Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Scotland: Into The Maelstrom

OK, for those of you planning a European trip in the next year or two, I have an exercise. Make a list of the places you want to visit. Then at the very top, write "Edinburgh". Warning: in the next paragraph I wax lyrical.

Before I came to Scotland I did my typical pre-travel reading - browsing the guidebooks and reading a novel or two set in Scotland. A couple of times I read the claim that Edinburgh is "Northern Europe's most beautiful city" or "one of Europe's most beautiful cities". Well, you can read that about almost any city, so I was a bit doubtful. However it is entirely true. Land that was once volcanic has produced a series of rocky scarps and outcrops, now built over with Renaissance and Victorian buildings. In the very centre is Edinburgh castle, standing on a bluff with only one way up, a street called The Royal Mile. It seems that everywhere you look, every street you pass, there are still more beautiful buildings that combine in a consistent way. From the high points you can see the sun shine over Leith, the Edinburgh port town a few miles away.

When I travel I sometimes arrive in a city which instantly makes me think "This is a place I could live". For example, Budapest with its cafes and thermal baths, or Berlin with its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Edinburgh has been added to that list. On the negative side:
   a) because all the buildings are made out of a dark grey stone I imagine it could be a very grim place to spend the Scottish winter.
   b) many Scottish people have an accent "so thick you could carve it". I often have conversations with shopkeepers, etc, where I could be talking to a Mongolian for all I know. That is, a kilt-wearing Mongolian with pasty white skin who while riding horseback took a wrong turn in outer Siberia and found himself in Edinburgh, and decided to stay despite haggis and other appalling examples of the local cuisine. The shopkeeper sounds vaguely English, so I just nod agreeably, hoping that it is appropriate, and I haven't agreed to allow my intestines to be used for the next batch of haggis.

Yesterday I made a visit to the world's third largest naturally formed whirlpool, or maelstrom. Due to a combination of geographic and tidal features that I won't bother describing, the ocean waters of the west coast of Scotland produce in the gulf of Corryvreckan a constant bubbling, boiling, tempestous area with standing waves and a maelstrom. We travelled there in a rigid inflatable boat with 10 other brave hearts to see seals, exotic sea life (they work in exotic dance clubs at night), wild deer, abandoned island houses, and finally the maelstrom. Unfortunately there was a strong swell, which (a) made it difficult for my breakfast to stay in my stomach and (b) made the whirlpool not so visibly potent.

Today I am in Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland. Last night was extremely cold, so I wasn't too surprised to look out the window during breakfast to find the first snowfalls of the season have covered some nearby hills.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

A Wee Highland Trip

Off the west coast of Scotland are some islands known as The Hebrides or The Western Isles. Some ancestors of mine came from The Isle of Harris, the outermost of the inhabited islands in The Hebrides, so I made a little pilgrimage there. It's an ancient land with a small population, rapidly shrinking - in numbers, not in height. As far as I know they are still as tall as they were 10 years ago, but they are 20% fewer. The land is inhospitable, not suited to modern farming, the weather is shockingly terrible, and conservation bodies block any attempt at creating new industries. I had a feeling of being at the edge of the world. When I mentioned this to a particularly intelligent local, he pointed out that in the days before cars, trains, and planes dominated transport, the region was often visited by ships on their way from Europe to North America, and in those days definitely wasn't at the ends of the earth.

As we arrived by ferry, I thought I was seeing the surface of the moon. Although it was stark and inhospitable, the scenery was quite captivating. The entire Harris part of the Isle is dominated by such rounded rocky outcrops, and was filmed by Stanley Kubrick as the surface of Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As we drove through the island, I could see that the rocks hid many small lochs and waterfalls, and allowed small patches of grass and shrubs to grow, although barely a single tree. The road was shared with sheep, grazing where they could, who used the rocks to hide from the persistent gusty winds and sleeting rain. Surprisingly there are some beautiful, white, sandy beaches on the western side with excellent surf.

I found the place on the sea that according to locals was probably the small property where my great-grandfather lived. Unfortunately due to erosion over the years, the place is now not so much on the sea as it is under the sea. My dream of finding a seaside property that I could claim on behalf of my family was literally washed away.

The entire island was once owned and controlled by the "Macleod of Macleod" clan, and hence even today, people with the surname McLeods and Macleods make up a large part of the population. It was a bit odd travelling around a place where every fourth business and landmark had my name. Macleod Hotel, McLeods Transport, The Stone of Macleod, and the tomb of the Chieftan Alexander Macleod were just a few.

I had the chance to see some ancient stone circles and monoliths, of which the afore-mentioned Stone of Macleod was one. The island, and indeed much of Scotland has many of these Stonehenge-like structures. They consist of massive slabs of stone arranged in patterns based on the seasons, the sun, and the moon. These were mostly built about 4500 to 5000 years ago by ancient Celts, for reasons unknown although many theories exist. In one small patch of the neighbouring island there were 3 stone circles within 5 miles. The effort to build these in non-mechanical days would have been enormous, and it seems some were built over a period of several hundred years. The biggest mystery to me is this: 5000 years ago, when the earth's population was so small and there was so much space, why would people choose to live in such a cold and wet place instead of on the Mediterranean or in the Caribbean?

Another thought: People say that the world would be better without television, because then more people would be outside doing things. But consider the ancient Celts. They had no television, and all they could think to do was cart enormous slabs of stone around the countryside.

Lord Leverhulme, the man who owned the Unilever soap company which made him very rich, once bought the entire island, and had a number of crackpot schemes to stimulate the island's economy. All failed. One such scheme involved turning a town with practically no sea access into a ocean-going fishing industry. Another scheming person, from Germany, tried to launch the world's first rocket-delivered mail service in the area.

After visiting the island, I stayed a night in a castle in the Highlands, now used as a youth hostel. When the owner died in the mid 20th century, it was donated to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association. The halls are lined with statues and artwork donated with the castle, there are grand staircases, a watch-tower, and even a secret passage, opened by turning the base of a particular statue. I ate dinner in a pub 15 minutes walk away, reached by walking through the fields, down country lanes, and over a footbridge. The way back in the dark could have been hard, but the castle was illuminated on its hilltop, which as a beacon, is a pretty hard thing to miss.