Scotland is not a foreign country for many Canadians. Our primal familiarity comes from family legends and history lessons; plodding through three feet of snow down the Royal Mile to Milton House School. Sailing across the Minch with Bonnie Prince Charlie. When we cross the Atlantic, we are looking for ourselves — in childhood songs, literary heroes, religious shrines, in aunts and uncles and cousins. About 10% of Canadians claim Scottish heritage. Last year, an estimated 183,000 visited the old country.
But our intimacy can be deceptive. The first few times I visited, my hallowed ancestor hunt was distracted by the rich variety of dialects and myths and temperaments; Scotland is an intricate plaid, seen in its diverse colors as much as in its distinctive w'eave. So this trip I tried for a closer view — 1 saw Scotland in the Orkney Islands and the Gallow'ay Peninsula, in the Foubisters and the Millers.
Eva Foubister is cuddled in her Fair Isle sweater against the cold wind of the Pentland crossing, a turbulent firth which Orcadians proudly compare to the Cape of Good Hope. But the day is warm — a 70-degree calm — so Eva sits up and orders a whiskey.
“Why would anyone come to Orkney?” she asks. “I know it’s the richest place in Scotland, but w'e don’t get many tourists.” I explain that Orkney was the farthest north my $36 travel pass would take me. No, I don’t know anyone on the islands. A whiskey? I’d love one. thank you. No, I don’t have a car. but... and literally before I know' what she is saying (her broad Scots accent, edged in quick Norse, is so thick that on her one and only visit to London someone asked if she were trying to learn English) I am booked into the upstairs bedroom.
The w'hole family drops in to greet me. Michael, w ho runs the grocery shop next door. Jock, who works in the tattie crisp factory. Sixteen-year-old David, who graciously serves hefty whiskies from one of the local distilleries. Several rounds of “refreshments” later, we sit down to a dinner of fresh sea trout caught in the loch across the street.
The land is a green prairie — open and flat. Few trees survive the thin soil and thick winds. David delivers a lecture about the nearby Ring of Brogar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, bronze age relatives of Stonehenge. He describes the settlement of Skarabrae, dating from about 2000 B.C. David realizes Orkney is a sanctuary. Some young people have left to try farming in Surrey or capitalism in Birmingham. They think the islands are dull now, but they’ll come back. Everyone does.
Now, the silhouette of a lone cyclist moves across the late evening sunset. Orcadians, who are ignored by the rest of the world except in strategic terms, seem content to reside on the periphery.
David suggests we meet in Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, the next day after school. The chalk-bright pastel houses lead down the windswept streets to St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in 1137 to honor the Norse martyr. Vikings landed here in the eighth century, and the ties to Scandinavia remain strong.
After tea, Eva persuades her husband, John, to read his poetry. He scrambles through old correspondence for a creased and faded envelope, stuffed with different sized stationery. After a modest apology to more eminent bards, he recites his doggerel, beginning with one about his son’s foolish indulgence in home brew: “A jug they each accepted/ Thinking that they knew/How to hold their liquor/But they couldn’t hold home brew/ . . . And so he joined his colleagues/Upon the bathroom floor/ And there they spewed a duet/In the ‘loo’ of Arranmore.” David joins in with some of his rhymes and free verse anecdotes.The evening is framed in a Polaroid photo.
Valerie Miner is a free-lance writer with a special interest in travel and the arts.
“These are indeed a sober, grave, religious people ... They have no assemblies or balls ... You hear no profane words in the streets”
Traveling south, I pass through romantic imaginings about other Scotlands. Inverness spins a gothic fairytale, its spired greystone buildings and candle-like sulphur street lamps reflected in the dark River Ness. On the isle of Skye, after due homage to Drambuie, I wander the rocky Portree shore, enjoying the fragrance of sheep shit and wild flowers. I visit the genteel elegance of Edinburgh with my mother, who grew up there. We try to recreate a childhood Sunday at Portobello Beach, munching penny puff candy and watching the future of Scotland scamper bareassed into the sea.
Mother flies back to her new world apartment, while I train southwest to Ayrshire, Rabbie Burnsland, with its green patchwork farms and plaid moors. Wonderful country, agrees a new Ayrshire friend, but you must visit Mrs. Miller and Galloway.
