Did you know that I can go to the UK with my Georgia driver’s license and get right on the road? I don’t have to take a test or nothin’ Did you know that they drive on the other side of the road there? Also, what’s a roundabout?
This to my mind indicates either a charming but completely unwarranted faith in Americans, or utter disregard for possible mayhem. I suspect the latter, honestly. I’ve been in a bathroom there, or as I like to call them, death traps. Steps down on slippery tile with no railing, and extra deep tubs that you can’t turn around in, were notable features. It’s like they don’t even know that car wrecks and household accidents are leading causes of death.
What was I saying? Oh yes. Menace on the roads in the form of Americans. A friend of mine went to Ireland and wrecked her rental car…more than once. (And yet they kept giving her another one). She said at one point she yelled out her window “SORRY. I’M NOT DRUNK, I’M JUST AN AMERICAN.”
They have plenty of other random things in the road in rural Scotland. Stereotypically enough, sheep. Also cows, toads, hares, horses, people, dogs, small boys in toy pedal cars, and dormice. And at least one guy in a kilt standing by the side of the road playing bagpipes. This was, I hasten to add, not on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh where one can hardly swing a cat or a sporran without hitting tartan, bagpipes, OR a street performer, but literally in the middle of nowhere. Not a building in sight, much less a tourist. I have no idea what he was doing there. My personal theory is that, much like Athens, Georgia, they have an ordinance that there must be musicians spaced evenly throughout the area, and he was just upholding the law. Whatever the reason, the last time I was in Scotland, I could hear bagpipes playing literally everywhere I went. I mean…again, on the Royal Mile at the height of tourist season, you expect to hear a bagpipe or two. But also in Langholm while grocery shopping*: bagpipes. By the side of the road next to a pasture: bagpipes. After driving through Fife for a couple of hours looking for a replica burial site that you could reputedly go into, getting turned around and climbing a hill past some very surly looking cows and then finding out that it was closed, we gazed across the wooded hills into the distance from whence drifted the wafting sound of….bagpipes.
I can’t say whether it’s normal to have a bagpipe soundtrack in Scotland. I am, as we established last week, the kind of person weird shit happens to. And one of the joys of travel is that it unhinges you from the mundane framework of your daily life. Anywhere can seem magical if you are a stranger. I am just saying that is what happened to me. Also I got mugged by a pair of Scottish horses, but that’s a story for another day…
For the record, I like bagpipes.
Seems like everyone and their coven-mates are going on pilgrimages from the US to various places in the British Isles. There is a religious component to my trip, but I hesitate to call it a pilgrimage. I want to be clear about something: No matter how lofty your spiritual goals and pure your heart, you’re still a tourist. Don’t fool yourself about that. Your mere presence exerts economic pressure, in ways you cannot always control and may not agree with.Look: I am from Appalachia, and there are plenty worse things than tourism. Grinding poverty, black lung, having your forests razed and your mountains blown up. The touristy areas of Appalachia are doing pretty well, comparatively, with more economic opportunity and self-determination. But “better” isn’t always totally good. There’s the rural version of gentrification, where rich people buy up all the pretty views and land prices skyrocket along with taxes, and those whose ancestors resisted the mining companies and the logging companies wind up selling out to a developer. There’s the humiliating economics of playing up to a stereotype because people think it’s “funny” and it sells; I spent my entire childhood seeing images of corncob-pipe-smoking, moonshine-swilling Snuffy Smith-esque hillbillies on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and every possible variety of plastic gew gaw, because tourists. There’s the more subtle othering of romanticism, which I suspect Pagans are more prone to when visiting places like Scotland and Ireland. Surrounded by that lush green and misty landscape, truly ancient megaliths, and buildings older than the United States, it can feel temptingly like you have dropped back through time as well as traveled on an airplane, and signs of “modernity” can feel like intrusions.
Speaking as someone who grew up in a spirit-haunted place full of music, quaint old customs, scenery, and real live folk magic learned from people rather than books, back off of that a little bit. I can talk out a burn. I demonstrably also have a computer, and a graduate degree. And shoes. Those things can coincide. And your judgments about what is or is not “authentic” may do harm, just as much as your stereotypes.
I am not saying don’t go. Obviously. I agree with Mark Twain that travel is good for the soul. I am just saying…when you travel somewhere, be in the place that is, not the place of your imagination. Reality is always richer and more profound. And pay attention to the road.
*YOU GUYS. They have store brand Scotch there. And because they feel about their whisky the way the French feel about wine, it’s pretty decent. Because why bother otherwise. A person might fall on hard times and occasionally need to buy some store brand booze. But they shouldn’t have to suffer.
My son said he wanted to see people throw logs and hurl axes. Help me take him to a Highland Games: