Travel, it is said, broadens the mind and enlarges the spirit. Travel, it must also be admitted, can confuse the best of us and disrupt our daily routines. I think it was Alain de Botton who celebrates Proust’s idea that we should travel widely and observe the world closely. Proust himself took none of his own advice, writing his books from bed and scarcely leaving his home village for the final years of his life. Of course, in Proust’s small world, you could get a world-class madeleine and a wonderful cup of coffee by simply strolling down any street and finding a café that suits your mood. No need to travel to France or Seattle or anywhere actually. But, never mind all that. Having just returned from a tour of a small parallelogram of a country called Scotland, I will share here some of what I have learned. Actually, I traveled approximately only 40 miles in one direction and another forty miles in another and was barely introduced to this fine nation–sort of like meeting the upstanding relatives at a finely catered event instead of mashing it up with whole family at a free-for-all barbeque. So, instead of a grand tour of the continent that my ancestors would have taken (if they had the money and if they weren’t already living on the continent having immigrated here from the Azores relatively recently), I took a wee tour of a tiny part of a small country somewhat connected to a leading empire, although much diminished due to dieting, rioting and possibly ruinous plebiscites.
I learned when I returned to the U.S. that the motto of Scotland is “Nemo me impune lacessit.” Translated “No one provokes me with impunity.” This explains a lot about the history and culture of the nation, especially the Highlands where we spent considerable time learning about clans and battles and flags and revenge. It appears that many of America’s leading gangs trace their origins to the Scottish Highlands. Prominent archivists and historians of the Bloods and Crips and the Sharks and the Jets point to the fighting acumen of the Highlands. That gang thing about never ever backing down from a fight and making a big thing out of a small act of disrespect? Yup, Scottish Highlanders is where they learned all that, somehow.
The truth is that there is much too much history cramped into Scotland given its small land mass. It is about the size of the state of South Carolina but has 120 times the history, more or less of even that storied state. With regard to comprehending this history, no sooner do you think you understand how King James I came to power than it’s time for him to be killed. And, as quickly as a marital alliance is made, it appears that someone or the other is conspiring with the Archbishop or the Viscount Lord of the Dance, to break up the happy couple. That slaughter often results in another murder, leaving an eight-year old boy in charge of a kingdom–never a good idea no matter how divine the right to rule. If I can offer a bit of advice to my Scottish friends, I suggest the Ministers of History and Culture should deliberate carefully over how many castles, monuments, lochs, abbeys, ruins, quaint villages and interesting characters they really need. There is really a lot of this sort of stuff in Scotland. You can find a castle anywhere in Scotland. They seem to be like the Starbucks of Scotland. It is hard to find a non-quaint village. I Googled “not too cute village” this and came up empty. Characters with story-telling charms abound. Monuments loom at every corner. It seems to a first-time traveler that the Scots can’t forget anything, which it seems to me is in direct opposition to Americans who forget most things and are woefully uneducated about even our own history.
To deal with this cultural abundance, I am proposing that some of these landmarks simply be exported to places like Kansas where, if we are to be honest, there is not much going on. And, where there is a lot of interest in America in this sort of thing. We LOVE Downton Abbey and Games of Thrones. And, really think about how much impact this would have on the carbon footprint for the planet. If all the people in the Midwest could travel to Kansas instead of the British Isles, that would be amazing. Imagine a castle or an abbey in the middle of a Kansas wheat field! Beautiful.
Making things even more troublesome in understanding this country is a complicated religious history and the fact that way back when the country was being formed, no one could tell the difference between the president and the pope. In many cases, the men who settled country, who sailed to distant worlds, or marched in to introduce themselves and grab some land at its-a-steal prices, were clerics and monks and abbots, not pioneer men or military guys. Or in some cases, they were all three—priests, pillagers and pilgrims. Imagine if today, Donald, the Hotel Developer, was also leading his men in battle, creating a casino outpost, and on his way to becoming a revered saint. Well, that’s just too much to expect or maybe not.
