Oct 20 2009

Scotland: Impressions and Diary

Category: adventure,travelSami @ 4:53 pm

Impressions on Scotland, and diary:

- Gretna Green

Gretna Green seems like a lovely town – I’d like to return to it. The Outlet Centre there also supplied me with, seriously, the most awesome, snug, comfy and warm jumper I’ve ever owned.

- Edinburgh

Edinburgh is beautiful and ancient, and horrible to drive in – although I imagine it’s not so bad when the city centre isn’t a mess of traffic diversions due to roadworks.

Everyone I met was lovely, with one exception – and he was French. After douchily deliberately interfering with my attempt to take a photo of a cathedral, he gave me a snotty “Bonjour” – to which, naturally, I responded by rolling my eyes and calling him a very rude name in French.

He looked shocked and thoroughly rattled; stereotypical French superiority doesn’t work so well when your target can shoot you down en francais.

- Dundee

I stopped in Dundee long enough to pick up grocery items to have for lunch. Every single person I interacted with was kind of a douche, or an outright and utter toolbag. I choose to believe this was an aberration.

Side note: Man, meek British men who’ve decided to Speak Up are irritating. Dude, either grow a pair, and voice your complaint with authority, or shut the hell up, but the whining, quiet and passive-aggressive approach to complaining bugs me, if only because the soft approach makes me think that they’re actually wanting to have some kind of relevant and polite informational exchange.

(No, his complaint was not justified.)

- Garioch

I stopped long enough to get Irn Bru and some crisps at the Co-Op, because only the Co-Op has delicious gluten-free salt and vinegar crisps. Irn Bru puzzles me – I tried it in Australia and hated it, yet in Scotland, it’s delicious. Clearly Scottish Irn Bru is special.

I chatted briefly to a very nice young man with a mild disability, and was delighted that the Co-Op apparently hires people with disabilities to work there even if it’s a disability that very slightly impairs their ability to do the job – not enough that it’s actually meaningful, but enough that it could be used as a pretext not to hire them.

- The Family Seat

Thursday evening

They’re harvesting at the moment – apparently the farm’s cash crop at present is seed potatoes.

It’s utterly beautiful around here, and my kinfolk are lovely beyond the telling of it. I was shown a scrapbook of my great-uncle Ian’s life, and he told some stories of his youth and his siblings, including my own grandmother, their late older sister, and his brother, who died in the Second World War.

The story of great-uncle James going through the binder has second witness confirmation, which is good, because Mary thought the tale unlikely, and I hadn’t heard it directly from someone who’d seen it happen in many, many years.

Apparently James was quite adventurous and a bit reckless – somehow unsurprising, then, that he ended up a fighter pilot in the War.

Great-uncle Ian also has a photo of himself receiving a trophy from King George VI, as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother looks on; it seems Ian won a stock-judging competition, with a perfect score – a feat not matched before or since. (Note: His wife brought this up while he looked embarrassed.)

I managed to impress my great-aunt Hilda tremendously. We’d been talking about the local Doric dialect, and Uncle Ian said something to me using it, which I had to have translated; then, for another example, she asked me a question – to which I responded appropriately, because I’d clocked the vowel and consonant shifts enough to link it with my previous knowledge of Scots English, and understood.

I? Am awesome.

Meanwhile, my bed is unbelievably comfortable, and I’m drinking Highland spring water – straight from the tap, because the farm has its own spring, on the hill, and the water is clear and delicious. They’ve never gone on the council water, because it’s chemically treated and you pay for it anyway, whereas the water from the spring is pure and clear and perfect – and free.

The vegetables with dinner were all grown right here, too. The potatoes were the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, and even the green beans were edible, and the carrot, despite being cooked (I prefer raw) tasted pleasant – normally I hate cooked carrot, but I’ve never had carrots this good.

If I had internet, I’d worry I’d never want to leave.

