written February 27, 2006
Scotland has so far been little more than a tease to me, the slightest sliver of the country yet exposed, my time on the soil a mere few hours. Today would be different, I knew it, and the rest did not matter. Before the day was out I was to travel between the two largest cities, cutting through the central valley region, Scotland’s most populous region. I was excited in the early morning just thinking about it. More likely because, being Sunday, the Navy worships with “holiday routine,” meaning we could slip off the ship earlier than other days in port.
Patrick Clifford, Nathan Ginty and I had made plans Friday night to travel to the capital of Edinburgh, and we were joined by Geiger and the new medical corpsman names Haggerty. Patrick and Nathan were the best choice to explore the foreign with, as they do it like regular civilians, having spent a week in London last September. As we stepped off the bow at 9:31 most of the sky was surprisingly blue, allowing in some rare sunshine, scrubbing the Firth of Clyde of its gloom. Our twin taxis wove along the left bank of the narrowly roadway, soon coming upon Helensborough to be dropped from at the station. With a little time to spare until the 10:25, I suggested we get food at the grocer down the lane. My mind was arguing for breakfast food, hoping to find local fare never before sampled. I settled for a package of sweet but petrified scones, but the sandwich items Clifford was selecting looked too good to not offer going halves with his also. We then raided the candy aisle of strange, untasted sweets. The I saw was Turkish Delight, my mind flashing to C.S. Lewis, and snatched one, not forgetting to get two bars of Scottish fudge as gifts.
We arrived back at the depot slightly earlier still, and eventually piled into the last car, taking up half. Scones were passed around. Sitting at a table with me, Clifford began to prepare the first sandwich and I followed him, building German peppered salami upon a white cheese spread akin to cream cheese, open-faced, on a slice of wheat. I ended up having two as we began our first, brief south-west leg of the trip to Glasgow. For most of the trip I peered from the windows as the train streamed past small brick cottages and hilly pastures. Finally I turned to the day’s Scotland on Sunday, an Edinburgh paper, and glanced over the international news of the day. The Russians winning big in Turino; the front page and the entire sports section crowed over Scotland winning the Calcutta Cup, whatever that is. A new underwater hotel in Dubai aims to attract the world’s A-list. Another big story was evidently the release of a police report from July 6, 2005, when, riding his bike during the G8 summit here in Scotland, George Bush, while waving, struck a Scot patrolman, sending both crashing to the pavement. Embarrassingly interesting for a Yank, yet eight months later it is news? I had little time to answer this as by eleven o’clock we were slowing into Glasgow.
And then we were out of Glasgow, having stayed only long enough to purchase round-trips to Edinburgh and leap aboard. Broken apart from the group for lacking seating I busied myself with writing postcards. Since it will be received long after departing the Land of the Lochs I was able to be a normal person, free of the normal Navy security restrictions, and describe where I was, what I was doing. As the rolling hills gave way to clusters of dwellings, then to full developments when passing through Falkirk, always the dark and misty Highlands loomed in the north over my left shoulder, I tried to picture myself as a new immigrant to the country. I looked at the equally pale faces as mine, studied their manners, expressions and clothing, trying to compare all this to what I imagined. Could I see myself here? I felt that I could, but my dreaming was tinged by loneliness of being alone in a new world? I knew how Candance felt now, in Italy, even it is temporary for her.
Just after noontime the eastbound train made its final stop in the heart of bustling Edinburgh. It was quickly decided to take a bus tour of the city, to see as much as we could in our limited time. I will try to recall what the guide told us, and give my own blind tour of the city.
Originally, at the start of what would become Edinburgh, there was only Castle Edinburgh, home to Robert the Bruce and many other kings of Scotland, the stone fortification towering impossibly high and proud on top an ancient volcano. Slowly Edinburgh expanded over the decades and centuries east of the castle, but the entire city walled as a fortress, with all living behind its protection from English attack. It stayed this way for centuries still until, only two hundred years ago, it was decided Edinburgh must modernize, and a new residential portion was created from scratch from the land between the standing city the waters just to the north and east. Most of this new town has long since been converted to businesses, a mixture of classic and Sixties modernism architecture, as the old city stands to the south, a forest of sooty towers and dirty spires.
