Unless I’m mistaken, my father sailed from the United States on the Aquitania, a sister vessel to the ill-starred Lusitania, and came ashore in the United Kingdom somewhere in the Firth of Clyde. And I believe that I may have seen the place yesterday; our superb, kilt-wearing, tenor-singing Scots guide, John, pointed out a place across the Firth where there was an American military base during World War II. But I don’t know its name. Anyway, the likely spot is over by what I think is called the “Holy Island,” where there was a Polaris missile submarine base for many years during the Cold War.
We landed yesterday morning at Glasgow. Or, more precisely, at Greenock, which is some distance west of Glasgow on the shore of the Firth of Clyde. In fact, we never so much as saw the city of Glasgow. Instead, we went another direction, and it delighted me.
We drove down into Ayrshire, the home of my Scottish maternal ancestors, through a coastal town called Largs. Just outside the town, a battle was fought in 1263 AD between Alexander III, the king of nascent Scotland, and Haakon, the Norwegian ruler of the Isle of Man and the Hebrides. Haakon lost, thus (as it turned out) ensuring that Scotland would not be Norse, and retreated to the Isle of Orkney, where he died. This was the beginning of the end of Scandinavian power in Scotland. However, Scandinavian influence was and remains substantial – and I’m beginning to think that it may be even more significant to me personally than I had realized: I’m Norwegian, Danish, English, and Scottish. Thus, I’m fifty percent Scandinavian to start with. But Yorkshire, where my English ancestors lived, was, for a long time, the center of Danish rule in the British Isles, so it’s not unlikely that I have Danish blood in me from the little villages around Selby (the name of which is transparently Scandinavian, as is, less obviously, that of Riccall, where my direct ancestry last lived in England). And it’s possible that the long Norwegian presence along the Ayrshire coast had a genetic impact, as well. Our guide, a native of the general area, believes that he himself has Scandinavian ancestry for that reason, so it’s not impossible that I do, too.
The pride of Ayrshire, and indeed of Scotland, is the poet Robert Burns, who was born in Alloway and spent his earliest years there. His father, William, is buried beside a now-ruined church in the village. We visited his father’s cottage, and the extensive modern gardens that surround it, along with the very fine National Trust visitor center near the site. It really helped me to get in touch with my inner Scotsman.
The area around the cottage is very beautiful, including a massive monument to the poet, and the weather was, once again, utterly perfect.
Also nearby is the Brig O’Doon, a bridge over the River Doon, which gave us the name of the eponymous mythical village in the musical Brigadoon. We walked over the bridge, but saw no village. Bad timing, I guess. It only appears every hundred years.
There’s a Robert Burns story associated with the Brig O’Doon that some may recognize, about a man named Tam O’Shanter (hence the name of the Scottish hat). He was out getting thoroughly smashed one night, and then rode home, clinging to his horse, Maggie. But, passing by the graveyard where William Burns now lies and its already-ruined church, he saw lights in the building where no lights should have been. Investigating, he saw witches and warlocks dancing. But they spotted him, and the witches came after him. He leapt onto his horse and begged her to save him, so they made for the Brig O’Doon, beyond which those witches were somehow forbidden to pass. As he made for the top of the bridge, one of the witches made one last lunge for him, but all she got was Maggie’s tail, leaving faithful Maggie only a stump as a reward for saving Tam.
The legendary Scots guerrilla fighter William Wallace (aka Mel Gibson) was also born in Ayrshire, as was the great early-fourteenth-century king of Scotland, Robert Bruce.
As you can perhaps sense, although I’ve never paid a lot of attention to my Scots background before (I’ve long been focused more on my Scandinavian heritage), this visit has greatly heightened my interest in them. Our prior visit to Yorkshire had much the same effect with regard to my English ancestry.
Our last major stop of the tour was at Culzean Castle (pronounced something like Kullayn, with the emphasis on the second syllable). It was designed in the early eighteenth century by the architect Robert Adam for the Scottish Kennedy family (unrelated to the Irish Kennedys with whom Americans are so familiar), and is quite attractive. It’s the setting, though, that is positively stunning. The castle sits on a cliff overlooking the Firth of Clyde and across to the Isle of Arran and to the strange, large, pyramidal volcanic plug, known popularly as “Paddy’s Milestone,” that sits out in the Firth.
The Kennedys got the property in the century or so after Henry VIII’s English Reformation, during which he “dissolved” all the monasteries and looted them, often giving their buildings and lands and possessions out as rewards to his partisan cronies. In a hurry, the then-laird of the Kennedys seized the abbot of the monastery and slow-roasted him alive, demanding that he sign everything over. Finally, the poor man gave in and signed. But the local people, including activist Protestant leaders, were so disgusted by the brutality of the Kennedys in extorting the place from the abbot that they actually gave the property back to the monks – I find the conclusion of this horrible story at least slightly comforting – and the site continued as a monastic settlement for decades more, until the monks passed away by attrition. It was the last functioning monastery in Scotland. Still, the Kennedys ultimately got the place.
Touring the old house, by the way, filled me with melancholy. The people who built it and lived in it are long dead, the laughter of the children long gone. The building has been restored, but the carpets and fixtures have, unavoidably, aged. It acutely reminds me of the transiency of human life. The stones remain, but the people, though incomparably more interesting and valuable, are gone. It also convinces me that – though I once dreamed of being an architect, frustrated only by my utter lack of visual-arts talent (a defect that plainly hasn’t discouraged some architects) – music and literature are the more durable, quasi-eternal arts. Old buildings decay and fall. Old paintings fade and grow dark. But a great poem is as fresh today as it was when it was written, and a Beethoven symphony or a Bach prelude is newly reborn with each performance.
Driving back from Ayrshire, we passed through some of the once most elegant homes of Greenock and made a picture stop at the local Latter-day Saint chapel.
This Scottish guide, John, and our Latter-day Saint guide in and around Preston, Peter Fagg, have been so outstandingly good that Diane Larsen (aka The Cruise Lady) is now contemplating the possibility of a land tour, separable into two parts, of England/Wales and Scotland — perhaps even next year — dedicated to general British history, Latter-day Saint history in the British Isles, and literature. She wants to involve me and my wife, too. Anybody interested? At least in principle? Details still need to be worked out, and my availability isn’t certain yet. I’ve got lots of work to do, even in my current slightly diminished state, and I can’t always be on the road. But I would love to do such a thing, and I have to say that travel focused on history and literature recharges my batteries in a remarkable way, and gives me lots of ideas for teaching and writing.
Fourteen hours out of Greenock, Scotland.