There’s More To This Plot Than the Title

I spent this past weekend working at the Highland Titles booth at the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton (California). I first heard about Highland Titles a few years ago when I stopped by the Highland Titles booth and had a nice chat with Stephen Rossiter. We talked about the conservation effort being undertaken by Highland Titles, and I was happy to learn about it. As a supporter of a land trust in Northern California, I was interested in what similar projects were being done in other countries, especially Scotland. At that time, what intrigued me was that by purchasing a one-square foot plot of land, becoming a landowner in Scotland, one could thereby have a courtesy title in front of one’s name. My son’s 25th birthday was coming up and I thought that this would make a great present for him. It was a win-win-win: the land got protected, I got to own a very small piece of Scotland, and it was a fun gift. Naturally, there wasn’t any way that I was going to do this for my son without doing it for myself as well, so I bought two one square foot plots, side by side. My son was as delighted as I was. The thought never crossed my mind, and I doubt that it did his either, that the titles we chose (Laird for him; Lady for me) had any other significance than a fun thing to say we were. I have read many of the online discussions about the Titles, and I am amazed that anyone would even consider for a moment that they are anything other than a lighthearted gesture. I have never considered myself an “officially Titled” person any more than I considered myself the owner of the whale or the star that I “bought” along with a few thousand other people. The difference is that the land I own in Glencoe Wood is indeed mine, and no one else will ever own it; and unlike the whale I can’t touch and the star I can barely see, I can go stand on my land and enjoy the view of the Highlands.

Highland Games, Pleasanton, CA

I like the tag line, “Conserving Scotland one square foot at a time”. Highland Titles is less about selling Titles and more about refining the conservation aspect of the reserve. Of course there are conservation efforts in the US, especially in Northern California where I live, and I support those; but there is something almost nostalgic about helping to conserve an area of land in the country where my family history lies. My fascination for Scotland began with my grandfather telling me the stories his father had told him of his life before coming to America. I think of my great-grandfather, a stone mason and a crofter in Aberdeenshire, and how connected he must have felt to the lands that he worked. I wonder how it must have felt for him to have to leave in the late 1800’s, even though he found success as the owner of a stone quarry in Vermont; I know that his heart was forever in Scotland. I believe that when we live in connection to the land, even when we leave that particular place, the connection lives on—not just in the individual, but in the land itself. I guess that’s where poets, writers and Scottish tourist boards get the inspiration to talk about the ancestral ghosts that dwell across the lands. For me, there is a strong pull to conserve a part Scotland because of the familial ghosts that still dwell there.

Kyle & I planting trees for Dad

One square foot of land is not very much, yet the significance of being a part of the whole is huge. By purchasing a plot of land through Highland Titles, one becomes a part of the effort that moves continuously toward preserving the entire area of land, restoring native species of fauna and protecting the wild life that dwell there. As hoped for years ago, the success of Highland Titles’ Glencoe Wood has allowed for another tract of land to be purchased which is affectionately known as Bumblebee Haven. And it goes further than that. It reaches out to the helping to save the Scottish Wildcat, the planting of trees, and the maintenance of bee hives. Locally, we collectively support a pipers’ band and a shinty team; the local school children have a place to come and learn about the flora and the fauna from the Highland Titles head volunteer and guide, Estate Factor Stewart Borland.

I first met Stewart when my son, my daughter-in-law, and I traveled to Scotland a couple of years ago. We had a wonderful hike up to the meadow where the new lochan had yet to be made. Now, alongside that new lochan, on my second plot (of ten square feet), stand three rowan trees that we planted in honor of my father. When we planted them, that nostalgic feeling surfaced again. I felt that we had brought a part of the family full circle. And, while I still have a bit of fun with my title of Lady Katherine, I have the more important titles of “preserver of the lands” and “planter of trees”.

The trees by the lochan, photo courtesy of Stewart Borland

 

Posted in Ancestry, Eco-travel, Ecology, Land trust, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Modern Idiocy At an Ancient Site

 

Ring of BrodgarYesterday, the BBC reported that someone has vandalized the Ring of Brodgar, one of the many—and certainly one of the most spectacular—ancient sites on the Island of Orkney. At 341 feet in diameter it is the third largest stone circle in the UK, and is one of the most impressive sites in the whole of Europe. According to the BBC, “A tour guide discovered the initials ‘AA 2015’ scratched into one of the stones”.

Why people feel the need to leave their mark on things, especially when it means the desecration of an ancient and sacred site is beyond understanding. I have previously written about touching and climbing on ancient sites here.

Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar, from the Old Norse Brúargarðr, “Bridge Farmorfarm by the bridge” (probably referring to the nearby land bridge now called the Ness of Brodgar) is the accepted spelling of the site and is the closest to the Orcadian pronunciation, although it is also known as the “Ring O’ Brodgar” and sometimes spelled “Brogar”. It is a henge and stone circle (most henges do not contain stone circles) from the Neolithic age. Located on the largest island in Orkney, commonly referred to as the Mainland, The Ring is part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site. Built between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, only twenty-seven of the sixty or more original stones are still standing and average 13 feet in height. They are surrounded by the henge, a circular ditch that is nearly ten feet deep and thirty feet wide. The circle itself is 1250 feet in circumference. The entire circle was carved out of the sandstone bedrock between 2500 and 2000 BCE and took an estimated 80,000 man-hours to finish.

The significance of the few square miles surrounding the Ring of Brodgar is evident in the placement of various sites that were all seemingly designated for ritual. In this area there are single standing stones that are in alignment with other groups of standing stones, four chambered tombs, and various mounds, cairns and barrows. There is a definite alignment with the Standing Stones of Stenness and the tomb of Maes Howe. The more recent excavations on the Ness of Brodgar that runs in between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness have solidified the importance of these sites as being for ritual. The remains of a 330 foot long, twenty feet high stone wall may have been built to separate the ritual area from the domestic area surrounding it.

Ring of Brodgar

One of the leading Scottish archeologists stated that the person who desecrated this site is a “waste of skin”. I tend to agree. One wants to stay away from judgment and generalization, but certainly there seems to be a heart, soul and mind lacking within this person’s skin. It is my sincere hope that, just as the men (thugs) who pushed over a “goblin” (a delicately perched boulder which took millions of years to form) in the Goblin Valley State Park in Utah (USA) in 2013, the person who carved initials into one of the standing stones in the Ring of Brodgar will be found, charged, convicted and sentenced.

Ring of Brodgar

 

Posted in Ancestry, Eco-travel, Ecology, Land trust, Scotland, Scottish ancestry, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Don’t Judge the Land By the Title

Mists over Loch Linnhe

I first heard about Highland Titles a few years ago. I was at the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in Pleasanton (California) when I stopped by the Highland Titles booth and had a nice chat with Stephen Rossiter. We talked about the conservation effort being undertaken by Highland Titles, and I was happy to learn about it. As a supporter of a land trust in Northern California, I was interested in what similar projects were being done in other countries, especially Scotland. At that time, what intrigued me was that by purchasing a one-square foot plot of land, becoming a landowner in Scotland, one could thereby have a courtesy title in front of one’s name. My son’s 25th birthday was coming up and I thought that this would make a great present for him. It was a win-win-win: the land got protected, I got to own a very small piece of Scotland, and it was a fun gift. Naturally, there wasn’t any way that I was going to do this for my son without doing it for myself as well, so I bought two one square foot plots, side by side. My son was as delighted as I was. The thought never crossed my mind, and I doubt that it did his either, that the titles we chose (Laird for him; Lady for me) had any other significance than a fun thing to say we were. I have read many of the online discussions about the Titles, and I am amazed that anyone would even consider for a moment that they are anything other than a lighthearted gesture. I have never considered myself an “officially Titled” person any more than I considered myself the owner of the whale or the star that I “bought” along with a few thousand other people. The difference is that the land I own in Glencoe Wood is indeed mine, and no one else will ever own it; and unlike the whale I can’t touch and the star I can barely see, I can go stand on my land and enjoy the view of the Highlands.

Highland Titles-Glencoe Wood

Highland Titles-Glencoe Wood

I like the tag line, “Conserving Scotland one square foot at a time”. Highland Titles is less about selling Titles and more about refining the conservation aspect of the reserve. Of course there are conservation efforts in the US, especially in Northern California where I live, and I support those; but there is something almost nostalgic about helping to conserve an area of land in the country where my family history lies. My fascination for Scotland began with my grandfather telling me the stories his father had told him of his life before coming to America. I think of my great-grandfather, a stone mason and a crofter in Aberdeenshire, and how connected he must have felt to the lands that he worked. I wonder how it must have felt for him to have to leave in the late 1800’s, even though he found success as the owner of a stone quarry in Vermont; I know that his heart was forever in Scotland. I believe that when we live in connection to the land, even when we leave that particular place, the connection lives on–not just in the individual, but in the land itself. I guess that’s where poets, writers and Scottish tourist boards get the inspiration to talk about the ancestral ghosts that dwell across the lands. For me, there is a strong pull to conserve a part Scotland because of the familial ghosts that still dwell there.

One square foot of land is not very much, yet the significance of being a part of the whole is huge. By purchasing a plot of land through Highland Titles, one becomes a part of the effort that moves continuously toward preserving the entire area of land, restoring native species of fauna and protecting the wild life that dwell there. As hoped for years ago, the success of Highland Titles’ Glencoe Wood has allowed for another tract of land to be purchased which is affectionately known as Bumblebee Haven. And it goes further than that. It reaches out to the helping to save the Scottish Wildcat, the planting of trees, and the maintenance of bee hives. Locally, we collectively support a pipers’ band and a shinty team; the local school children have a place to come and learn about the flora and the fauna from the Highland Titles head volunteer and guide, Estate Factor Stewart Borland.