Friday, 2:40pm

Today I tried to climb Bennachie, the hill that dominates this part of Aberdeenshire. I didn’t succeed. It was steep and difficult, but I was managing, until I got above the treeline and a bitterly cold wind seemed to blow through me to my bones. I hesitated a lot, but the mass of heavy, dark clouds the wind seemed to be bringing brought a decision to turn back.

It turns out to have been for the best. My bung knee and ankle found the trip down much more difficult than up, and by the time I got to my car I was barely able to walk. I ate the lunch I’d packed in the car, then drove home to Logie Newton by way of the ruined church at Tillymorgan.

Before I went out this morning, I chatted at length with my great-uncle and great-aunt. Lovely, lovely people. We talked about family, here and far, about life and people.

On the road to the Rowantree Bennachie carpark, I came across a trio of women riding horses – they were having some trouble, because one of the horses was being rather captious, and all of them were very nervous of cars. I stopped and killed my engine, but the one that had shied off in the other direction was insistent about heading that way – despite being also quite unnerved by a bicycle coming the other way.

While two of the women were trying to bring that horse under control, the third was left standing holding the other two – who, when the wind blew gustily, jumped in opposite directions. She held one but the other got away from her – I was standing talking to her, and caught its reins, though it had almost caught itself at that point, by treading on them.

I discovered how little I know horses as I tried to free the reins, and though I talked to her in soothing terms, I didn’t think to tell the horse: “Back up!” Which is the command the woman whose horse it was gave.

The other of the less-nervous horses, whose name was Emma, was 17 hands high. I hadn’t until that moment realised just how big a 17 hands horse is – she was huge.

After I parked at last, I headed up Bennachie.

I took many photos of the stretch I did walk, including some shots I quite like of the dew on spider webs amid the plants. In the end, however, as mentioned, I gave up and turned back when I got above the treeline, and a bitterly cold wind was bringing heavy dark clouds towards Bennachie.

My photos show the steep, narrow and rocky path fairly well, I think; it rather explains why my not-quite-right bad knee and not-quite-recovered-from-spraining ankle were screaming some by the time I got back to my car.

Looking through today’s pictures, I’m realising that the lighting conditions in Scotland are quite different, somehow, from what I’m used to; I think my camera settings are wrong, and the white balance is a little out, so some of my photos are coming out looking a little over-exposed and glare-ish.

Friday, 9:40pm

This afternoon I met, and had the pleasure of spending some time with, my young (around 14) cousin Isla. (I’m not going to try and keep noting precise degrees of cousinhood, here; it’s tiresomely complicated.) She’s a marvellous young woman, absolutely charming, with a quick mind and a distinct artistic aptitude. She has an interest in photography, so this evening I introduced her to some basic principles of the subject and let her try them out with my camera.

She was nervous about breaking the camera, but I assured her it would be fine, just be sure to use the neck-strap. I figure that she’s clearly a responsible young woman, and not careless or clumsy; if she’s using the neck-strap and being reasonably careful, she’s no more likely to break the camera than I am. (And in any case, it’s insured, at the moment.) To reassure her I also showed her the UV filter that’s there to absorb minor damage.

She’s a quick learner. Tonight she had it on largely automatic settings while she learned to use the lens, the controls, focal points and exposure compensation, etc. Tomorrow she’s visiting again, and we’re going to go out to the old church at Tillymorgan to take photos. I plan to take some of my own, but she’ll also get a good chance to play around with the camera. We can share, and I can also take some of my own shots with my video camera, which does take stills. One of the things that I will enjoy about tomorrow is spending time with one of my younger cousins.

It’s an odd feeling, making contact with slightly more distant branches of family. Because they’re geographically distant, if nothing else, I’ve never really known them. I know my mother keeps in touch with her uncle and aunt here (mostly her aunt, I think, because my great-uncle is a fairly quiet man), but I haven’t known them, really; I didn’t know Isla’s name until I met her today.

