Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   the pipers of Ft. William
Saturday, August 4 2007

setting: Mrs. Campbell's House, Ballachulish, Scotland, UK

Scottish breakfasts, at least as served by Mrs. Campbell in Ballachulish, are enormous, full of sausages and eggy slime. I had to avert my eyes from the Italian end of the table as I picked at my toast and baked beans. I was watching the crazy antics of the clouds above the barren peak above the village. Sometimes they'd clear and there'd be blue sky, and then a couple minutes later the peak was shrouded in gloom. At first it seemed we might have a reasonably rain-free day, but then when we set out to the village center, precipitation began to fall. In the Ballachulish information centre we met Ken, the English meteorologist from yesterday, and he offered to take us with him on a drive down Glen Etive if we were interested. What the hell, we had a whole day to kill, so why not?
The road down Glen Etive was a narrow one-tracker, with occasional places allowing fast cars to overtake slow ones or oncoming cars to get around one another. The protocol for getting around others on a one track road seemed to involve headlight signals, waves, and a mix of reckless abandon and quick reflexes. Often we'd have to pull over momentarily or back up to get to a passing place. I've never seen such roads in even the remotest parts of the United States, but in Scotland they're not uncommon as the only way to get from one village to another. To function as infrastructure, one track roads require the sort of community spirit that American culture systematically suppresses.
Still, there are occasion wrinkles in the system. At one point down Glen Etive we came to a place where a big four wheel drive SUV (which are rare in Scotland) had, probably in an effort to avoid an oncoming car, run into the ditch. It was such a deep ditch that the SUV was incapable of muscling its way out; one of its wheels wasn't even touching the ground. Someone had sent for the assistance of a local farmer, but the farmer wasn't proving eager to help (probably because he gets asked for help a lot). Since traffic on the Glen Etive road was blocked in both directions, people gradually accumulated at the site until there were enough of us to push the SUV back onto the road. "Push" is the wrong word; I put most of my effort into lifting one corner of the heavy vehicle so the other three wheels could do the actual work. The five or six of us extricating the wayward SUV comprised a multinational Anglophonic coalition of the willing, with accents from all over the former British Empire. Unlike certain other coalitions of the willing, the goal was to take something stuck in a quagmire and get it out, as opposed to, say, the complete opposite.
The problem with spending hours with Ken gradually became apparent as lunchtime first came and then went without fanfair. Ken was proving to be somewhat more extreme with his eating habits than being a simple vegetarian. He was, it seems, something of a breatharian. The problem with being someone's guest is that it is impolite to broach the subject of hunger, so we just had to be breatharians too. Eventually Ken parked for a light meal comprised mostly of tea (I actually had some instant coffee, which proved several orders of magnitude better than the bitter brew served by Mrs. Campbell this morning). Ken also broke out a few biscuits (American cookies), but it was hardly a meal.
On the upside, at the end of our travels Ken drove well out of his way to drop us off at Cuildorag House, our vegetarian bed and breakfast in Onich, several miles to the north of Ballachulish. I should mention at this point that Gretchen had structured our entire trip on a framework of vegetarian and vegan bed and breakfasts throughout Scotland. There are only three, and we had plans of hitting them all.
Soon after we'd checked into our beautiful Victorian-style room (whose moldings were wider than some of the roads we'd just been driving on), we set out to hitchhike into Fort William, a large touristy village ten miles to the north. We needed to do this because we had depleted our cash reserves and needed to get to an ATM machine, as our B&B accepted only cash. (An email to our credit union had fixed a problem with getting money out of our account - a problem we hadn't had when visiting South Africa, Ecuador, Isræl, or Guatemala.)
The main road past our B&B provided a perfect stopping place, so that was where we stood and extended our thumbs. (Actually, I just stood there, and Gretchen did the thumbing.) As we waited we joked around, predicting that each successive car was going to be the one to stop for us. Only when Gretchen predicted that a particular car would not stop did it do the opposite and pull over. It was a newish Volvo driven by another Englishman, this one having lived in Scotland now for thirty years. Responding to a question Gretchen asked, he told us about all the Poles moving into the UK, particularly to places such as Inverness. Poles have been free to this ever since Poland joined the European Union, which has rules allowing the free movement and resettlement for the people of all its member countries. Our driver said that (unlike, say, the Mexicans in the United States) the Poles weren't causing much of an outcry, mostly because they work hard and are taking the jobs that no one wants.
Fort William is centered on High Street, a brick-paved pedestrian mall conducive to street performs and musicians. In the Scottish Highlands, the latter tend to be bagpipers. There were two sets of youthful pipers visible on High Street at various times today, playing the same three or four tunes over and over and never quite hitting those high notes.
On the hill above the village, just beyond a fancy development of high-end housing, the village suddenly ends and there's a path where one can walk and view the northern tip of Loch Linnhe below.
We were craving Indian food, and noticed that it could be had much more cheaply as takeaway (as opposed to in the restaurant). So we ordered up a bunch of rice and curry from the Indian Garden restaurant on High Street and took it down to the shoreline where we planned to eat it. Only then did we discover that we'd been given no plastic utensils. But we managed to do a pretty good job of eating it Ethiopian style, using little pieces of flat bread to grab the goop.
Hitchhiking back to Onich for the night, we stood for awhile in the southern suburbs of Fort William as cars zinged past. A little rain fell now and then and I began to worry a little about whether we'd be getting a ride before dark. Ours wasn't an ideal spot to wait for a car, but eventually a a newish Volkswagen stopped and we climbed in. It was being driven by a French couple, one of whom had moved to Glasgow only recently. I have trouble imagining why anyone would move from anywhere in France to a place with such bleak summers, but perhaps the conditions we'd been experiencing were abnormal.

Youthful pipers on High Street in Fort William. Are they still kilts when they're worn by little girls?

See more photographs from the Scotland trip.

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