to music providing songs that range from joyful to intensely sad and moving.
If you go down to the south-west to Alloway, just south of Ayr, you can find the cottage of the greatest figure in Scottish literature, Robert Burns. Burns was a farmer and later an exciseman, an occupation that led him to ride around the country in all kinds of weather. That led to his contracting a fatal dose of pneuomonia when still in his mid thirties. The cottage you can visit was a very humble one indeed and, as he records in poems such as "To a Mouse" he was no stranger in his life to the anxieties of poverty. In Alloway you can also visit the famous churchyard which appears in his great long poem "Tam o`Shanter". You may not be lucky enough to see the devil in the shape of a large black dog playing the bagpipes or to be chased by the seductive but deadly witch Cutty Sark, but if it`s a stormy night and you`ve had a small refreshment in a local hostelry you never know your luck.