And yet they’re family, and so there is this sense of instant welcome and acceptance that’s truly lovely. I drove Isla home tonight; there would be a weirdness about being trusted instantly to drive a fourteen-year-old home on dark country roads, except I’m family. And have been driving all over Britain day and night without untoward incident, so my kinfolk figure I must be a safe enough driver. The closest we came to an incident was my pulling over for longer than strictly necessary to let a tractor go past in the other direction, on the basis that I couldn’t work out quite how wide it was, and didn’t dare try to pass it myself.

This is not dangerous. This is Safe Country Driving.

As it turns out it was a tractor carrying a load of tatties, and turned in just behind me; the menfolk are working late at the moment on the harvest. The ground’s wetter than they’re wanting, and so lifting the potatoes is taking longer than it would from drier ground.

As for country driving: So far I have yet to encounter the great road hazard of the area – the equivalent of Sudden Kangaroos here is Sudden Deer. Unlike roos, however, apparently deer travel in twos – if one deer leaps out into the road, there will be another one.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with Isla tomorrow – I enjoy it, and in addition to making my young cousin happy (and giving her experience of Real Photography, that might be of use to her in her future life – you never know what might let a kid find her talent and vocation), it also delights her grandparents, who of course adore her. I like making my family happy.

Saturday, 1am

Despite a day in which I got plenty of exercise, for a change, and had a generally really good day, I can’t sleep.

I’ve been in Britain nearly two weeks now, and in that time, the only time I’ve spent in any major British city was three days in Edinburgh. I have not set foot in London at all; I stopped in Dundee long enough to go to Morrison’s. That’s it.

But the countryside is beautiful and the people are great.

Right now I’m in farm country, and it feels good. That may be why I can’t sleep – I feel too refreshed, too alive, too good to sleep.

So, instead, a note about stereotypes.

The national stereotype about Scotland includes being extremely stingy with money.

This is thoroughly inaccurate.

This does not mean that there is not a different attitude to money here – there is, both in dealing with regular people and in the discourse on the radio and in the papers.

But what it is is that the Scots seem to be very scrupulous about money.

By way of example: The expenses scandal rolls ever onward. But on Scottish radio, the discussion – including the surprisingly, wonderfully common discussion panels with members of the public and members of Parliament as well as journalists etc – is not about angry outrage against the MPs.

Instead, where in English media there seems to be a strong current of angry outrage towards MPs who protest the issue of repaying monies given to them previously for their expenses, where those expenses were legal at the time even if now considered inappropriate, excessive, etc, in Scotland the question of whether it is fair to consider standards of appropriateness retroactively has been much and seriously discussed.

Because, you see, in Scotland, people seem to feel very strongly that monetary dealings must be fair. They don’t want to be cheated, but they don’t want to be a party to cheating someone else, either.

And in Scotland, in discussions with individuals and with media discussions of public spending, you get another impression: Where expenditure is necessary, there is no question that it should be spent. Costs should not be cut where this will have a negative effect on the quality of the result; what you need to spend, you spend.

However, money should absolutely not be wasted.

In Scotland, the discussion is always in terms of fairness and necessity.

I like it.

But I can see where a nation of shopkeepers might find this attitude difficult to deal with.

Saturday, 4:30pm

Today, I: Led my elders astray.

There exists a ruined church, built in the 1830s, abandoned in the 1960s. The first minister incumbent at this church was my great-great-great-grandfather; he came here to found the church, and his daughter married a local lad, my great-great-grandfather.

The church itself is now owned by the proprietors of the house next door, who were apparently supposed to keep the church in reasonable repair, but they really, really haven’t; nonetheless, in the manner of city folk who buy houses in the country, they are incredibly unfriendly and hostile to people even parking on the road next to their house or the church.

They can’t stop people going to the churchyard, but they don’t let people go to the church itself.

My great-uncle and great-aunt and young cousin Isla and I went to the churchyard today, where some of my ancestors are buried, and where the memorial is inscribed to my late and much beloved grandmother.

Where I led my elders astray is in climbing over the gate to the church itself, where we explored the church ruins. The householders arrived just after we’d climbed back out; my great-aunt, great-uncle and cousin were all having “I can’t believe we did that! I can’t believe we got away with that!” reactions.

