Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing
cuccu! It always seems worth doing something special to celebrate
The last four years saw me clad in festive gear dancing a maypole with
various other Swatties. It was always hard to get enough people together;
sometimes it worked, others not. We often did some Scottish or English
country dancing as well, but pride of place was always given to the pagan
celebration of the May Pole. I often wore a brightly-colored vest my mother
made, to drive away the spirits of winter for another year. I remember Will Quale once explaining that morris
dancers know something about the world--they know that if they did not dance
to raise the sun on May Day, there would be no light. Perhaps something in
This year, I am worlds away from the patio of Sharples Dining Hall, and Parrish Beach is nowhere in sight. I didn't really dance today, but it managed to be a meaningful occasion. You see, I went on a journey through Argyll, one of the most "mysterious" parts of Scotland. Argyll is a craggy, hard land of hills, sea, islands, and sky, and long ago it was home to the Dalriadic people. Today, as you drive through Argyll, you'll see modern-built houses next to monoliths that have stood unmoved for millennia. It is a place full of sensory juxtapositions: old and new, sea and sky, tree and river, plenitude and emptiness.
Today I went to Oban for the first time.
The 21st Highland and Islands Music Festival was going on in Oban, and it featured a lot of piping competitions. My competition eligibility problems remain unresolved, and so I was attending as spectator and coach. Several friends from Lomond and Clyde competed today. I negotiated a ride with Peter Lewis and his family in exchange for helping to tune his drones and set his pipes up for the competition.
In truth, I am not cut out to be a city boy. I enjoy the conveniences of proximity to services, shops, pubs, and friends, certainly. It is nice to be able to walk to work in 20 minutes. But to me, cityscapes of concrete, macadam, and glass are beautiful but superficial. I enjoy the place, but it does not resonate.
And oh! How my spirit soars whenever I leave the city, when I drive roads that fit the curves of the earth, and when I tread the living earth! My heart's in the highlands, it's true: every time I come near them, something unknots itself deep within me, and I begin to feel relaxed and at peace with the world. It is often difficult to make myself return--I feel that I could lose myself in these places and not want to come back.
Should I come home from Scotland? Am I home in Scotland? Where can home
be? These questions always haunt me after a trip to the highlands. What will the future hold?
Today, we left Glasgow on a sunny and warm morning. Twenty minutes of driving takes you far enough west that the city is really only a memory--one you'd prefer to forget, it sometimes seems. Past Dumbarton, past Helensburgh and the nuclear submarines at Faslane, leaving Loch Lomond to the east as Susie and I did on my first trip to Scotland two years ago. We passed through Tarbet and continued on through incredible mountains to Arrochar and Inveraray, on Loch Fyne. I sang John MacLellan's strathspey "Inveraray Castle" at the appropriate time, but then we were away, on the long and windy road to Lochgilphead and Ardrishaig.
I always remember Ardrishaig because it was the home of Jean Morrison, who used to work at the Piping Centre and was among the first people to chat with me during my time here. Jean's off in Australia or New Zealand now--got the bug for travel and needed to move where the wind blew.
A turn to the north at Lochgilphead takes you north through Kilmartin Glen. This place feels powerful, full of earth and sea magic. That sounds fatuous, I know; visit and you will understand. The Kilmartin area is home to the Corryvreckan whirlpool, one of only five maelstroms in the world. It is filled with cup- and ring-marked stones, symbols of the Neolithic peoples who lived there. Standing stones dot the landscape.
Rising from a flatland is a steep and rocky tor that once held the fortified city of Dunadd, capital of the Dalriada empire. You can see why they would have built it there. I'm very serious when I say that the place has power. If you go to Argyll and the hair on your neck doesn't notice, you aren't listening with enough senses.
I love the old, weathered, strong and indomitable sense of the place. It grew on me the longer I was there.
Let us not forget the lambs. I have fallen in love with lambs. They are my new favorite things, at least while I am in Scotland where there are no cats or chipmunks. Lambs are the most adorable creatures ever.
Argyll is full of them--black ones, white ones, white ones with black faces. They're so fluffy-looking! And they don't exactly walk, either. They romp. Sheep walk to get where they're going. Lambs romp and frolic on the way. Then they get tired, and so they flop over on their sides and take a nap. They seem to grow out of this as they age--adult sheep seem only to lie down by folding their legs underneath, so they remain vertical. Lying on your side seems to be a pleasure reserved for the young of the sheep community.
They're so cute! With their little ears! And they bounce from here to there and it's spring so there are lots of them and some of them are getting big but some are still tiny and I really like lambs.
