Edinburgh, Scotland. 21st January 2013.
The sweet smell of burning coal drifts lazily from warm residential hearths, greeting a crisp morning in Inverness. Underfoot it is frosty and the ground crunches as we walk to the rail station. The sun up here, poor excuse for a sun, rises limply at 8.30am, morosely ascends about 6 inches, slides listlessly across the horizon, then wheezes, descends, faded and beaten, at 4pm. It is a wan and pale sun. If you shook hands with this sun it would proffer a limp hand, shake unenthusiastically, and avoid looking you in the eye. The Scottish highlands is no place for sissies, only people on witness protection programs live here, so why had we chosen to cross coast to coast through this terrain? In January?
The rail trip from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh rates up there as one of the great rail journeys in the world. (Michael Palin has filmed the journey in one of his episodes.) Our trip traverses the highlands, following icy lochs, crosses bleak expanses of treeless, snow clad mountains, plunges through pine forests, then bursts across icy ploughed fields and grazing paddocks before the 2-carriage train reaches the west coast at the bridge across to the Isle of Skye two and a half hours later. Some of the small villages we pass through are chocolate box scenes with small stonework buildings and coatings of snow. The farmed deer and sheep up here are issued with small skates for mobility; gumboots are just too encumbering. It’s comical to watch as we round bends and surprise flocks of sheep frantically skating away from the rail lines and the sound of the train. Grazing in fields of ice must be a hungry, fruitless task on some days.
Lady McFuddy and I alighted the train at one of the chocolate box villages and spent an hour before catching the next train. Plockton was a crofter’s village. Small stone cottages face Loch Carron and each crofter owned a small strip of land, between their cottage and the loch, for their own gardening needs. The crofters also had rights to graze their own livestock on communal land.
Dodd is an English name, but some of my Scottish ancestry descends from the Bruces. As a nod to my Scottish blood, I have adopted a more Scottish name, during this trip, in order to blend in seamlessly, hence we are currently travelling incognito as Team McFuddy. Robert the Bruce was King of Scotland in the 1200s, therefore it is fitting that I have accepted the title of Laird of McFuddy Manor, and Jeanne is travelling as Lady McFuddy. On the trail of Robert the Bruce, we have visited Dunfermline Abbey where Grand Uncle Robert is buried, and the Stewart Castle in Stirling where he took refuge on occasions during his wars with the English.
Although Team McFuddy has travelled a lot whilst in Scotland, we’re based in Edinburgh and have been exploring many of the aspects of that city which eluded me when I last visited here in 1975. At 22 years of age my focus was on sampling ales. This time around we’ve explored the history of the city, visited art galleries, tracked down my ancestry, been introduced to single malt scotch whiskies (how good are the peat-smoked malts from the island of Islay?), participated in Hogmanay celebrations (Edinburgh Castle fireworks, first footing etc) and met a lot of our neighbours. McFuddy, social creature that he is, has relished unearthing the story that each of our celtic friends and acquaintances has to offer. The area we’re living in is Morningside which is considered a “posh” suburb with its rows of renovated Victorian and Edwardian tenement homes sitting near the Pentland Hills which are often snow capped during winter. There is a small, traditional green-grocery at the bottom of our street and the grocer is an elderly Scotsman who wears a green uniform with tie, and works out the costs of everything with a pencil and paper. Calculators are not for this proud Scot.
This morning’s scene in a barber’s shop, Morningside Road, Edinburgh:
Scottish barber: Wear-nja a-rave in Scort-lund?
(Dave pauses to mentally translate and frame his response)
Me: Oh… OK… ummm… 30th December.
Barber: Ohh… Aye…. Yerrr virrry loooky b’cos weirrr heaven a rate wee speil o’ gude weir-ther.
(Silence. Dave’s jaw drops. Perhaps barber has English as a second language.... might start using it soon.)
Me: (Gives embarrassed chuckle suggesting non-comprehension.)
Barber: (Thinking there’s probably a rate auld git sear-tin in the chair) Ay seared, weirrr heaven a rate wee speil o’ gude weir-ther. … It’s oota character ferrr this tame o’ yearrr.
Me: (Pauses to translate…. pauses some more… light dawns. Jaw closes. Eyes light up. Fumbles for witty response.) Ohh… yeah… good.
Me: (Thinking, “You’re joking right… I walk in here wearing 2 woollen tops under my ski parka, a scarf and a beanie! And… I’ve got gloves in my pockets just in case!”) Ummm… yeah… we’re really enjoying the goodweather… s’pose we are lucky.
You’ve got to love the early Presbyterians. They called it as they saw it. No sanitising of religion for the squeamish. At the Greyfriars kirk (church) and graveyard, the relief carvings on the outside are seriously confronting. Skeletons in grotesque positions, skulls, crossbones. No cutesy cherubs and angels for these guys…. And the poor little terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, stayed loyally grieving his master, Auld Jack, in this supposedly haunted graveyard for 14 years!
When Lady McFuddy suggested we climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, I hoped she was joking. A filthy look suggested she wasn’t. It had snowed the day before and the top of the walk was still icy, muddy and slippery but it was an incredible 360 degree view from the summit. Across the Firth of Forth we could see the snow capped hills in the Kingdom of Fife. In subsequent days we took train trips through this picturesque area, crossing the Forth Rail Bridge and the Tay Rail Bridge. There is a sad aside to the Tay Rail Bridge. At the turn of the 19th century the iron rail bridge, leading out of Dundee, collapsed into the Firth of Tay while a passenger train was crossing. The whole train was swallowed up and everyone drowned. Today, the stone pylons of the old bridge still protrude upwards finger-like from the dark, cold water, parallel to the replacement bridge. It’s a bleak monument and certainly a sobering reminder of the delicate thread of mortality upon which we tenuously cling.
In 1866, my great grandmother (Janet Bruce) was born in Edinburgh at the family home. She was one of nine children. Her father was a draper and clothier. In 1887 the large family emigrated to Brisbane, Australia. Armed with addresses, I was able to visit the house where my great grandmother was born and another house where the family lived briefly prior to emigrating. This was a tingly experience and helped me embrace the concept of my Scottish ancestry. I hadn’t remotely thought about it for the previous 59 years! My relatives probably wouldn’t have dreamed that all their descendants would be Aussies.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”…Tried haggis the other day. Very strong taste, made from minced sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion and oatmeal. Lady McFuddy was disgusted with me. Believes that baby haggises should be free to gambol and frolic on highland hillsides. If you didn’t know what was in it, you’d possibly ask for a second helping. McFuddy is aware of the contents, and politely declined seconds. Also had highland venison. Och, aye! One of the best meals I’ve ever had but Lady McFuddy has given me no end of grief about eating Bambi.
The 25th January is Robbie Burns’ birthday. He’s the Scottish bard, poet extraordinaire, and his birthday is cause for more celebrations. More than Hogmanay! Team McFuddy is looking forward to recitals, piping, then the food with tatties, neeps and whisky sauce. (Straight Scotch!) Gotta love the Scots.
Love to all our friends and clan,