Stirling Bridge

The William Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland

Within walking distance of the great fortified mountain that is Stirling Castle sits a monument to William Wallace, Scotland’s great hero and self-taught military genius. It was at Stirling Bridge in 1297 that William Wallace led a force of around 5,500 men, with only 300 cavalry, against 9,000 men, with 2,000 cavalry led by Hugh Cressingham for Edward Longshanks, King of England.

It was Wallace’s unique skill that he knew how to read a battlefield and make the land help him win. It was only when he was forced to fight a typical large scale battle at Falkirk in 1298 that he lost. After that, things went downhill for the Scot, who was betrayed to Edward and executed in 1305 without an actual trial.

Wallace was the son of a knight, who was knighted by Robert the Bruce only after Stirling Bridge. As such, he was looked down upon by the Scottish nobility, many of whom were more comfortable speaking in Norman French than either English or Gaelic. What the nobles were after was not freedom for Scotland, but more power and more wealth for their families. Relative commoners like Wallace didn’t count.

I have just finished reading Nigel Tranter’s historical novel The Wallace, which was likely more accurate than the considerable mythmaking evident in the film Braveheart. I have visited the Wallace monument twice on my travels and was impressed for the monument’s rare tribute to a person not of noble blood—unthinkable in the Middle Ages.

Extreme History

Battle Scene from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Talk about history: Scotland has had it. Think about how much mythmaking occurred when the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Well, Scotland was put through the mill by Perfidious Albion (England) for upwards of a thousand years—and they’re still chafing under the collar.

I am currently reading Nigel Tranter’s The Wallace about William Wallace’s revolt against English rule under Edward Longshanks (alias Edward I Plantagenet). It brings Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart (1995), though it is a much more detailed work about Wallace’s battles at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Falkirk (1298). We get to see in greater detail the treacherousness of the Scottish nobles, who were mostly in it for themselves.

Nigel Tranter (1909-2007)

Over his long career, Nigel Tranter wrote prolifically—not only the historical novels for which he is famous, but a five-volume history of the fortified house (read: castle) in Scotland, children’s books, novels set in the present day, and even Westerns. There is very little of the vast pageant of Scottish history that Tranter did not touch upon, from St. Columba and Kenneth MacAlpine and MacBeth to the present day.

To date, I have read about a score of his novels, hardly making a dent in his total opus. And not a single one of his books has been a stinker. I regard him as one of the best writers of historical novels who ever lived, and also the most vivid describer of battles throughout history. His description of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge is so vivid that I didn’t feel that I needed a map to follow the action.

The Finished House

I have always loved the prose and poetry of George Mackay Brown, whom I met in 1976 in Stromness on the Orkney Mainland. (They call it the Mainland, even though it’s an island.) I have visited there twice, both times in bad weather, which I think is the only kind of weather prevailing there.

The Finished House

In the finished house a flame is brought to the hearth.
Then a table, between door and window
Where a stranger will eat before the men of the house.
A bed is laid in a secret corner
For the three agonies – love, birth, death –
That are made beautiful with ceremony.
The neighbours come with gifts –
A set of cups, a calendar, some chairs.
A fiddle is hung at the wall.
A girl puts lucky salt in a dish.
The cupboard will have its loaf and bottle, come winter.
On the seventh morning
One spills water of blessing over the threshold.

To the Hebrides

If you go to Scotland, the best thing to see are the islands. The concession for RORO (Roll On Roll Off) car ferries to the Hebrides is run by Caledonian MacBrayne. They include longer trips to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, as well as a 5-minute sail between Mull and the Sacred Isle of Iona, where the ancient kings of Scotland are buried.

Martine and I have ridden the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Mull, Iona, and Islay. In the Middle Ages, the Hebrides were ruled from Islay by the Lord of the Isles, the best known of whom was Somerled (1113-1164). At their height the Lords of the Isles were the greatest landowners and most powerful lords after the Kings of England and Scotland. Today, the Lord of the Isles is Charles, Prince of Wales—though the title is now purely ceremonial.

Above is Kildalton Cross on Islay, where my favorite Scotches are distilled: Laphraoig, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, and Caol Ila. They are known for their peat smoke aroma.

When it is safe to travel again, and if I had the money, I would love to go to Scotland and hop aboard Caledonian MacBrayne, going from island to island.

If you are ever interested in seeing a classic British film set in the Hebrides, I highly recommend Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore! (1949), based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name. It’s a classic.

Neolithic Orkney

The Standing Stones of Stenness

If you are interested in the ancient Britons, I suppose you can go to Stonehenge and sidle up to the fence which keeps you from going anywhere near the ruins, in addition to putting the kibosh on your travel photography. But there are parts of Britain where you can go right up to the stones and even hug them without drawing the ire of the local sheriffs. I am thinking specifically of the Orkney Mainland (actually an island) off the northern tip of Scotland.

