In the midst of not writing

it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood
birled a scarf aroon ma neck
pu’ed oan ma pixie and my pawkies
it wis that bitter
said noo ye’ll no starve
gie’d me a wee kiss and a kid-oan skelp oan the bum
and sent me aff across the playground

from Kidspoem/Bairnsong, Liz Lochead

flagI sensed something working at my stasis, trying to turn over my lethargy as if it were a garden. Last month I wrote only three posts, the fewest since I’ve been in San Miguel.  My thoughts seem to have been surrounded, had siege laid to them, by Scotland.  As far as I know there’s nothing of Scotland in my ancestry, nothing Gaelic nor Celtic, not of Wales, nor Ireland nor Brittany nor Scotland nor Cornwall nor Isle of Man.

Yet there I was watching Finding Neverland on television. J. M. Barrie.  The melody of The Wild Theme by Mark Knopfler began to whirl once more about my brain as did scenes from the movie for which it was written, Local Hero.  Even James Bond was visible (not through Sean Connery, but through Daniel Craig) as Skyfall was also televised; that movie is partially set at Bond’s childhood home in Scotland.

There was, of course, the vote for secession from last year – part of my thoughts about how, in so many places around the world, there are separatist movements afoot looking to undo the work of the 18th and 19th century nation-state movements and their related colonial activities.

I found myself thinking of Greenwich, of childhood.  I thought of Round Hill, the site where, when I was a child, Scottish Games were played on the estate of Charles Moore. The games are now held elsewhere in Connecticut but are still known as the Round Hill Highland Games. The games grew out of Mr. Moore’s Scottish-born workers holding a Fourth of July picnic on his estate–with his permission, of course.  There are many similar events around the world, but that was part of my world.  One could hear pipes and watch dancing and sporting events such as the

  • 16 lb Hammer Toss
  • 18 lb Stone Put
  • 28 & 56 lb weight tosses for distance
  • 56 lb weight toss for height
  • Sheaf Toss, where a sheaf of hay was tossed over a bar using a pitchfork
  • Caber Toss, where an 18-20′ log was flipped

In high school, in ancient Miss Challis’ Ancient History class (she was reputed to have been a fan dancer in her youth), I gave a talk about the Romans in Scotland.  I must have spoken of the Roman invasion (certainly nothing of the tribes who fought the Romans), and of Hadrian’s wall (I definitely didn’t know about the Antonine Wall that was further north) but what I most remember about that talk was that my fellow students repeatedly corrected my misuse of Scotch for Scots and Scottish. While my family hadn’t a ribbon of Gaelic or Celtic DNA in us, we certainly had Johnny Walker in our blood.

The things I knew then to be from Scotland (liquor, oatmeal, bagpipes, golf) I didn’t like. A few years later, after university, our small and young family was headed to Nova Scotia where I was to try for a master’s degree at Dalhousie University when we ran out of gas and money in Maine.  I often imagined parts of Scotland resembling rural Maine with its barrens, its rocks, its cold waters, its lakes and the aurora borealis.  Many years later my son and I bicycled and camped in Nova Scotia, crossing the Gulf of Maine by ferry and spending a warm summer’s evening watching the colors of the sky meld and fold into darkness as the evening star and the stars and the Milky Way dropped glitter onto the lake beside us.

One of my bosses drank nothing but Chivas Regal, a step beyond my family’s liking for Johnny Walker. Later I learned of single malts. And salmon, which I had never tasted until they returned to the Narraguagus River in Maine as that state’s rivers were slowly cleansed of their toxins from upstream tanning and paper mills.  We thought we had learned to make Finnan Haddie from dried cod, but we hadn’t, and I didn’t learn to enjoy the dish until long after leaving Maine.  I have made rumbledethumps without knowing that’s what I had made.

Ah, then there’s the throw I use almost everyday, the lap robe brought back by a young woman on one of her first trips abroad.  And of course my friend Keith without whom I would know nothing of the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School and their concerts under the direction of Alasdair Fraser.

Of the posts I’ve written for this blog, I find myself most often returning to Auld Lange Syne (1788).  Not for my words, but for Burns’, for the elegance of the melody, and for the simple guitar accompaniment.  I look at that Scottish music awards ceremony and everything looks all so normal.  The people so dignified and so like the people you’d want to find living next door. Some a tad nosy, perhaps, while others a little overly helpful, and still others with too little to do, but goodness likely in their hearts.

Bryan Bowers, The Flowers of Edinburgh (trad.)

I went to college and then to university with Bryan. We were not close friends, but we were friendly, our friends were friends, and we would go to the coffee house near campus and listen to Bryan and John Basset play. The last time I saw Bryan was 30 or 40 years ago after he had played a show in Maine. He might be most famous for his rendition of The Scotsman (“I don’t know where y’bin my boy, but I see you won first prize”), he wrote Berkeley Woman and he’s a wizard with the autoharp.

The Wild Theme (Local Hero), Mark Knopfler

Wild Mountain Thyme

Written in Belfast, Northern Ireland by a man (Francis McPeake) whose family had emigrated from Scotland and based on a song written by a contemporary of Robert Burns (Robert Tannahill, The Braes of Balquhither).  Fotheringay Castle was where Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned prior to her execution..

The sweetest scene, from Gregory’s Girl

It wasn’t until all this Scotland stuff that I was able to remember one of the sweetest scenes ever filmed.

The movie contains so much wisdom about being alive and teenaged and vulnerable that maybe it would even be painful for a teenager to see it; it’s not much help, when you’re suffering from those feelings of low self-esteem and an absolutely hopeless crush, to realize that not only are you in pain and suffering an emotional turmoil, but you’re not even unique. Maybe only grown-ups should see this movie. You know, people who have gotten over the pains of unrequited love (hollow laugh).

Roger Ebert

Theme for Scotland, Alasdair Fraser


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