Old Daily Shows--February 2004

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Wednesday February 18, 2004 Trip to Stirling

I decided it was time for a field trip. Too much time in Glasgow, you know? Trying to figure out where to go, I hit on Stirling. It's accessible by bus, has an interesting set of sights, and seemed pretty the one time I drove past it. So Stirling it was. The following is from my paper journal, which I brought with me.

18 February 2004--Stirling, sitting on a bench--12:15 pm
From where I stand, I can see much of Scotland's central belt, with Stirling the popular and often-contested buckle. I'm sitting on a bench at the top of the Top of the Town cemetery. What a beautiful place--either to visit or to be buried. I decided on the spur of the moment last night that it was time to get out of Glasgow, even just for a day trip. Time to break the routine. As the Watson people say, "there's such a lot of world to see." I need to put some miles on these hiking boots, need to walk the earth rather than wearing them down on hard, abrasive pavement.

So I'm here, having spent £4.75 on a return bus ticket. Couldn't have picked a better day for it--the air is cool but pleasant--maybe 40F--with a light breeze to freshen it. The sun is beating down, warming me and reminding me that I've left my sunscreen in my flat. As I sit now, I face southwest, looking onto plains and hills behind. A placard atop this rock names it Ladle's Rock, and calls those fells the Fintry Hills. "If you cam' wi' me tae Fintry . . . ." From the south, they're called the Campsie Fells. To the west is a long, flat valley, girded by the bare rock peaks of my beloved Highlands. Lochs Lomond and Katrine are none too far away--20 miles to the west.

Stirling controls the major access lanes to Fife and the Highlands, and thus its strategic importance in the age of infantry warfare cannot be overstated. You can see nearly all the way across Scotland from this volcanic plug seated on the plains. Passing Stirling to the east is difficult due to its position at the head of the apparently treacherous Firth of Forth. A garrison here, particularly one of horse, could control most of Scotland. This has been shown time and again. There are five--I think--major battlefields within a stone's throw of Stirling, ranging from Stirling Bridge to the renowned Bannockburn.

As I look at the trees below (oak, I think, with ivy and a bit of mistletoe in the very tops) I am distracted by quiet footsteps behind me. A pair of young Canadians, silent as I am. A boy about my size, brown hair, and a beautiful young woman with long red hair. All at once, my heart is in my throat. The two are clearly in love--it shows in all they do, from the way they gently hold hands to the way they point out sights to each other. They have easy, relaxed smiles. How lovely it must be to share these spaces with the ones you love! They've gone now, together, but I will remember them. I am glad that love still exists in the world, quietly, when the news is full of war, strife, and troubles.

Oh! A squirrel! Just a grey one, but a squirrel nonetheless!

So this was a volcano, once. There's a lot of iron in the rock.

Same place, 4:35 pm

The sun has moved and so have I. I've been to the castle, walked all around it, seen the guided tour (free with your £8 (!) admission ticket--why they advertise a student rate that's identical to the adult rate is beyond me), and walked the parapets. What a terrible thing war must be. It brings it home to see all the varied instruments of death in serried ranks, and to see the dents from cannonball impacts in the walls of a castle built more than half a millennium ago. How many people died to preserve political control here?

In the museum of Argyll's Lodging, a huge manor house owned and built by William Alexander, I was struck by the pervasive use of one kind of phrase. Alexander was always spending masses of cash to enlarge his (already huge) mansion, so that it might "reflect his status in society." Or else had to have a bigger mansion because that "befitted a man of his station." How much different would the world be if nobody had such status as to require huge mansions and conspicuous displays of expense? Or even if were all free to desire as we wished, rather than worrying what our station demanded we desire? A lot of the improvements to Stirling's castle were made for James V, at huge cost. He spent two days in the castle during the rest of his life.

Why does this worry me so much? I guess it's just that there's such an easy slip from "the Baron has more wealth than you" to "the Baron has more worth than you." This is not a new thought, I know, but maybe it bears repeating. Is it that I'm unused to a society with an overt titular aristocracy?

Jet contrails in a limpid cloudless sky, the Crags of Stirling (whose 2/4 march hasn't left my head all day) at my back, the setting sun touching my face as it drops below the Campsies. A light haze is falling over the southern hills of the Highlands, turning them a lovely shade of ochre, varied with what my art teacher called "aerial perspective"--the distance effect. It's cold here now, on this rocky spur--the sun gives little warmth at this hour. I've watched the fields all day. Covered with frost when I arrived; some of it burned off throughout the day, as the sun shone down. The frost always stayed where there was shadow, though. Now the entire valley is shadowed and filled with afternoon birdsong, and frosty white has crept back along the fields. Another minute or two, and the sun will have gone.