Beginning our tour in the center of the city on Princes Street we traveled went through the busy avenues and hurrying crowds. The others stayed within the glass enclosure of the second deck, but I went out into the cold air, getting the best look possible. Making the southerly, arching trip in our circled expedition at St. John’s Cathedral, soon we came upon an ancient cramped graveyard with high stones fences complete with tiny guard towers atop–such a contrast to the Starbucks next door. Anyway, the defense of the city’s cemeteries was necessary even a hundred years ago as grave robbers would dig up the newly buried corpses, able to turn to tidy profit by selling them up medical students as cadavers. The guard towers would be manned by the deceased’s family members until the time when the body would be of little value to an aspiring physician. Some robbers though, when faced with this threat to their finances did the next best thing, and began slaying citizens.
Finally we arrived at the castle, the imposing monument to all of Scottish history. We walked to the cobbled street and made our way to the gate. The 12 pound price for admission was not popular, and we settled for taking pictures from this high vantage point of the city–Clifford count not help getting his picture taken with a facsimile William Wallace dressed in furs, armed with swords and an ax, and his face painted blue.
I knew we stood out as Americans, no more than i we had perhaps wrapped ourselves in the Stars and Stripes, and in some ways I could see this: talking a little louder, having a kind of cockiness to the walk that I do not believe I may have. I’m sure sure. Throughout the day I did look at us, we United States sailors loosed upon Caledonia, and we were not so far afield in dress or hairstyle as the indigenous. I wish I could have have just blended in completely into the society, like one more repeating check upon a tartan, but I they saw us coming from a mile away. Some of us, at least, more than others.
Now with extra time for touring the castle we window-shopped the neighborhood, many boasting native-themed shops hocking kilts, tam o’shanters, and football jerseys. I found the perfect gift for Mom in the second shop, a Cochrane clan pendent, different but similar to the crest. I had never seen it before: a sword, pointed down, with a horse standing in the middle, with Virtue et Laboure engraved across the hilt. Now weighed down by own purchases we then decided to take a break for lunch.
Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, not more than three blocks east of the castle’s main gate, was built in 1703, but the establishment would not earn it present moniker for decades. The Deacon, who lived directly across from the pub that now bears his name, the story goes, was a pillar of the town, devout and upstanding in every respect–except on those nights when we would drink, carouse and gamble in the lowest, seediest pubs and alehouses of the day. Eventually Brodie was desperate for money to pay his substantial loses, and he turned to robbery. When he was found out and hanged publicly he had the honor–because he was also a carpenter by trade–to die by a gallows he himself he built.
More than three days in the country and I had yet to sniff a real Scottish meal, so I decided to go for broke: haggis. Clifford tried to steer me towards a pizza even as Ginty eagerly rooted me on, hopeful of puke, but haggis what I ordered. Our waitress quite willingly confessed to never having tasted it. How bad could it be, the national dish? A little sheep stomach, or intestines, or something else equally squishy. If I threw up haggis it could be a national affront, true, but worth a story. Cliff and Ginty opted for bangers (sausages), which were good too, with Geiger and Haggerty, unforgivably American at this crucial hour, getting burgers. You know what? I really like Haggis! It seemed very similar to the hash I had had for breakfast this morning, just cooked longer. It arrived with potatoes and squash, both mashed, and a only a white plate was left in the end. I proud to happily trying something new and not going for the safe and ordinary.
Still in the Old Town section, continuing the bus tour, we passed by a coffee house of some acclaim, the Port Key. It had been here that a woman began writing a children’s novel by absentmindedly scrawling on a napkin. The lines on the napkin become the beginning to Harry Potter. We also drive past where J.K. Rowling went to school writing, years before beginning the books. Knowing this, I donned on me that Edinburgh Castle, in clear view of the Pork Key, could be called something else: the real Hogwarts.
Coming to the southeastern section of the city we passed the royal residence of the Queen when she visits Scotland, but did not catch the castle’s proper name. Directly across from this in the new (and heavily controversial) Parliament building, which looked awful, like a Planet of the Apes village done in the post-modern. If you doubt me find the picture. Other things the guide pointed out on the eastern swing of the tour was the memorial to Robert Burns, the National Poet of Scotland, and the tomb-like 19th century primer where Thomas Edison went to school as a child.
Just outside of the royal residence was an ancient structure on the corner, a tiny castle that looked like it could fit no more a than a few people. This was Mary Queen of Scots bathhouse, where, we were told, “she would come for bathes of milk four times a year, whether she needed it or not.”