Three Rowan Trees and Lochan, Glencoe Wood   photo by Stewart Borland

Three Rowan Trees and Lochan              Glencoe Wood
photo by Stewart Borland

I first met Stewart when my son, my daughter-in-law, and I traveled to Scotland a couple of years ago. We had a wonderful hike up to the meadow where the new lochan had yet to be made. Now, alongside that new lochan, on my second plot (of ten square feet), stand three rowan trees that we planted in honor of my father. When we planted them, that nostalgic feeling surfaced again. I felt that we had brought a part of the family full circle. And, while I still have a bit of fun with my title of Lady Katherine, I have the more important titles of “preserver of the lands” and “planter of trees”.

*This blog was first published on the Highland Titles VIP blog page

 

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Rocking Stones ~ Clach-Bràth

I was going through some old photographs from when I lived up in the California Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park. I had taken a photo of a very large rock that was sitting upon other rocks, but it didn’t look at all like them. I started to research this and learned a great deal about the phenomena of “errratics”.

When the glaciers receded after the last ice age, huge boulders were left in places that were sometimes very precarious. These boulders, which do not match the local bedrock where they are now found, are referred to as “erratics”. Some of these erratics are small, but some of them are huge, weighing thousands of tons and can be five hundred miles or more from their original location. In order to have been transported over great distances, the erratic consists of rock that is resistant to the grinding effect of the glacier and did not shatter with movement. This phenomenon occurred all over the earth, including Scotland.

The ice retreated from Scotland in 11,000 BCE leaving quite a few erratic stones located around the country. The greatest concentration of them is located in Ayrshire (Siorrachd Inbhir Àir, “the county at the mouth of the River Ayr”), the area in the southwestern part of the country along the Firth of Clyde. This new knowledge set off a whole different course of research, and now the route for the trip to Scotland later this year has been altered slightly to accommodate seeing a few of these stones.

There is a certain type of erratic stone that is so precariously placed that it actually rocks when touched. Rocking stones (also called logans or roggans) are also known in Scotland as clach-bràth (“knowledge stone”). This reference comes from the Druidic practice of using the stones as a form of judgment. A person’s guilt or innocence could be determined by the way the stone moved when the person sat on it. Unfortunately, there are some that no longer rock because they were damaged when human curiosity outweighed common sense and people dug around the base of, or in some cases actually moved, the stones.

Cuffhillstone by Original uploader was Rosser1954 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by UserLiftarn using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Dom

The Cuff Hill rocking stone, near Hessilhead in Beith, North Ayrshire, no longer rocks because people dug around the base of it to try to find its balance point. It has some association with the Druids and it, along with a small grove of standing stones called “Druids’ Graves”, was found in 1813 enclosed in a drystone dyke. A cleft in the side of Cuff Hill that is known as “St. Inan’s Chair” from the legend that he used it as a pulpit is still visible, although the sacred well that stood by it was covered over in 2006. The stone itself measures 6’9” x 6’6” x 4’ and is estimated to weigh seven tons. I found some hiking notes regarding this site which were written in 2013, and it seems that it is extremely difficult to access the area directly around the stone and the grove.

Clochoderick Logan stone by Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - httpcommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileClochoderick_Logan_stone.JPG#med

The Clochoderick stone, located near Howwood (Coille an Dail) in Renfrewshire (Siorrachd Rinn Friù), is another stone known as a Druidic judgment stone. Unfortunately, this stone is also one that no longer rocks. It measures 12’ x’17’ x 22’ and sits in the middle of a field. Legend also states that is marks the place where Rhydderch Hael, the King of Strathclyde was crowned King by Merlin, or that it is where he was buried.

Ogrestane1. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia - httpen.wikipedia.orgwikiFileOgrestane1.jpg#mediaFileOgrestane1.jpg

The Thurgartston, also called the Ogrestane,  stone is located near Dunlop.  It has an estimated weight of twenty-five tons with the above-ground rock measuring 12’ x 8’.  Ogrestane may refer to some ancient myth thereby becoming “The Ogre’s Stone”. The alternate name of this stone may come either from the Old Norse for “Thor’s Great Stone” or possibly “Thou Great Stone” (“grit stane” in Scots). It could also possibly be derived from the Scottish word “Tagairtstane” meaning “the Priest’s stone” which would probably allude back to the Druidic and pagan rituals. May Day celebrations continue at this site in modern times. It is thought to have been a rocking stone, but the earth has come higher around it, and it no longer moves.

Further away from our originally-plotted course, but still within possibility, lie three mores stones. The Logan Stone, located in the North Carrick area of South Ayrshire, measures 4’3” x 4’ x 3’ high and can still be moved to rock.