I wished we could have stopped to talk to the lambs. I always like to talk to sheep (guess I should hide this entry from future employers) because they talk back! And they sound like caricatures of themselves, which is fun. Petting the lambs would have been pretty okay too.
But we needed to press on, so we did. Eventually we arrived in Oban, after a gut-twisting journey. I've discovered I don't do well with back seats: I'm too tall to sit up in them, so I get cramped and travelsick trying to avoid having my head bonked with every bump. Not so good.
I don't know what I thought Oban would look like, but I was wrong. It's a lovely little harbor town--very touristy, but that's to be expected, and it comes across as still having some of its own life along with the Tourist Culture. It's also built into the arms of a mountain that juts into the sea. From the harbor, you can see Mull (ha! "I See Mull"! It's a tune. Laugh already.), Lismore, the Knoydart peninsula, and various smaller islands (Rhu-a-cruabh, Maiden's Rock, Kerrera (CARE-er-ra, not ca-RARE-a), and others). I walked around the town with Struan Thorpe and his mother, Joanne.
She's a midwife, and told me the stories of traveling midwifery in the Oban
area. She once delivered a baby aboard the lifeboat I saw made fast at the quay, and got stuck in the middle of the bay due to someone's miscalculation of the tide. They both told me stories of Oban, of life there (though they now live to the south, in Lochgilphead), of the people nearby. On the hill there's a Roman coliseum facade that's named McCaig's Tower, after the man who built it. He ran out of money before the project could be completed, and the structure is known locally as McCaig's Folly.
We wandered in the bright sun for an hour or so, as the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries docked and collected passengers, as tourists chattered, and seagulls soared utterly unconcerned about it all. I haven't spent enough time with Struan and his family, and it was nice to get the chance to make a start.
I always face the same dilemma when visiting a new place: to experience, or to record? You really can't do either of them justice while trying to do both--at least, not as fully as you'd like. I never want to take photographs on my first visit to a place--I feel that I need time to suss it out, to make friends with it before bringing a camera into things. However, I have grown unhappily conscious of the fact that, for many of these places, there will never be another time, and have realized that if I record nothing, the only memories will be locked in my head.
That's not such a bad thing--but it's hard to show your memories to friends and grandchildren without a more physical form. And so I photograph, a grudging tourist like all the rest.
Of the competition I will say little. Some very good piping, some mediocre. People seemed to enjoy it. I found that I enjoy the role of backstage coach. I was pleased to learn that I really can take a set of pipes that's not sounding good and turn it into a reasonable instrument relatively quickly. I helped some friends set up their pipes for tone, and it was easy. I've invested a lot of time in building this skill, and it's nice to find it beginning to show.
While waiting for an event to start, I plucked a copy of The Amber Spyglass from the shelf in the waiting area--an English classroom. I re-read most of the novel, including the ending. I guess I was feeling a bit emotional anyway, but the book affected me very strongly indeed this time around. Like a punch to the guy, in fact. I was nearly crying by the end, and it's very rare for a novel to do that to me. What does this signify?
In the end, I had to bid farewell to Oban. It feels like a home to me, and
perhaps it is: I have ancestors who may have lived there a long time ago. I don't know when I will see it next. One day, I hope to receive an invitation to compete at the Argyllshire Gathering for the Silver or Gold Medal. I hope that, should such an invitation arrive, I will be in a position to afford the plane fare necessary to accept.
The eight of us (Peter and his parents; Struan and Lewis and their parents; me) turned our backs on Oban and returned to Inveraray, where we enjoyed a fine meal in the George pub. It's on Loch Fyne, and it's always important to try the local ale where it's available, so I had Fyne Ales's Highlander. Quite nice--a bit hoppy for me, but good malt flavor and a bit of sweetness as well. A thoroughly pleasant conversation and meal together. I could get used to this sort of easy camaraderie.
Later, having passed still more lambs, hills, lochs, and trees, we returned to Glasgow. My heels clicked on the cement as I walked to my dark and empty flat, temporarily devoid even of flatmates. And thusly did my Oban experience close.
My friend Zoë from the Piping Centre has just finished her work there to move back to Oban, her native home. I now understand why she holds it so dear. During the week, I was sitting at the piano playing a few tunes and wondering if I could compose something for her--it's what traditional musicians do for friends who are leaving--when a tune arrived. There's some debate as to whether it's a quickstep, march, reel, or hornpipe, but no matter. It's currently two parts long.
Perhaps "Trip to Oban" would be an appropriate title, after all. What a lovely day!
When can I go back?