Now our traveled circle almost fully complete and returning to the New Town of Edinburgh to the north, the bus turned west along Long Street. The guide made sure to note that to the right would be an apartment numbered “17” with a red door, which was once the home of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Across from his residence was a green, shady park in which he would play as a child. The park also had a small lake in it, and in the middle of that lake? An island. If you were to come out of Stevenson’s home, turn right, walk to the end of the street, take another right, then walk on for nearly two blocks would you arrive to the house of J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter and Wendy. As the guide said it, “They were really quite good boozing buddies together!”
A high pillared statue of King George IV lording over the smack-dab of an intersection in New Town brought a story to the mind of the tour guide. King George was very fond of eating, and as a result was quite gargantuan. As the same time he could not base the thought of not kissing the two hundred or more ladies who were lined up to greet the king in the course of differing state functions and soirees. Whether they shed tears out of joy at this thought is another story, the guided concluded the tale with a nursery rhyme: Georgie Pordgie, pudding pie/Kissing the girls and made them cry.
The tour concluded and it still mid-afternoon, we decided to walk to the Jekyll and Hyde Tavern, and I have never seen such a place before. It looked like Dracula’s parlor, like Edgar Allan Poe’s dream house, like Frankenstein’s summer home, dark and Gothic with framed scientific sketchings of frog dissections and–I kid you not–a wall of books in which a section swings away to reveal the bathroom, but you wouldn’t know it was there unless someone walked out. Too cool. We sat back, in what appeared to be a lab or study, with vials and jars filled with I don’t know what, torches lit dimly.
It was then that Ginty told us the story of what happened to fellow sailor Bobby Faulkner at a place called Station 28 in Helenbourgh on Friday night. Having excused himself to the bathrooms, Bobby Faulkner was suddenly confused to find each symbol on doors looked exactly the same, so instead of walking into the wrong one he went for door three, the handicapped loo. In a few moments he was ready to leave and searched for the flush, but all he saw was a chain hanging from the ceiling. Thinking this was just a touch of the ornate, he gave it a firm yank. Suddenly to surprise of everyone in the pub there was an ear-piercing siren going off, and a few employees rushed as fast as they can find to the handicapped restroom and drag a stunned Bobby Faulkner, asking him again very slowly and deliberately if he would happen to be okay, repeating themselves again and again. It seems that when he pulled the chain it was actually an alarm encase of a fall, and the insides of the handicapped room explodes in red flashing emergency lights.
The last place we stopped was a place in the alley called The World and watched a rugby match. Everybody said that looked like a lot of fun as Ireland pulled ahead of Whales 21-5. A nominal amount of blood was spilled, by Jove.
Edinburgh was in our rear-view by 4:30. A girl that sat with us on the train back gave us a warning about Glasgow, where we had planned to eat: Beware the Neds. Or rather, N.E.D.s (Non-educated Delinqunets), youth with thick accents who roam the streets often carrying knives. It is now illegal to called someone a Ned, so the English term for the same thing had been substituted. She also asked if we like George W. Bush.
From what we saw though Glasgow was completely Ned-free. Actually was effectively deserted, it being a Sunday night. St. George’s Square was beautifully lit up as we emerged from the station, and we took a quick stroll through some of the gleaming commercial blocks before going to a pizzeria. I had Bresca pasta and bruchetta, and later went to a Borders, passing a Starbucks, to get some more reading material. The store closed before I was able to select something, so I will be borrowing among the circlating novels we have.
This is where my story turns very tragic, and I am pained by it–on the train to Helensborough I discovered I was without my bag. My bag which had every non-vital thing I carried, the gifts and all my carefully taken photographs. The lost photos are the worst part. Another cut is that I must hold out a slight hope, because the bag, sitting somewhere in the Glasgow station could be found and could be mailed to me in the U.S. In it were a few letters, you see, with my return address in the corner. I know there is not much chance of this though. I felt sick last night on my short walk to the ship, for all the wonderful things that had happened for which I would have scant visual record of. There remains at least three pictures of me with the group on other cameras, and I hope this will be enough, as far as actually being in them: a view overlooking the Old Town with Cliff and I at the entrance of the castle; of Cliff, Ginty and I at the Deacon Brodie Tavern, myself holding my plate of haggis; and finally, us standing outside the Jekyll and Hyde Tavern. Maybe I really will return again one day, you never know.
The line for the phone was long with sailors as day expired, and as I waited I finished retouching the story “Don’t Look Now, But the Universe is Laughing,” out of fear of the rumors that we would also soon be without email. I went to bed a little heavier with memories and content with the day, but regretful for the pieces of the story that had been lost.