rusty nails in Dunblane
Thursday, August 9 2007
setting: Carnbren House, Lairg, Scotland, UK
We'd had such fun with Caroline and Keith that we posed them in their back garden with their cage of rescue rabbits and took pictures. Then Keith, who is a bus driver by trade, drove us down past the Bonar Bridge, and we commenced hitchhiking southward from the vicinity of Fearn Lodge (N 57.85348, 4.30426 W) in the upper reaches of Dornoch Firth. We weren't hitchhiking long before an SUV pulled over and we hopped into the backseat. The SUV was being driven by an older English gentleman, and in the passenger seat was a youngish Asian woman named Constance, his daughter-in law. In the backseat shoehorned beside us was her 12 year old kid sister Judy, who was cripplingly shy. Constance, though, was nearly as outgoing as Gretchen, telling us about how they were from Taiwan but had fallen in love with Scotland. Right now they were on their way to the Inverness airport, as Judy and Constance were about to fly down to Barcelona. At the end of the ride Gretchen and I were trying to explain the rules of baseball (or what little we know of those rules) to the driver, and he in turn tried to explain the rules of cricket. As we passed the Comarty Firty, we could see groups of seals laid out like slugs on the beach.
We ended up in the outskirts of Inverness, somewhere on the A9, which in this part of the world is a limited-access four lane road, a Scottish super-megahighway. We were at the mouth of one of those pullover places watching the cars go by at incredible speed. As we hitchhiked we counted most of them as a way to pass the time. More than 200 had gone by before one of them pulled in and came to a rapid stop, the signal that we finally had a ride.
It was with a man with a shaved head and the sort of breath with the strength to poison the atmosphere of an entire car. The guy worked in the oil industry, doing something involving deep-sea robots. The offshore North Sea fields were not far from this part of Scotland, though this guy had worked all over the world, in places like the Azerbaijan and Nigeria. Gretchen had been asking the drivers of all of our rides what they thought of the increased immigration into Scotland from places like Poland which have recently joined the European Union. Without exception, people have been positive about the immigrants, saying they're hard workers and take essential jobs that no one else wants. This guy, though, he wasn't so sure about the immigrants. He talked about them in the way that the wall-building wing of the Republican Party talks about Mexican immigrants, saying that they tend to be lazy, burden public services, and are unusually prone to criminal behavior. (Reality Czech: all of these things tend to be less true of the immigrants to a country than they are of the citizens of the country into which immigration is happening.) He admitted that he's felt himself becoming increasingly racist as he's grown older. He was particularly disgusted by the people of Nigeria with whom he had the misfortune to interact while he was there to help extract and export their finite reserves of fossil fuels. He found them violent and lazy and he was sure all was lost if any appreciable number of them ever were motived to emigrate to his homeland. And therein lay the failure in his logic: those who are so aggravated by their circumstances that they pick up and move thousands of miles away tend to be the most motivated and industrious of a society, and the places to which they move tend to benefit. "I'm probably coming across as some kind of Neo Nazi," he said at one point, and Gretchen responded about as diplomatically as she could given the circumstances. "You sound like someone who is struggling with these issues and is being honest about your feelings. We all have racist tendencies, and it's what we choose to do with them that really matters." The driver asked us what we thought about immigration to our country and we said that we thought the diversity was a good thing. Gretchen, kept mentioning the improvements that immigration had made to American cuisine, and this seemed to exasperate the driver, who observed, "You make it sound like it's all about getting a good curry!" He wondered what we thought about the dilution of our culture. We explained that there is no static culture in America, or, for that matter, anywhere. Immigration has been happening for countless æons and culture is in a continual state of flux. We said that we ourselves didn't identify with a common American culture and that preserving it made no sense. In the end we had to agree that we were looking at this issue from entirely different perspectives, that Scotland didn't have a long tradition of immigration and so it did, in a sense, have more of a fixed culture than the United States, and that accepting the change of sudden immigration was going to be hard for some, particularly when some of the immigrants are Islamic nutjobs with a tendency to drive flaming cars into airports. "But then in the United States we had Timothy McVeigh,a native-born white American," I pointed out, "who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma. Crazy people come from all parts of society." Gretchen thought that his "I'm examining myself" attitude was mostly an act. She also thought his behavior was implicitly misogynistic, particularly the way he would say knowing asides to me that excluded Gretchen in the backseat.
Our driver also indicated that he was in an unhappy marriage, though he had three kids. One of his near-term goals at this point was to fly to the United States and, taking advantage of the weak dollar, buy a boat that could serve as a home-away-from-home.