The Lamargie stone, in the Parish of Auchinleck, Ayrshire, is also considered a Druid stone. Formed of two vertical stones and a horizontal one, it stands six feet long and four feet high in a hollow where two streams meet.

Coylton logan or rocking stone by Roger Griffith. Artwork by James Paterson. - History of Ayrshire by James Paterson. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - httpcommons.w

On the Craigs of Kyle near Colton in Ayrshire stands the Boarstone, also called the Witches’ Stone. It stands on three other stones, and is estimated to weigh around 30 tons. This stone is located near the site of St. Bride’s Chapel, continuing the pattern of Christian sites being placed either on or very near sites that were sacred to the pre-Christian peoples of the area.

All of these sites are out across fields, so visiting them will certainly be dependent upon the weather. We may have to limit ourselves to just one of them due to time constraints, in which case the choice will be made in the moment.

 

 

 

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Mountains & Munros

Oftentimes people will talk of “hunting a wild haggis” in the Scottish countryside. They may also talk of “bagging a Munro”. The second statement has a lot more believability than the first.

Named after Sir Hugh Munro, 4th Baronet (1856-1919), a Munro is a peak in Scotland with a summit that is 3000 feet (914.4 meters) or higher. In 1891, Sir Hugh published Munros Tables which listed all such peaks, with a total of 538. The term “Munro” was reserved for the 282 summits that were considered as separate mountains. The remaining summits were designated as “tops”. The tables were published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, of which Munro was a founding member. In 2012, the Club published a revised list of the Tables that name 282 Munros and 227 “subsidiary tops”. To “bag a Munro” is to climb to its peak.

Ben Nevis in the Clouds

Ben Nevis in the Clouds, Kate Riley, 2006

Summits that are 2500-3000 feet (762-914 meters) are classified as Corbetts, after John Rooke Corbett. In 1930, he became the first person to climb all of the 2000 foot high peaks in Scotland. The Grahams have summits that are 2000-2500 feet (610-762 meters), and have been named for Fiona Torbet (nee Graham) who published a list of peaks in the early 1990’s. The Corbetts and the Grahams must have a prominent peak of at least 500 feet (152 meters).

The most famous of the Munros is Ben Nevis, in Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig), Beinn Nibheis. At 4409 feet, is the highest peak in the British Isles. Beinn means “mountain” and Nibheis means “malicious” which probably refers to the consistent storms that occur at the top, or to the fact that Ben Nevis is a collapsed volcano; alternately, Beinn Nibheis may come from the phrase beinn nèamh-bhathais, “the mountain with its head in the clouds”. Located in the Lochaber area near Fort William, Ben Nevis inspired the poet John Keats to write both “Sonnet. Written Upon The Top Of Ben Nevis” and “Ben Nevis: A Dialogue Poem”.

Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis, photo by Stewart Borlund

Ben Nevis from Glen Nevis photo by Stewart Borland

The most northerly Munro is in Sutherland. At 3041 feet (927 meters), Ben Hope (Beinn Hòb) stands at the south-eastern edge of Loch Hope and rises above the surrounding moors, a very craggy and impressive sight. The most easterly Munro is in the Grampian mountain region in Aberdeenshire. Mount Keen (Monadh Caoin, “beautiful hill”) at 3081 feet (939 meters) is a domed shaped solitary hill with an easy access route. The most westerly Munro on the Scottish mainland is in the Knoydart region of the Highlands; Ladhar Bheinn (“hill of the hoof”) stands 3350 feet (1020 meters).

Ben Lomond, public domain

Ben Lomond (public domain)

The most southerly of the Munros is Ben Lomond (Beinn Laomainn, “Beacon Mountain”) on the eastern side of Loch Lomond, the largest of the Scottish lochs. Located in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Ben Lomond is 3196 feet (974 meters) high and is one of the most-climbed Munros. It is, of course, referenced in the popular Scottish folk ballad, “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” (1841).

Buachaille Etive Mòr by Liisa Linklater

Buachaille Etive Mòr photo by Liisa Linklater

Due to the popularity of photographing it, Buachaille Etive Mòr (Buachaille Eite Mòr “the great herdsman of Etive”) is also one of the most easily recognized Munros. When driving along the A82, it’s craggy pyramid stands 3350 feet (1021 meters) at the head of Glen Etive (Gleann Èite; Èite: “little ugly one” refers to a goddess that lives in Loch Etive). Five miles (8 km) in length, the ridge of Buachaille Etive Mòr has four “tops” of which Stob Dearg, at 3353 feet (1022 meters) and Stob na Bròige at 3136 feet (956 meters) are Munros as well.