I’d assured them that if we got caught they should just let me do the talking – I’d talk fast in an Australian accent and just try and charm them out of being shouty and mean.

It’s worth noting that my great-uncle is 90 years old and my great-aunt is well into her 70s, but they were laughing like children. It was rather wonderful.

I take after my beloved grandmother, it seems, including in the way of being rather daring, and inspiring a hint of recklessness in others.

The feeling of reckless defiance, I think, helped us all maintain good cheer as we discovered the ruin that has become of the church. Worse than the decay, the people there seem to be using the old vestry as a storage shed for old junk. I thoroughly disapprove of such treatment of the church that was founded by my great-great-great-grandfather, where my cousin Mary’s parents were married, where my grandmother – and several generations before her – grew up attending church.

I don’t care what your religious inclinations are – that’s disrespectful, to the memories of a place that was so important to so many people, where six children still lie in unmarked graves, where a century and a half of the important events of an entire community were focussed.

Saturday, almost midnight

This evening I went outside, in the freezing cold night, and looked at the stars. Eventually I identified some constellations, I think, from diagrams I’ve seen in the past, but it’s profoundly strange to look to the sky and not feel the instant, comforting recognition of familiar patterns.

I got one shot that I’m pretty happy with.

Afterwards I came in and watched the last few minutes of Man Utd vs Bolton with my cousin Doug, then watched a bit of TV on my own after he went to bed. Now I’m writing this, having resolved a dilemma by recourse to the very special kind of complete bitch I can be.

Killing them with kindness is the phrase. It’s the tactic whereby one is pleasant and nice about things, refusing to acknowledge the faintest possibility that other people might be being duplicitous or passive-aggressive or otherwise deceitful and unpleasant.

Accordingly, if someone were to try and tell another person that I was being horrible, their complaint would get stuck in the form of: “When I told her X, she acted like she thought I meant it!”

Which means, essentially, that if someone has a problem with me, they are forced to say so, or else seethe with silent resentment… and if I don’t like them, I don’t care if they’re seething with silent resentment (and in any case, in accordance with my policy, I will refuse to acknowledge or even perceive their silent resentment).

I only do this to people who are being kind of jerks, as a rule, but I do it very, very well if I’m doing it to someone who’s annoyed me, or whose opinion of me I don’t care about.

I gave a sort of summary of my tactics of Creative Sincerity to my great-aunt Hilda this evening – I was talking about going back to the ruined church, and she voiced the possibility that the people might find me there.

In which case, I explained, I say: “Oh, you see, this church was originally founded by my great-great-great-grandfather. My cousin’s parents were married here, and it was my ancestors’ family church for over a century. My grandmother’s grave is just there. I’ve come all the way from Australia, and it’s really important to me to be able to see the place properly.” While holding a video camera.

Thereby, through being completely honest, I place them in a situation of having to be a really, really horrible person, on film, or let me do what I want.

Thank you for playing Heads I Win Tails You Lose, please come again…

If my time in student politics taught me anything, it is this: It’s not enough to be in the right. You can be right, and still lose. Having the moral high ground is a nice idea… but really, the moral high ground is just a position of tactical advantage for the ensuing combat. You still have to win.

Sunday, 1pm

Have spent the morning chatting with my great-uncle and great-aunt and their son; cousin Doug showed me his collection of sashes, trophies, rosettes and photographs from his days rocking the championships at the cattle shows. He bred Herefords, and very, very well.

Great-aunt and great-uncle and I looked through some tourist booklets and things, too, that I had, and talked about places and people.

The more they get to know me, she says, the more strongly I remind them of my grandmother.

This makes me feel very, very good about myself, actually.

In the morning I’m heading off to explore Scotland more; their granddaughters need to stay a night anyway, and this way I can go look about a bit and come back later, when the harvest might be finished, and I can meet the menfolk of the family for more than a few hurried moments. This afternoon I’m off to Turriff to run some errands, and going to see the White Stones.

