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Jonathan Young and Anne Bach in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adventures in the Highlands

Travel Reflections by Jonathan Young

In this account, your faithful narrator and the fair Anne visit the City of Literature and explore the Scottish highlands.

Jonathan Young, Scotland

On our first day in Edinburgh, we saunter through the big park at the foot of castle mount. Anne surveys the formal gardens. At an outdoor concert shell, an all-violin orchestra plays traditional aires, jigs, and marches. It feels like a welcome party. We pay our respects to nearby statues of Sir Walter Scott and explorer David Livingstone.

We ramble up winding streets to the original city. Walking the narrow passageways is being in another time. High Street is the oldest part of Edinburgh. In August and September, it fills with street performers and crowds gathered for overlapping festivals. We're here because the international festival theme this year is fairytales. I've been invited to give a one-day workshop. First, we get to soak up some of the enlightening celebration.

Of the lectures, leading British folklorist Marina Warner is particularly brilliant. Of the plays, Aurores stands out -- Depicting the making of silent movies, it captures the epic courage of early explorers. The other jewel is Cinderella by the Mariinsky Ballet (also known as the Kirov). Done in modern dress, the timeless fable is pure grace and charm.

My seminar is sold-out, and the discussion goes well. I draw on several versions of Cinderella, including the Scottish tale Rashin-Coatie, in which the oppressed girl gets help from a magical red calf who makes her a coat from rushes. Casting the fairy godmother as a barnyard animal is an earthy touch. It reminds us great transformation involve close connections with nature. The group is enthusiastic about the conversation on symbolism -- and about doing Anne's writing session. Many participants read heartfelt reflections. We are happy story-workers.

It is an honor to be part of such a distinguished cultural event, and hold forth in an historic setting. Since the core of history is story, this is a fitting site for a seminar on fairytales. The festival people are thoughtful and kindly. Our venue is the main hall of the Gothic festival headquarters, called The Hub (picture above).

Between festival activities, we see the sights around the Scottish capital. Our hotel is pretty much surrounded by the University of Edinburgh, established in 1583. This is where Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, James M. Barrie, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle studied. Nearby, a pub frequented by Stevenson and Doyle is festooned with pictures and memorabilia of the authors.

Edinburgh is called The City of Literature. The Writers Museum has floors dedicated to Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. The first description I ever read of the value of group therapy included a quote from Burns, "O, wad some power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as others see us.""

There is a natural self-consciousness to being in another country. We are endlessly aware of being foreigners. I look like a Scot and am frequently taken as a native, until I speak at length. Still, I am aware of assumptions and slight differences in worldview. For example, they get by with less personal space. People will start talking to you in a bus or café as if they were neighbors. They seem generally industrious and cheerful about work. We did not encounter one grumpy Scot.

As always, we're on the teacher's circuit, so we track down various author's houses, including the childhood home of Kenneth Graham who wrote The Wind in the Willows. The school where Miss Jean Brodie had her prime is near the Elephant House café where, somewhat later, J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book. Anne suddenly feels compelled to do some writing in the author's corner by an elephant chair. For lovers of the word, this town is a storyland.

We also stop by the home of theologian John Knox (built in 1490) and the adjacent Scottish Storytelling Centre. We stroll to the Queen's palace by the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Then, we hike a section of the steep path up Arthur's Seat, the mountain that looms behind the city. We get far enough to have a view of the Scottish Parliament and the capital at sunset.

Of several museums, we like The People's Story best. It chronicles the lot of the impoverished masses in the crowded city back in the dark days. There are many dioramas of menial labor, families living in garret crawl spaces, and such. Anne likes seeing a picture of the poor house. Her father often said that's where they were headed, so now she knows what it looks like.

The festival season ends with a fireworks spectacle over the castle. We watch from the Acropolis-style art museum. The pyrotechnics are synchronized to the Scottish National Orchestra in the band shell below. The finale includes a sparkling firefall stretching around castle rock. Embers carried by breezes float over the cheering crowds. We are one with the occasion. We have been part of the festival. This trip is less like being a visitor, and more like being on the team.

Time had come to appreciate more of Scotland. Heading south to the borderlands, we ponder the remains of Melrose Abbey, described in verse by Sir Walter Scott, and visited by Wordsworth.

Then on to Scott's country estate Abbotsford, with its manicured gardens and a wide view of the river Tweed. Part of my family lore is that we're direct descendant of the great writer. To tell the truth, I've never warmed to Ivanhoe, but Rob Roy shows some style.

Venturing further south, we find a plaque for the Robert Burns house in Jedburgh and climb around the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, where Scott is buried.

There is something about ruins that invites musing. The remains of once-grand buildings seem to remind us our own efforts will one day be ethereal. Also, structures of some importance are sometimes even more graceful in skeletal form. As we age, there is the possibility of uncovering something new in the wreckage of outdated ideas. An elegance of being can emerge. Maybe it's that some of our sameness wears off, and the quirky charm is more evident.

Our quest then leads to Rosslyn Chapel, known for holding a secret in the DaVinci Code. We descend into the sacristy to look for the mysterious pentacle, the better to hang out with ghosts -- and ferret out clues about the Knights Templars and the Holy Grail. The docent regales us with insights into medieval symbolism -- and tales about the filming of scenes with Tom Hanks.