Achnambeithach Cottage, Aonach Dubh, Glen Coe; by Liisa Linklater

 Achnambeithach Cottage, Aonach Dubh, Glen Coe; photo by Liisa Linklater

A little further to the west of the Buachaille stands Bidean nam Bian (“peak of the mountains“) on the western end of Glen Coe. Also known as the “Three Sisters”, the ridges of Bidean nam Bian are Gearr Aonach (Short Ridge), Aonach Dubh (Black Ridge), and Beinn Fhada (Long Hill). And just a little further west, south of the town of Ballachulish (Baile a’ Chaolais,”town on the narrows”) are two more Munros: Sgorr Dhearg (“red peak”) and Sgorr Dhonuill (“peak of the Donalds”). Both of these Munros are part of Beinn a’ Bheithir (“Mountain of the Thunderbolt” or “the peak of the serpent”, referring to a dragon that once lived in the side of the hills).

Glen Coe from The Devil's Staircase, photo by Stewart Borlund

Glen Coe from The Devil’s Staircase photo by Stewart Borland

Standing at the center of Scotland is Schiehallion at 3553 feet (1083 meters), Sìdh Chailleann in Gàidhlig, is the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians”. The midpoint of the lines of latitude and longitude for the Scottish mainland intersect very near to the summit of Schiehallion. In 1774, Schiehallion was selected for a ground-breaking (pardon the pun) experiment to estimate the earth’s mass.

Schiehallion in the Mists

Schiehallion in the Mists, Kate Riley, 2013

I have been fortunate to have seen the aforementioned Munros more than once, and am taken in by the beauty of them every time. On this next trip in September, I will be able to enjoy seeing the Munros that are on the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanachthe Isle of Skye or Eilean a’ Cheò: “the island of the mist”). The Cuillin (An Cuilthionn or An Cuiltheannon) is a range of rocky mountains located in the southern part of the Isle. The true Cuillin, also known as the Black Cuillin, has twelve Munros in its range, the highest of which is the highest point of both the Cuillin and of the Isle of Skye:  Sgùrr Alasdair  (“Alexander’s Peak”) stands at 3255 feet (992 meters). The Red Cuilin (na Beanntan Dearga, “the Red Hills”) on Skye across Glen Sligachan (“the shelly place”) are lower and less rocky. The most westerly Munro in all of Scotland is Sgurr na Banachdich (“rocky peak of the milkmaid”) is located in the Black Cuillin and stands 3166 feet (965 meters).

the Black Cuillin, public domain

The Black Cuillin (public domain)

 

 

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Nonscents

The welcome sign at South Whittlieburn Farm

The welcome sign at South Whittlieburn Farm

I wasn’t planning on making any of the travel plans for the trip to Scotland (Alba, pronounced “Al-up-a” in Scottish Gaelic, Gàidhlig) until later on this spring. It was a combination of intuition, boredom in the moment, and excitement for September to come that spurred me on to checking out various B&B’s and planning at least the daily route for the two weeks. As I began to try to make reservations, I became more and more happy that I was doing it so early. Places are booking up for the fall already. I was also working around the fact that the Isle of Lewis (Eilean Leòdhais “marshy island”) and Harris (Na Hearadh, possibly from the Norse Hærri, meaning “higher”) close up shop on Sundays, and that necessitated a change in the original plan.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, 2013

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, 2013

The other issue I had to work around was my sensitivity to chemical fragrances, especially ones in laundry detergents and fabric softeners/dryer sheets. Without exception on the trip in 2013, every B&B was happy to accommodate my sensitivity and promise me scent-free linens and towels. With the exception of the one place that forgot (and I slept with my windcheater between me and the pillow to block the fragrance) all was well.

Really, I don’t know why the world has gone all fragrance-mad anyway. Detergents send a burst of smell in to the air every time the fabric is moved; scents are marketed to stay in fabrics for three months. Some of the commercials on TV as pretty much saying that if things don’t smell right, there’s no need to clean, just spray it all with this scent or that and no one will notice. Yea. Right. And now walking through a public place can be an olfactory nightmare. But I digress.

I had a bit of difficulty with the request in the booking process this time around. One place unceremoniously canceled the online reservations I had made, with no explanation. After I sent an email to see what had happened, I was told in very crisp terms that they were not going to take the responsibility. “I wash other things” she wrote. A few other places declined to accommodate. Another place was very considerate in responding with the information that, even if they washed the linen and towels scent-free, there are diffusers and scented candles placed around the house. Most of the B&B’s, however, have been very gracious and understanding, saying that they are willing to do a bit extra to assure that my stay is a pleasant one. That’s the Scottish hospitality that I have come to know and enjoy so much!

I will be writing later on, as we are traveling, about each place that we stay. I want to be able to give each place its full due and highlight it as I write about the daily adventures. We will, of course be staying the first night at the farm in Largs as I have on all four trips; and, as always, there will be a wonderful night in Nairn with my friend Sheelagh.