An idle note: I am losing the word “yes” from my vocabulary. It was bad enough after visiting with my ex-South-African family in England – the tendency to say “Ja:” (it’s a more elongated vowel than the German) is curiously infectious.

Time with Scottish kin has brought me to start saying “aye” a lot as well. It occurred to me today I haven’t said “yes” in quite some time now.

Sunday, 11:48pm

So, this evening I played Canasta with my great-aunt, great-uncle, and cousin. I was partnered with my great-uncle Ian, and we won. It was fun, if often interrupted – the phone kept ringing and ringing…

Tomorrow I’m leaving, though I’ve promised to return before I leave Britain. I’ll be heading north and west through Scotland; some generalised exploring, first, now I am finally without a Schedule To Follow, and at some point a trip to Aberdeen, to dig through the archives of the city and of the diocesan office. (There are reasons…)

This afternoon was quite an emotional ride. My cousin Doug showed me the way to the White Stones, and I trod in deep slurry, the kind that sucks hard at your boots. After that I went up to the White Stones alone, which is just as well, because I found myself briefly crying like a baby – the ashes of both my grandparents were scattered there, and I felt, for a moment, as I stood by the stones that have been just there for thousands of years, as if all the grief I’ve held ever since my grandmother’s death, in particular, was overwhelming me.

I kicked away a little of the moss and grass that has conquered one of the ancient stone circles. It felt like my own discovery.

This was also, however, just after I discovered my “waterproof” boots were leaking. I shall be writing a cranky letter to the manufacturers. Fortunately, since I still wanted to run an errand in Turriff, my cross-trainers and some dry socks were in the boot of my car, which I’d driven up to the Stones.

This afternoon I also fixed Doug’s computer. It had tied itself thoroughly in knots, but fixably so.

Tomorrow, my rough plan is to visit Culloden, and spend the night somewhere around Inverness. Tuesday I’ll head up to the far north, or into the western Highlands.

Monday, late evening

I attended the evening session of the Moray Camera Club. A photo competition was being judged by a man from Dundee, and I really enjoyed the pictures, but my lord the man has terrible judgement, I found it rather irksome.

It finished at 9pm, and everyone was gathering for tea and socialisation, but I went back to my car, and by the combined powers of the Accommodation Guide I picked up at the tourist info office, mobile broadband on laptop, and actually having a phone with which to call places, poked around until I found a nice place to stay.

One place I called that had no rooms, the woman was trying to think of somewhere that would. She came up with the Premier Inn.

“That’s my fallback option.”
“Yes, it is a bit of a fallback place, isn’t it?”

The Premier Inn is basically a motel chain. I stayed at one in Merseyside; it was nice enough, clean and pleasant and all that, but it’s not at all interesting.

One night in the Premier Inn at Merseyside cost me fifty pounds.

Tonight, for fifty pounds, I’m staying at The Pines Guest House. For that fifty pounds, I’m staying in an utterly lovely room in an old Victorian mansion, with beautiful, beautiful furniture, including a king-sized wooden four-poster bed. Instead of scrabbling for power points, I’ve plugged my laptop into the powerboard – but there’s four other free power points I can see from where I’m sitting. There are fixings for tea and coffee. There’s a lovely gilt mirror.

Oh, and a full breakfast is included, and there’s wifi internet access.

The sheet has some fun bits on the policy stuff. Like the Edinburgh Lodge, they have a towel system whereby you can indicate whether you want your towels replaced or are happy to reuse them; the Pines system is that you leave towels you want replaced on the floor.

They also recycle and use local or Fairtrade products where possible. And have a laundry service – clothes returned washed and dried.

This is why, seriously, finding a B&B is preferable to finding a motel. I have the nicest room in the house, apparently; it was the only room that was left.

Tuesday, midmorning

After a delicious breakfast, I’m lounging in bed watching Jeeves and Wooster and updating photos and things. A proper photo post will have to be forthcoming later, though.

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