02 August, 2011

Up North in the Land of Haggis

During the fall 2011 term, many of you will spend several weekends traveling to various continental cities, all with a long history and numerous art and architectural treasures. There are cities and areas of outstanding natural beauty everywhere in continental Europe. And as you will find out, if you don’t already know, there are cheap flights –if timely booked – and even cheaper bus rides, that can get you there promptly and efficiently.

But don’t forget the UK. Unlike my colleagues here, who holidayed in the Low Countries and Scandinavia this summer, I went up north to experience the Scottish highlands and islands. Some of you will be in Edinburgh for the festival in a few weeks time. For the most part Edinburgh is an attractive destination with its volcanic ridge spilling eastward down the Royal Mile past the Canongate – scene of the royal marriage this weekend – culminating in the Palace of Holyrood, scene of the royal wedding reception. The ‘new town’ to the north , begun in the mid-18th century when the ‘old town’ on the volcanic ridge had become an overpopulated slum, is one of the finest examples of neo-classical architecture and town planning in the world. Edinburgh, like Bath, another of our destinations, deserves its title as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But don’t rest in Edinburgh. The real gem that is Scotland lies further north. Standing atop Arthur’s Seat you can just see the first mountains [bens] that make up the highlands. Venture north to STIRLING, Loch Lomond, Fort William and you begin to see why Scotland has the reputation of being the most beautiful part of the UK. Home to the clans [who were mostly Jacobites, i.e., supporters of the exiled catholic Stuart dynasty], the  Highlands were ‘cleared’ [today we might say ‘ethnically cleansed’] in the 18th century both to diminish the threat from the belligerency of the clans, and because landlords found it much cheaper to turn the land over to sheep. After the Act of Union in 1707, when Scotland surrendered its independence to join with England, and the battle of Culloden in 1746, the London government and its allies legislated to remove the dynastic threat to the Protestant House of Hanover. Thus began the forced removal of highlanders to the British colonies, chiefly America, Canada, and eventually Australia.  Canada with its maritime province of Nova Scotia and its music and language traditions points inexorably back to the mother country. Indeed it can be said that while the USA is indebted to the Protestant Northern Irish, Canada owes a greater debt to Scotland [and, obviously, its ‘auld’ ally against England, France.]

If you go further north to the off-shore islands, you find the roots of Gallic speaking Scotland in the Western Isles and of Scandinavian Scotland in the Orkneys and Shetlands.  I spent 4 days on the Orkneys, famous for remarkable Neolithic sites like Scara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles, its Stonehenge like stone circles and its strategically vital 20th century naval base at  Scapa Flow where the German High Command scuttled its undamaged imperial fleet in June 1919 instead of allowing it to fall into the hands of the victorious French and English.

Meet the right partner and this could be you one day!
The moral of this blog is ‘go north young people, Scotland won’t let you down.’ But if you are planning to marry an Orkadian, beware the ’blackening’ tradition. Men and women planning on getting married are kidnapped, blackened with treacle [molasses], driven around town in an open flat bed truck, tied to the market cross in front of the cathedral for a suitable length of time, and then thrown into the sea to begin the process of washing off the treacle. Hmm! I’ve got nothing against marriage, but the Orkadians have invented a rather forbidding ‘rite of passage’ to the altar. No doubt, the Orkadians have the following passage in their wedding ceremonies: “What the people of the Orkneys have joined together, no one will separate as the sticky dark treacle will join them together for eternity.”

So go north by all means, but don’t announce your engagement till after you return.


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