My sense of the popularity of Dan Brown's reworked grail story is that it reveals a widespread longing for sacred mystery. We contemplate the early cemetery near the castle, then trek through Roslin Glen along a creek to the vestiges of a water-powered mill. The mill-pond is intact, but nature is reclaiming most other evidence of industry. Crumbling stone walls celebrate impermanence.

Turning northward, we stay in Dundee, a once powerful industrial center now a bit faded. At the harborfront, we inspect the tall ship Discovery that took Captain Robert Scott on his arctic explorations. As earnest travelers, we identify with the desire to go beyond the known. Ancient as it is, Scotland is new to us. There is shared memory to revel in, and things about ourselves to study. Travel is a mirror. What we choose to notice says a lot about who we are.

We press on northward to Kirriemuir to see the childhood home of James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. There were ten children and a loom in a tiny rowhouse. It was a grim life for the future playwright. His mother never recovered from the death of his older brother. She drifted in her grief, neglecting young James. He would often sit on the narrow stairs crying quietly. To cope, he went into imaginary worlds, and would sometimes put on plays for neighbor children in a small wash-house behind the home.

Some furnishings from Barrie's later London home are also on exhibit -- in what had been his father's weaving room. These items include his writing desk, displaying an original script for Peter Pan, with the author's handwritten changes.

In nearby Birnam, we wander through the Beatrix Potter Garden featuring small statues of her characters. The museum describes her isolated childhood, her many pets, and a rich creative life. We amble along the banks of the Tam to see the house where she created Peter Rabbit. In such a verdant setting, it is easy to appreciate her love of the natural world and its creatures.

The next leg of our journey involves some elevation. We drive by heather on the hills up into the Highlands towards Inverness, where Shakespeare set the dark tale of Macbeth. We explore Findhorn, the intentional spiritual community. Then we sightsee around Inverness and the Caledonian canal on our way to find the Loch Ness monster. Anne does sight some strange patterns in the water.

Ok, I was actually on a TV show once called In Search of... and shlepped around investigating lake monsters. One theory is turbulence caused by large wakes from passing ships looks like undulating humps on windy days. A big tour boat had just passed on Loch Ness, so that is what we saw in the lake this time, but who knows? We chatted with people who claimed to have seen the monster. Taking a break from hunting for Nessie, we take a long hike in the woods along a creek. The Highlands have forests -- very different from the borderlands we had been in earlier that are mostly rolling grassy hills. The moors and heavy fogs are more to the west. That coast is at the mercy of the harsh Atlantic weather.

Heading south again, we stay near Blair Castle. We take pictures of the deer and trek through the woods. Anne chats with the bagpiper after his performance.

Back in the big city, we take a leisurely stroll around the Royal Botanical Gardens so Anne can see the local flora. We use our final day for an expedition to Edinburgh Castle. We spend time in the royal rooms where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James. It was a sunny day, good for savoring views of the town stretching north to the harbor on the Firth of Forth.

Now for my culinary review of Scotland. I tried haggis a few times. It's ok. I prefer the vegetarian style. The breakfasts are large and include grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. My favorite discovery is culled skink, a fish chowder that probably girded Robert the Bruce for battle. The scones were works of art with clotted cream (about half-way between butter and whipped cream). There is now more of me to love.

Reflecting on the trip, I am mindful that travel is often a pilgrimage. This journey was for work, and partly to follow family roots, but more significantly, to connect with one of the legendary source places. Scotland has been a major fount of stories that have lived in the collective imagination. At early ages, most of us spent time with Peter Rabbit, Mr. Toad and Peter Pan. Long John Silver, and Sherlock Holmes may have come later, along with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. These stories were part of the world in which we lived. Visiting their origins is like coming home.

We didn't see any warriors with their faces painted blue like those in Braveheart, although we did see statues of William Wallace, the hero of the movie. Still, there is a resilience in the Scots, and that is a bit of heritage to value. There used to be jokes about Scots being tight with money. We found them warm and generous, but did find Thrift is Blessing embellishing a timeworn bank building. It seemed to exemplify the traditional careful attitude toward finances.

All the old places and kindly people create a Brigadoon effect, like we have stepped into another era. Being in a place where the past is more intact is a reminder that we live in time. Days do go by. While it is rewarding to get a look at the homes of heroes and exemplars, they are gone now, even as their work lives on. Reviewing the past makes us aware we are always on the horizon of change.

Going abroad is different at this age, than in my scruffy youth. I notice people and their foibles more. Small difference in customs remind me long-held habits can be arbitrary. There are many right ways to do things.

To me, Scotland represents creativity in a sumptuous landscape. A psychological projection is unconsciously putting some part of one's inner life out into the world. The trick is to see how the perceived qualities also reflect something within. In this case, the enchanting experience of Scotland partly stems from my own longing for beauty. So anyway, I'd like to come to the north country again. In the meantime, I will continue to investigate the fertile land of stories within.

We return home tired and filled with all we've seen. On New Year's Eve, when we sing Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne, I, for one, will see faces of goodhearted Scots.

Anne Bach, Scotland