Above is a view of the Standing Stones of Stenness, which is within walking distance of the Ring of Brodgar, another stone circle. And not a fence in sight! And no ticket-takers either (at least when I was there).

There are two major points of interest in the chambered cairn at Maes Howe. It was constructed in 2500 BC. About 3,600 years later, Vikings broke in and covered the walls with graffiti in the form of Futharc runes. The graffiti was like today’s graffiti: If you want to be amused, click on this website.

The Passage into the Tomb

I haven’t even mentioned a whole neolithic village uncovered when the sands which protected Skara Brae blew away in a major windstorm, exposing houses, streets, even stone furniture. Check out some of these images.

These are just some of the reasons why the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it gets relatively few visitors. One could fly to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, with a short stopover in Wick. Or one could take the train (if it still runs) to Thurso, taxi to Scrabster, and take the St. Ola ferry to Stromness.

I don’t guarantee the weather will be terrific: It rarely is in these parts. But I do guarantee you will be amazed at the sights. Also, the capital of Kirkwall has a 12th century Viking Cathedral, St. Magnus, whose first bishops were canonized as saints. In fact, the Orkneys were Viking before they became part of Scotland in 1472, and the culture is a Scottish/Scandinavian mix.

The islands even have a great poet: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), whom I met in 1976. Read up on him if you’re interested in visiting this fascinating part of Scotland.

“This Fals World Is But Transitory”

Statue of William Dunbar in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

William Dunbar (ca 1460-1530) was a great Scottish poet who is not much read these days—probably because the language has changed too much since his day. Still, there is power in his verse. Following is his “Lament for the Makers” (Makers meaning Poets):

I THAT in heill was and gladness
 Am trublit now with great sickness
 And feblit with infirmitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Our plesance here is all vain glory,
 This fals world is but transitory,
 The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The state of man does change and vary,
 Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 No state in Erd here standis sicker;
 As with the wynd wavis the wicker
 So wannis this world's vanitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
 Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
 Baith rich and poor of all degree:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the knichtis in to the field
 Enarmit under helm and scheild;
 Victor he is at all mellie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That strong unmerciful tyrand
 Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
 The babe full of benignitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the campion in the stour,
 The captain closit in the tour,
 The lady in bour full of bewtie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He spairis no lord for his piscence,
 Na clerk for his intelligence;
 His awful straik may no man flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
 Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
 Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In medecine the most practicianis,
 Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
 Themself from Death may not supplee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 I see that makaris amang the lave
 Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
 Sparit is nocht their facultie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has done petuously devour
 The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
 The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
 Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
 He has tane out of this cuntrie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That scorpion fell has done infeck
 Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
 Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
 Alas! that he not with us levit
 Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane,
 That made the anteris of Gawaine;
 Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
 Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
 Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has reft Merseir his endite,
 That did in luve so lively write,
 So short, so quick, of sentence hie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
 And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
 Two better fallowis did no man see:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
 With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
 Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 And he has now tane, last of a,
 Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
 Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Good Maister Walter Kennedy
 In point of Death lies verily;
 Great ruth it were that so suld be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Sen he has all my brether tane,
 He will naught let me live alane;
 Of force I man his next prey be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Since for the Death remeid is none,
 Best is that we for Death dispone,
 After our death that live may we:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The Latin refrain means “Fear of death disturbs me.” Sorry to spring something so tricky on you, but however much the language has changed, the greatness shines through.


Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands

This particular Hungarian has a warm place in his heart for the Highlands of Scotland. I have visited them several times beginning in 1976. In recent years, it has, like many things, become too expensive.

Another person who felt the same way was Francesco Barsanti (1690-1775), an Italian composer, flautist, and oboist who fell in love with the Highlands and lived most of his life in Britain.

Today, as I was returning home from the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, I was listening to KUSC-FM and heard a piece called “Lochaber” by Barsanti, as played by a San Francisco-based group called Voices of Music, which calls itself America’s premier early music ensemble. I was enchanted and was delighted to catch the entire piece. Here it is, as performed by the Voices of Music:

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. During my drives around the city, I keep my car radio tuned to KUSC-FM at 91.5, where the music is all classical all the time. If you would like to sample their programming, I recommend you go to their website and listen to their programming, which you can do from anyplace on earth. They have an international audience and have introduced me over the years to many of my favorite pieces.

A Red, Red Rose

Difficult, but Super Great!

Difficult, but Super Great!