And now it has. The chill has deepened, and I begin to notice the wind. Time to see where it takes me next.

5:40 pm, Hog's Head pub, Baker Street, Stirling

Hogshead seems to be a chain of pubs throughout Scotland, doubtless named for the 63-gallon barrel of ale. Nothing special, but much better than many pubs--comfortable chairs, music that isn't too loud, and a traditional feel. This is definitely a pub, not a bar or a club or a brasserie or a . . . . It's well lit and comfy, and the pint of Flowers Original (lightly malty but with good flavor--a bit of bittering hopes) they placed before me is properly cool and wonderfully clear. Scotland has taught me so much about beer. The French mock the Brits for drinking their beer tiède, lukewarm, but they're wrong: it's cool, not warm. Not tooth-painfully cold, either. Cool enough to refresh; warm enough to allow the flavor to show. This one was drawn from a traditional English hand pump, rather than a Scottish fountain. Both give the same effect: a pint that is worlds away from fizzy, chemical, mass-produced lager!

Interesting how differently people behave in pubs. Some are quiet observers, like me today. Others hold forth at great length on any topic you can devise, and do so loudly enough that you can share--partake, pardon me--in their knowledge from across the room. Drink deep at the well of their wisdom, as it were. I wonder, somehow, if this isn't related to the conspicuous luxury I wrote about earlier. Is carefully sharing your views with the world in a fashion they cannot ignore the same thing as impressing them with the sheer length, width, breadth, depth, strength, and prowess of your bank account, only accomplished with lesser means? I'm not sure. Or have I mistaken myself, in supposing that all people value calm and quiet as I do? Perhaps to those others, I stick out as they do to me, pulling down at their good times through my shy smile and few words. I wonder.

It's six o'clock. I have a half-pint of ale, and five hours until the last bus leaves for Glasgow. How shall I spend my time? I thought of going for a restaurant meal, but I may skip it after the £8 castle entry fee. Still, some food would go nicely. I brought water, apples, and peanuts with me, but something substantial might work better.

And the bar is playing "Smooth". That was so totally the song of going to college for me. I'd heard it on the radio all the time the summer before, and so Shye gave me a single of it as a going-away present. It was the first song I played on my computer at Swat, and thus began a tradition--each semester, "Smooth" always kept pride of place as the first song to be played. In the spring, it was quiet and restrained, but in the fall . . . . Always it was with the bass thumping, speakers placed in and pointing out the open window. Cheers when people heard, and thus was the tradition born.

Here in Scotland, I don't remember what I played. That CD, along with many others, stayed at home to save on weight. I went through a purification ritual of sorts to come here, reducing my belongings to the nugget of what was actually needed. Will the same happen to my personality? How many facets of my life will burn away like dross in the refiner's fire of a Watson year? What will I discover that was previously hidden by the base metals? What if it's all base metals? What if nothing changes? Will I notice the changes? Will you?

Slowly but surely, I am learning. No without toil, but what thing worth the having comes without effort? But my pipe is sounding good, and my teachers--all of them--praised my playing yesterday. Paul--in what sounds a backhanded comment but was sincerely meant--said that after hearing me playing my piobaireachd yesterday in another room, he was surprised to hear that I was the one playing. He'd thought it was Calum or Chris. This pleases me because Calum and Chris are both fantastic players, who've been playing in grade 1 bands for years. I'm not on their level yet, but it's nice that, in moments of good playing, I can blur the line enough to make it confusing.

Time to get some food into me, I think.

And that was that. I saw two cats--one in Stirling, who rubbed along my leg and said hello at length. We had a good headscritching session, and then Cat had work to do. It's tough keeping an eye on the whole Royal Burgh of Stirling, after all. The other cat was in a carrier on the bus, looking a bit frightened but behaving very well. Nice cats all. The buses for the day were occasionally a bit silly--two things that buses should never do: (1) leave early; (2) leave from gates other than the one posted, if any is posted. Also, I should remember to eat food before 7 pm. But on the whole, the day was fantastic. Yay!

Please size your window so this bar is the same width as the
white table