As we headed south from the low coastal plain around Inverness, we passed through Cairngorms, a rugged mountain system featuring more forest than we'd seen in other parts of the Highlands. On many of the mountains the forest only reached about half way or two thirds of the way up the slope, and our driver indicated that this indicated the location of the actual ecological timber line (as opposed to where the silviculturalists stopped planting trees).
South of the Cairngorms the landscape flattened out and agriculture returned. I'd noticed that from Lairg southward (in other words, throughout northeastern Scotland) the land was mostly being used to grow crops, as opposed to serving as pasture for sheep.
We were dropped off on the A9 outside of Perth, and again we stood at the entrance to a pull-off area. The weather had become a bit cooler so Gretchen went into a nearby agricultural field and changed out of her sundress into her ratty sweatshirt and bellbottom corduroys.
Eventually we got a ride with a guy from Manchester, England whose job seemed to be the driving of random cars from one location to another (often after being purchased on Ebay). He had that accent in which the vocal pitch rises steadily throughout the final quarter of every sentence.
We hadn't known where we were going to end up when we'd set out this morning, but the admitted racist with the bad breath had been driving so far that we decided to go all the way down to Stirling, which is about halfway between (though somewhat north of) Glasgow and Edinburgh. The professional car driver let us off at a traffic circle at the foot of a hill crowned by wall of cliffs that are, in turn, crowned by Stirling Castle. From a distance, Stirling Castle looked like a cluster of stone houses inside a crenelated wall.
We entered Stirling from the northwest, stopping occasionally on its medieval streets to consult the guidebook. Our first goal in Stirling was to find a place to spend the night, but there were no beds at the Stirling Youth Hostel and the helpful guy at the information centre, though he called various numbers and checked various lists, could find us nothing in any of the city's bed and breakfasts. It turned out that Stirling's lodging was being overwhelmed by overflow from both the Edinburgh Festival and a bagpipers' convention in Glasgow. The information desk guy kept beginning all his sentences with the word "unfortunately," an essential word in the arsenal of any British desk clerk. Things were looking grim. At this point we seemed to have three choices: hitchhike out of town to a remote town and get a room there, sleep outside, or check into a fancy hotel (which would be very expensive).
Investigating that third option, we walked into the swank Stirling Highland Hotel and Gretchen went up to the desk to ask the clerk (a thin young woman with the kind of accent that'll get you hired as a desk clerk at a swanky British hotel) and asked if there were any rooms available, and if so, how much would they cost. She had a small single room for £70 ($140!), but then I looked up at the hotel's exchange rate and saw that they were taking in $2.30 in exchange for every pound. That would price a £70 room at $161. (Mind you, on this particular day the actual exchange rate was £1.00=$1.98, indicating that currency exchange involves an element of extortion, at least at this particular hotel.) Gretchen leaned closer to the clerk and, in a conspiratorial voice, asked if perhaps she had any friends who could rent us their couch. She didn't, not offhand, but the idea seemed to intrigue her and she said, "Let me have a think on it." And with that she attended to some other customers while we sat waiting patiently on the couches in the lobby. We were smelly and sweaty from a day of hitchhiking with backpacks and didn't really mesh too well with the hotel vibe.
Once the clerk was done with the customers, she waved Gretchen over and whispered that we could stay in the spare room at her parents' place ten minutes from the city in Dunblane. Would that work? Gretchen indicated that it would, most definitely. The clerk said she'd be getting off at 9pm and we could come by then and she'd drive us all back to her place. How fun!
That experience certainly put a bounce in our step! Yet again Gretchen had used extrovertism to work a miracle, getting us a place to stay in a city without any spare capacity. In search of a place to eat, we walked down into Stirling's city centre (which was bustling and seemingly very urban, though it's only a few blocks across) and came upon the Willy Wallace Backpackers' Hostel, which claimed to have vacancies. Hmm, why hadn't this information reached the tourist information centre? No matter, we had a place now, but we'd still need a place to stay tomorrow. So we went in to investigate. On the way up to the check in desk on the second floor Gretchen poked her head into one of the dormitories and found it smelled like old socks. It was gross, but it would work. And then it turned out that the guy at the desk brought his big black Labrador Retriever with him to work every day. There were spots available for us tomorrow, so we reserved them.
We had a sort of lupper at La Ciociara, an authentic and relatively inexpensive Italian restaurant with a bit of an ambience deficit. Gretchen had been craving pasta for days; it's not the sort of thing one can normally find at pubs or Indian restaurants.