Robert Burns is not popular with American readers. I suspect that is because he wrote in a broad Lowland Scots dialect that sends most Americans packing to a glossary. Fortunately, his poems are not all that way; and he is one of the few poets in the English language who were farmers before they were litterateurs. Below is his poem entitled “A Red, Red Rose”:

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
   That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
   That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
   So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
   Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
   And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
   While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
   And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
   Though it were ten thousand mile.

Smoky Nectar of the Gods

Some People Dream of Fine Wines, But Not Me!

Some People Dream of Fine Wines, But Not Me!

I suppose this means I have no right to claim to be sophisticated, or even cosmopolitan. The fact of the matter is that I do not really care that much for wine. I would prefer a fine cognac or a full-bodied dark Jamaican rum—but most of all, I would prefer a fine Islay single malt Scotch.

During Prohibition, one Islay malt called Laphraoig (la-FROIG) was allowed through U.S. customs because it was thought to be a medicine. Oh, it is that to be sure! Like all single malts distilled on the island of Islay (pronounced EYE-lah), it is characterized by a smoky flavor, somewhat like Lapsang Souchong in the world of tea. It owes that smokiness to the peat on the island that is used to in the distilling process. According to Whisky.Com:

The level of smokiness of a whisky is determined by the time the barley grain is exposed to the pungent peat smoke during drying. Damp malt is usually dried for approximately 30 hours. Laphroaig dries its malt over peat fire for about 18 of these 30 hours, while Glengoyne uses only unpeated fire. Thus you get a broad variety ranging from extremely smoky whisky to almost completely smokeless whisky. Malt grains are peculiar in that they lend a hint of smokiness to the whisky even without a peat fire.

By the way, in Scotland, it is always spelled whisky. Only the more inferior products from furriners are referred to as whiskey.

About fifteen years ago, Martine and I spent several days at Bowmore, including a visit to the distillery (pictured above). We had been introduced to Bowmore  (bow-MORE) eight-year-old Scotch by Trader Joe’s stores, which tended to sell it at a steep discount around the holidays. I remember tasting the toasted Bowmore malt and finding it to be so delicious that I thought it would make a great breakfast cereal on its own. We also saw a fantastically aged barrel of the stuff worth thousands of pounds sterling and reserved for H.M. the Queen.

On their website, CBS news has an interesting website about the smoky Scotches of Islay which was started by the late Bob Simon and finished by Steve Kroft. It aired yesterday on “60 Minutes.”

During the early Middle Ages, Islay was the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles, who ruled from a small island on Loch Finlaggan. Their empire stretched across the Hebrides and whatever parts of Ireland and mainland Scotland they could hold. If you are interested in the period, you might try hunting up a copy of Nigel Tranter’s The Lord of the Isles, best enjoyed while sipping a fine Islay single malt whisky.


Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Scotland

The Isle of Skye in the Hebrides

The Isle of Skye in the Hebrides

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the weeks to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “S” for Scotland.

When I write about the places I love most, Scotland ranks high on my list. I have been there four times, but have barely scratched the surface. Twice I went with Martine, who liked it as much as I did. To this day, she still wears the Cardigan sweater she bought at a woolen mill near Oban, and I still have two Scottish sweaters I bought almost forty years ago, which I still wear occasionally even though they are starting to pill a bit.

Nowhere else in the British Isles are you likely to get as tasty food as in Scotland. Scots are typically friendlier than the folk south of Hadrian’s Wall—probably because they know so many Americans have Scottish blood flowing in their veins as a result of the Highland Clearances that took place after Culloden.

What really distinguishes the Scots in my mind is their sense of history. There’s not only the rebellion of 1745, in which the Highlands wasted their manpower for the unworthy Bonnie Prince Charles, but going farther back, back to Somerled and the Lords of the Isles, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the struggles of the House of Stewart to establish themselves, the great tragedy of Flodden Field, the death of Mary Queen of Scots, the cruelty of Butcher Cumberland, and that brave late 18th century renaissance that brought so many Scottish thinkers and inventors to the fore. As with Hungarians, the Scots live the entire spectrum of their history.

Edinburgh is probably one of my two or three favorite cities in the world, especially that long walk downhill along the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and then the climb of Arthur’s Seat to see “Auld Reekie” in all its glory. But if you really want to see Scotland, go for the isles, for Mull, Iona, Islay, Skye, and the Orkneys. When you walk among the graves by the church at Iona, remember that Macbeth and a score of early Scottish kings are buried there in unmarked graves.

Martine and I have looked for the Loch Ness Monster at Drumnadrochit. (We didn’t see it.) We visited castles, Scotch whisky distilleries, ate haggis and neeps (at least, I did), and enjoyed a bowl of cullen skink.

Then were all those novels by Nigel Tranter and Sir Walter Scott, not to mention the poems of Robert Burns, whose museum I saw at Dumfries.

Och, it’s time to go back!