And making things even more complicated is taking such a journey in your silver years, or whatever the heck the madmen-advertisers are characterizing the retired as these days. I took this tour with fourteen other mature Americans with the Road Scholar company. It is proven fact, I suppose, that one’s interest in history grows with age. I know that this is the case for me. I am more interested in big ideas, in how places settled, and in how the ideas that govern human society come to be than I ever was as a young person. So, we are as an age cohort, perfect captives for a wee educational tour of a lovely place like Scotland. Firms like Road Scholar court us with catalogues chock of centerfolds of active adults having a great time hiking trails that pilgrims have trod, eating food that we wouldn’t touch back at home, and cruising down great waterways. As seniors, we are also in our way a wee bit enfeebled, not necessarily in major ways but just enough to make us less likely to make travel arrangements for ourselves than we used to be. We don’t want to spend weeks finding accommodations and practicing driving on the left side of the road in the Home Depot parking lot. These trips are so well organized and directed that you wind up the tour feeling a lot smarter than you were when you began. Your head is full of stories and facts and your camera is chockfull of sites that you may not be able to place once you get home. But never mind. You have proof you were in Loch Ness and the Edinburgh Castle. Going on a tour also gives you a better perspective on your own life. You have a chance while on holiday to reconsider some life choices that you have made. With a tour diet that includes a full Scottish breakfast (eggs, black sausage, bacon, haggis, toast, porridge and fruit), desert twice a day and appetizers with your caveman-size salmon or lamb chop, you begin to feel like a monk with your home routine of a tiny shot of yogurt and a few crackers for lunch and a Spartan dinner better fit for a house cat. That feeling is a good one because you eventually really should not/could not live for long on a Road Scholar diet.
In a land like Scotland, having been invaded by the Vikings, the Celts, the British and the Beatles with all their linguistic influences, a tourist has to learn a whole new vocabulary. You learn that lochs are lakes except when they are locks; you learn that Kills are churches; glens are plains; fourths are estuaries; and men wear kilts, not plaid skirts
A long bus tour and two boat rides took us to the iconic isle of Iona, we visited the sacred places where abbeys and churches remain from early Christian history. I learned from our guide that dolphins brought Christianity to the island in 563 A.D. It wasn’t until I saw the abbey that the dolphins were supposed to have built that I understood that St. Columbo actually built the abbey and that the dolphins established the tourism industry in that part of the Scotland, actually the first place in the Western hemisphere where dolphins were actually thought to be endearing. And the fact that many of us on the tour have hearing problems made for many completely deranged conversations where we’d repeat in loud voices things we misheard.
Later in the week, we prepared for our visit to the heralded Scone Palace where several kings of Scotland and England had been crowned on the Scone of Destiny, which gave that breakfast pastry an honored, nearly sacred place in the Scottish diet. Once again, it wasn’t until I saw the landmark itself that I realized that the kings were crowned at the Stone of Destiny. But still, the important links here is that the scone is shaped like the stone and is pretty stone-like as well if you let it dry up in your backpack, which I did with great regularity during my visit.
As we know, back not that many generations, our ancestors lived under strained circumstances. Food was often scarce, as was fuel. These deprivations were visited upon the royalty as well as the poorer classes. One thing that seemed in particularly short supply back then was first names; many were simply recycled over and over again. You can admire the Scots for their frugality, of course, but calling one king after the other James or Henry seems ridiculous and downright lazy to me. To make things easier they would affix appellations, like James the Great and James, the Lesser, like we do with birds (the greater grebe, the lesser grebe, grebe the brown and really not a grebe at all.) So, with many kings with the same name, I learned that James II and James IV were the same man, not reincarnated (although they would allow that in Scottish history) but holding two titles as Scotland and England changed ownership several times. I found out that James the Great was succeeded by a Mediterranean relative called Jimmy the Greek who was trading with Edinburgh long before anybody even thought about the European Union.
We also were introduced to other parts of Scottish culture—whisky and sheepherding. We visited a distillery and got to try out two samples of whisky. I learned how to taste whisky, how to appreciate its color, how to taste the subtle nose of the single malt. We tried a 4-year old and an 8-year old whisky. They were distinctively different from each other. The information sheet said that first had tones of peach and almond and the older one had notes of licorice and oak. My own take was that the first tasted like children’s Robitussin and the other like lighter fluid. Paired with a fine cheese and a smelly cigar and it is time to call the EPA.
We were urged by Road Scholar to pack light. We weren’t traveling with a coterie of cabin boys to wait on us hand and foot. We would be lugging around our own bags often enough. Accordingly, I took them at their word and wore one pair of pants, washed out two pairs of quick-drying underwear, promoted by a mountain climber who said she wore them every day (not the pair that I bought, of course) for almost half a year, wore one sweater and one jacket. My clothes were so well worn by the end of the trip that Road Scholar asked me to donate them to their Best of Scotland clothing archive where they will be featured on a mannequin that celebrates light packing in the Rhode Scholar museum.
Much was said to us before our tour about the weather. “Cold for July.” “Wet.” “Foggy and misty.” So, we were ready and not disappointed. I would sum up the weather conditions as follows: steady rain interrupted by showers. But still we had a wonderful time, it was agreed.
On any holiday, the time passes quickly. No sooner than you absorb a ton of information and can speak confidently of Balmy Prince Charley and Robbie Burns than its time to return to your normal life, enriched by your experience and wondering where you left your travel journal, your wooly hat and your traveling companion.