The next day I meet Mrs. Miller, a lumberwoman, over a pint of bitter in New Galloway, and we drive south to a small limb of land dangling into the Solway Firth. Most tourists, she explains, bypass the peninsula on their route from the Lake District to Glasgow. She suggests I spend the first day in Kirkcudbright, where people battled for their Protestantism in the 1600s. Today, a refuge for weavers, potters and other craftsmen, Kirkcudbright reminds me of St. Jean Port Joli.
I dutifully seek out legends and relics: E. A. Hornel, whose local reputation improved considerably after he donated his white elephant of a house to the town; and Thomas Selkirk, of Red River, Manitoba, fame. But the village is much more vital outside the guidebook. Row houses along 18th-century High Street are interrupted randomly by cobbled closes, opening to rose-cluttered courtyards. Kirkcudbright Academy students in black-and-red uniforms and bright yellow “Scottish Nationalist” buttons race past the stolid 17th-century Tolbooth inscribed, “This fruit — not riches — life supplies./Art gives what nature here denies./Prosperity must surely bliss/St. Cuthbert’s sons who purchased this.”
Except during school recess, the streets are cold and quiet. My lone image squints back at me from fresh puddled pavements. This is not the silence of rural sleepiness, but the quiet of purposeful industry: a young woman stretches on a chair to polish her window; a grandmother kneels to scrub her front porch. I wonder how much has changed since Daniel Defoe, visiting in the 1720s, wrote: “These are, indeed, a sober, grave, religious people . . . They have no assemblies or balls ... You hear no profane words in the streets.”
The ancient cemetery of St. Cuthbert on the hill provides the best view of Kirkcudbright. A frayed old man with new jeans rolled up around his ankles and glasses slipping down his nose is repainting a Victorian gravestone. “Most painters don’t know how to do a job like this,” he informs me. “They miss parts of the letters because they don’t look carefully enough.” He is a proper stone cutter. So was his father and his father’s father. “They’re buried back there,” he points over his shoulder.
He asks if I’ve seen the most famous grave in the cemetery. “Old Billie Marshall, 1792. Bet you’ve heard of him. Lived to be 120. Had 17 wives. Now that’s what kept him healthy. He was a tinker, see, from the insignia of the ram’s horns and spoons on the stone. But he made most of his living by, shall we say, ‘other than legal’ means. Miss Carter in Twynholm has a purse that Billie stole.” Then he points his paintbrush down the hill to where Elspeth McEwen, the last witch executed in Kirkcudbright, was burned in 1698. Later, in The Shieling, Mrs. Miller’s shelter — so-called because it rests between two peninsulas overlooking the Solway Firth — I am ushered into the warm dining room for supper with her four children. Everyone talks about where to take Old Farmer, a neighbor who has been dropping in for dinner once a week since his wife died. Mrs. Miller suggests the Burns’ Supper. “But isn’t Burns’ Night in January?” I ask. “Yes, well the pub’s slow in summer,” explains her son John. “And they had a Burns’ Night last Friday that was so successful they decided to do it again this week.” Then the younger kids are recruited to do dishes as we head off to the “Rural,” a monthly meeting of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute.
The highlight of the evening is a talk by the Misses Adamson, recent immigrants from Glasgow, about their painting and embroidery. White-bread sandwiches and cream puffs are served with heavy tea and parlor games, and the meeting ends with a tribute by the elder Miss Adamson. “When first we cam tae Gatehouse/An left the toon behind/We wondered if we’d settle in/An’ jistwhit
we wad find/.....Sae we will bide in
Gatehouse/Midst the country-folks sae kind/Where yin has time tae stand and stare and generally unwind.”
Orkney and Galloway — like every other Scotland I’ve seen — have their own exquisite hospitality and vigor. You can chase the ghosts of Queen Mary and Robert the Bruce. You can conjure spiritual roots amidst the thistle. Or you can decide to be a traveler rather than a tourist, taking each region on its own. for its separate spirit. Until you look beyond your idylls, your journey won’t lead you anywhere but home again,
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