We wandered through the grounds of an apartment complex and found ourselves trapped in a warren of backyards, climbing over fences hoping we were within our right to roam.
Back in the commercial area, we bought a bottle of wine for Rachæl, the nice hotel clerk, and then went up along the town wall and over to an impressive graveyard at the crest of the same ridge that culminates, on its western end, with Stirling Castle. We sat on a high rock called Ladies Rock and looked at the fabulous view in all directions. Below us were a few rabbits hopping among the gravestones, although they disappeared when a motley group of offleash dogs came through. Eventually we found ourselves talking to the guys who were walking these dogs. They were mostly variations on the Border Collie theme, though one was a twiggy black Greyhound. They were three middle-aged locals who were intrigued first by our interest in their dogs and then by the fact that we were Americans. Like many Scotsmen, one didn't have to scratch them very deeply to find their socialist inclinations, and one of them volunteered something about the need to rise up in a political context. This was a great springboard for Gretchen to trash our president (as well as the complacent American population) far more savagely than Natalie Maines ever has.
At 9:00pm we met Rachæl at the hotel and we discreetly accompanied her to her tiny little fire engine red Toyota in the parking lot. I don't know what model it is, but it's a tiny four door that may have a hatchback. Rachæl said it gets 65 to 70 miles to the gallon. Gretchen and I consider it a crime that such vehicles cannot be bought in this country.
Not long into the drive, Gretchen made it clear that, though we are Americans, we hate our president and find him to be a huge embarrassment. It was good that she got this out of the way, because Rachæl (who had studied American politics avidly at the University of Glasgow) had been fretting about this since saying we could stay with her. Her parents are committed socialists and count as their ancestors at least one person who was such a political bombthrower that he had trouble holding down actual jobs.
Rachæl lived with her parents in Dunblane, a town most famous for a massacre of schoolchildren that took place there in 1996. My expectation upon entering Rachæl's beautiful stone Victorian house was that she'd have a pair of grim parents (picture American Gothic) standing there wondering who exactly were these grubby backpackers their daughter was bringing home. But no, it wasn't that way at all. We entered the parlor to find Rachæl's mother and two grandparents all aboil with anticipation. Rachæl had phone home and told her mother to prepare for our arrival, and she'd set up the bed with towels and carafes of water on either side. This was obviously the most exciting thing that had happened for "Mum" in a long time, and she was eager to play über host. At some point Rachæl's father appeared briefly, but he didn't say much and soon retreated to his own separate parlor to watch a sporting telecast by himself.
Mum herded us into the kitchen and proceeded to make us tea and offer us food. Meanwhile Mum was making goosebery jam, and for a few minutes we contributed to the effort by plucking stems from gooseberries. Mum was zany and wacky, and she kept talking about Rachæl's old boyfriends, the ones she (not Rachæl) had liked, and the ones she hadn't liked because they were either too tall or too pale. Mum preferred the swarthy ones, even if they were, as one was, Nigerian. This conversation was, of course, mortifying for Rachæl, in further confirmation of the axiom that mothers can't say anything without mortifying their postpubescent children.
The grandparents left and the Rachæl, Mum, Gretchen, and I moved into the parlor. At this point Mum said it was time for a drink, a real drink, and with that she opened the liquor cabinet and started preparing us "rusty nails." Conversation was mostly about politics, where we were all in perfect agreement, although Gretchen managed to move it to the subject of vegetarianism, where it seemed to linger a bit longer than necessary. Gretchen doesn't get drunk too often, but when she does, one of things that can happen is that she can become a wee bit didactic. Both Mum and Rachæl had been vegetarians at various points in their lives (mostly for health reasons) and Rachæl's sister still was. When my rusty nail ran out, Mum poured me another one. I said I just wanted a "wee" refill (no one ever uses the words "small" or "little" in Scotland) but the second glass was just as big as the first.
The entire time we sat there, an electric radiant space heater had been blazing away to keep the room warm (actually a little too warm). Repeatedly people had been saying, as a way of describing Scottish weather with a handy cliché, that you get "four seasons in a day." But the truth of the matter is that you never, ever get summer. I explained at one point what a proper Upstate New York summer is like, with the windows all thrown wide open and the crickets chirping and you're lying naked face down sweating on the bed without any covers because it's just so damn hot. They found this imagery utterly exotic.
Treeline in the Cairngorms.
Rachæl (left) and Mum in the parlor of their house in Dunblane. I forget the cat's name, but Rachæl and that cat grew up together.
See more photographs from the Scotland trip.
For linking purposes this article's URL is:feedback
previous | next