As I mentioned, our travels will take us out to Harris and Lewis (together they are called Eilean a Fhraoich, “the heather isle”), through the Isle of Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, or Eilean a’ Cheòr “the island of the mist”), and Orkney (Arcaibh) as well. We will also be going through the Great Glen (A Gleann Mòr) and through Aberdeenshire (Siorrachd Obar Dheathain). There is a lot of new territory to see, and I will be in places that I have come to know in previous trips. I will be happy to experience different things in those places, and some of the same things, too.

Me in my Orkney hat at Stirling Castle, 2006

Me in my Orkney hat at Stirling Castle, 2006

As I was pulling out the maps and brochures from previous trips, I came across the tag for a hand-made knit hat that I bought the first time I was on Orkney in 2006. The woman who made it had her name on the tag, and so I made the bold step of finding her online and emailing her. I wanted to see if her shop was still open because the friend I am traveling with this time is an avid knitter who also felts and spins. I thought it would be fun for my friend to be able to talk with someone in Scotland who does the same. As it turns out, my hat was knit by someone who is well-versed in Orcadian history and culture. She and I have had a great conversation back and forth in our emails. She has invited us to spend an evening at her home and has invited other storytellers from the island as well. That’s the Scottish graciousness and generosity that I have come to know; each time I am there I come back with a new friend.

Handspun Scottish wool, 2013

Handspun Scottish wool, 2013

When we are on the Isle of Skye, we will be staying at a B&B in Portree (Port Righ) owned by native speakers of Gaelic (Gàidhlig); I have promised myself that I will continue to study and not allow myself to become too shy to try speaking it as I have on all other trips. I have broached this subject with our Hostess for the night’s stay and she is agreeable to helping me fumble my way through. By the time we are in Portree, I will have had at least three days in the areas where the Gàidhlig is spoken most readily. I wonder how one says “courage” in Gàidhlig?

The first full day of the trip will be to go up to Loch Linnhe (linne, “pool”) and spend some time at the Highland Titles-Glencoe Estates land and check on the Rowan trees that I planted for my dad in 2013. Then, after staying the night in Oban, it’s up the Great Glen and on to the next couple weeks of adventure.

Loch Linnhe,  2013

Loch Linnhe, 2013

 

 

 

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Cross-Quarter Days & Groundhogs

In America, February 2nd is “Groundhog Day”. If you’re not familiar with this celebration, I suggest you watch the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day (1993). If you’re not familiar with this celebration, I suggest you watch the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day (1993). Either you have seen the movie, and you get what I just did there, or when you do see it, you’ll get it. Again. And Again. I may be the only one giggling right now, but that’s okay. I’m used to my sense of humour.

Photo in Public DomainGroundhog Day is centered in the borough of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (from the Indigenous Put’schisk’tey, which means “poison vine”). Every year, on February 2nd, people gather to see whether or not Punxsutawney Phil, the celebrity groundhog, will come out of his den after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole, but if the day is cloudy and he does not see his shadow, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. Why and how Phil got his celebrity status is a long folk tale, but it means he gets all the media attention while all the other groundhogs are peacefully poking their noses out of their dens and making the same decision. They’re probably happier to have the peace and quiet. The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, whistle-pig, or land-beaver in some areas, is a rodent belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Their habitat extends from Georgia to Alaska, but they are more commonly found in the Northeastern and Central United States and Canada. Of course this means that the signs of spring can be evident to groundhogs in some parts of the country, and not in others.

Groundhog

Groundhog Day has its beginnings in ancient Celtic times when as part of the cross-quarter period (which could be two weeks long) known as Imbolc, folks sought to divine the coming weather by looking to see if badgers and snakes were coming forth from their winter dens.

Thig an nathair as an toll Là donn Brìde, Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd Air leac an làir.

The serpent will come from the hole On the brown Day of Bríde, Though there should be three feet of snow On the flat surface of the ground

Gàidhlig Proverb

The Cross Quarter Days are the ancient festivals that fall in between the festivals on the two Solstices and the two Equinoxes. The Solstices and the Equinoxes form the “quarters” and the days the fall in the middle of them are the “cross quarters”. In this instance, Imbloc is now centered upon the January 31 – February 1 day, sundown to sundown. In Gaelic Ireland, where the Scots first lived, Imbolc was the feis (“festival”) of spring. The word Imbolc either comes from the Old Irish i mbolc (“in the belly” referring to pregnant ewes getting ready to lamb) or the Old Irish imb-fholc (“to wash or cleanse oneself” referring to the ritual spring cleaning). The timing of the festival was centered on the lambing and the blooming of the blackthorn, known as the Mother of the Woods and/or The Crone of the Woods.

thCAKTGPFH

Imbolc is the time when the Divine Crone of Gaelic tradition, the Cailleach, gathers wood for the fire for the rest of the winter. If she wants to make winter last longer, she goes out into the sunny day of Imbolc to gather more wood for the rest of winter to come. If the day is cloudy, then she is sleeping instead of gathering wood, and the days of winter are almost over.   Cailleach is reborn in the spring as the Maiden of Spring: Bride in Scotland, Brigid in Ireland.

The Bride (Scottish, Bride)/Brighid (Gàidhlig, Bridge + id) that was worshipped in ancient times was the daughter of the great Irish god Dagda, the ‘Good Father’. She had two sisters, also named Brigid, and together they were called the ‘Three Mothers’, ‘Three Sisters’, the “fires of Hearth, Forge and Inspiration”, or simply the “Goddess Brigid”. (Saint Brigid, who is held in as much esteem as Saint Patrick in Ireland, was an actual woman, the daughter of the Druid King Dubhtach and his Christian wife. This person blended in with the ancient Goddess Brigid as she became Saint Brigid.)

Lighting of fires and candles at Imbolc represent the return of the sun’s warmth, purification, and the beginnings of new life. The candle-lighting segued in to the Christian celebration of Saint Brigid (Là Fhèill Brìghde in Gàidhlig) and the Christian Candlemas. Still, the day portends the onset of spring or the continuation of winter:

If Candlemas day be dry and fair, The half o’ winter to come and mair, If Candlemas day be wet and foul, The half of winter’s gone at Yule.                                                            Scottish Saying

As for Phil, I don’t know how things are in Punxsutawney today, but here in Northern California they are cloudy and windy. Not that we had much of a winter, but that’s another story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Symphonic Scotland

Sunrise, Edinburgh

I am starting to plan another trip to Scotland in September of 2015. So, this morning when thoughts and mental pictures of Scotland swirled through my mind as I was waking up, I attributed it to the research I have been doing. As clarity arrived along with the orangey-pink light of the sunrise, I realized that the “Scottish Fantasy” symphony was playing on the radio. I’m sure that had quite a bit to do with the imagery in my mind.

photo, public domain

The German composer/ conductor Max Bruch (1838-1920) never went to Scotland, but wrote the “Scottish Fantasy” while he was in England as director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, so perhaps he had heard enough of the Scottish folk songs to be able to write the symphony in homage to them. The first movement, to which I awoke this morning, is based upon “Auld Rob Morris” or (“Through the Wood Laddie“) and reflects (to me, anyway) the softness of the Scottish landscape and the sadness that is its history. The other three movements become very lively, incorporating variations of traditional melodies with the violin taking on the part of the bagpipe. Other folk songs that are heard in the piece are “The Dusty Miller“, “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie” and “Hey Tuttie Tatie” (also known with the Robert Burns lyric as “Scots Wa Hae”).

photo, public domain

The Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) “Symphony #3—‘The Scottish’ ” also starts out slowly and builds to incorporate the essence of Scottish music, but does not actually include any. Unlike Bruch, Mendelssohn visited Scotland, and loved it.

“Everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in a haze of smoke or fog. Many Highlanders came in costume from church victoriously leading their sweethearts in their Sunday attire and casting magnificent and important looks over the world; with long, red beards, tartan plaids, bonnets and feathers and naked knees and their bagpipes in their hands, they passed along by the half-ruined gray castle on the meadow where Mary Stuart lived in splendour.”

His first inspiration came from a visit to Holyrood after which he wrote in a letter, “I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.” and later, “It is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music.” A couple of weeks later, a trip out to the Hebrides inspired him to start writing “The Lonely Island” which ultimately became the “Hebrides Overture” , also known as “Fingall’s Cave”. It is a musical portrait of the stormy seas and the sense of solitude he experienced in the Western Isles. It is the second movement of his symphony that reflects the spirit of Scottish music. Because of the thematic connection of the four movements, Mendelssohn specified that all had to played without any break between them.

photo, public domain

In 1891, composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who had never been to Scotland, was commissioned by Scottish General Meredith Reid to write a march which was to be based upon the traditional melody of Clan Ross. The music was originally for piano four-hands, and was originally titled “March of the ancient Earls of Ross”. In 1908 Debussy orchestrated it. More fanfare and fantasy that pomp and circumstance, the “Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (Scottish March on a Popular Theme)” was somehow a disappointment to Debussy, but still it lives on.

photo, public domain

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) spent much of his life in a remote palace in the Hungarian countryside, but did visit England and fell in love with it on his first visit in 1791. Over the years, Haydn set 429 Scottish and Welsh folk songs to music for London-based Scottish publisher William Napier between 1792 and 1795.

photo, public domain

Granville Bantock (1848-1946) was the son of an eminent Scottish surgeon. Although he was born in London, he drew his inspiration from the Celtic culture and the landscape of Scotland. His “Hebridean Symphony” celebrates the remote islands of the Scottish Highlands, working folksong into a symphonic framework.

photo, public domain

In more modern times, the composer Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) composed his “Four Scottish Dances” in 1957. The four dances were inspired by Scottish folk tunes and dances. Each piece is intended to evoke the music of Scotland and along with the rhythms of the Reel and the Scotch Snap, he made use of instrumental sounds to represent the bagpipes. In 1955, he composed the “Tam o’ Shanter Overture”, programme music that was based on the poem by Robert Burns.

photo, public domain

English composer/ conductor Peter Maxwell Davies (1934- ) moved to the island of Orkney in the late 1971 and has written music based in Scottish, and more specifically Orcadian themes, featuring the bagpipes in his “Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise”. His piano interlude “Farewell to Stromness” (about which I have previously written) was written as part of a longer piece written in protest of plans to mine uranium near Stromness on Orkney.

My favorites of all of these are the “Scottish Fantasy” and the “Hebrides Overture”. I have yet to see the Hebrides and am excited to be going this next time. The Hebrides are 40 or so islands that are off the Western (Atlantic) Coast of Scotland, divided in to two groups: the Inner (east) and the Outer (west). The Outer Hebrides, also called the Western Isles, include Lewis and Harris, North Uist Benbecula, South Uist, and  Barra. The islands of the Inner Hebrides are Skyle, the Small Isles (Canna, Sanday, Rhum, Eigg, and Muck), Tiree, Mull, Colonsay, Jura, Islay, and Coll. September’s trip will include the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, and the Isles of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, but more on that later on.

Isle of Skye

 

 

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Tattoo in Scotland (No, not that one)

Of the websites that I peruse often, ScotlandsPeople is one of my favorites. As the National Records of Scotland release information about the various years of valuation records, ScotlandsPeople publishes a bit about the more interesting people. Today, Prince Vallar caught my eye as I was scrolling through. My son and daughter-in-law own Rocksteady Tattoo in Ft. Collins, Colorado so it was interesting to read about the first “professional tattooist” in Scotland.

Patrick Henson was born in Ireland in 1888 and by 1911 had taken his father’s stage name of Vallar and was living in a flat in Glasgow, making visits to the upper class homes as a “society tattooist”.  By the 1870s tattooing had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including Edward VII and George V. In 1898 it was estimated that as many as one in five members of the gentry had tattoos.   The middle class did not follow the trend, but tattooing continued to be poplular amongst sailors, mostly as a unique way of identifying a sailor’s body should he become lost at sea.

As the fascination with tattoos declined amongst the gentry, Prince Vallar opened a tattoo stand on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. After serving in the First World War, he returned to Glasgow, and in 1934 Vallar opened the first bona fide tattoo shop in Scotland. Prince Vallar’s shop was well-known and flourished.   His single needle freehand sketch-like designs used simple coloring and gave him world-wide recognition.

Prince Vallar’s sons apprenticed under him for a decade, and when he died in 1947, Stephen and Robert (Bert) kept the business going until 1965. Stephen was not happy working at the shop, and in 1953, he left it completely to Bert. Although later in life, Bert would change his career to photography, the time he spent at the shop on Argyle Street in Glasgow allowed him to become a world-famous freehand tattoo artist in his own right. See photos of their work here.

The history of tattooing in Scotland and the UK does not begin with Captain Cook’s return from the South Pacific in the late 1700’s, but the word itself does. Up until 1769 when Cook first wrote in his journal about the Polynesian practice of “tatau”, the practice had been known as staining, pricking, or painting. (The other English word tattoo, which means a military drumbeat, comes from the Dutch word, “taptoe”.)

The Fraser strawberries and thistle

My tattoo: The Fraser strawberries and thistle

 

 

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Hamish

The Greeting Sign at The Trossachs Woolen Mill

The Greeting Sign at
The Trossachs Woolen Mill

As Kyle and Liisa and I drove up through the Trossachs from Stirling, we took the A84 with a planned stop at the The Trossachs Woolen Mill at Kilmahog, near Callander. We all made good use of the woolen mill shop, but the main reason for our visit was Hamish.

Hamish McKay Denovan aka Hamish, the Highland Coo was a tourist’s delight. I swear that as we approached, he actually mugged for the camera. Hamish had been greeting visitors at the Woollen Mill for nearly twenty years.

In 1996, Hamish was part of an exhibit promoting the work of animal artist Joseph Denovan Adam (1841-1896); after the exhibit, Hamish, was doomed to be slaughtered. The “Save Hamish” campaign was a great success, and Hamish found his home at the Mill. He was there to greet the thousands of visitors who stopped at the Mill on their way through the Trossachs. Hamish continued to pose for many artists, one dubbed him the Kate Moss of the Highland Coo world because he looked so good, even on bad hair days.

Hamish died peacefully in his sleep last week. At 23 years old, he outlived the normal lifespan of 14 years to become the oldest bull in the UK, and the second oldest in the world. (The oldest lives in India.)

Next fall, when I am in Scotland again, I shall go up to the Mill and meet Hamish Dubh, a black Highland Bull who is now Hamish’s successor. Hamish Dubh lives with his companion, Honey, and they both were schooled in posing for the camera by the grand master.

 

 

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