Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Happy birthday, Robert Burns!

January 25, 1759...the birthdate of Robert Burns. 
Sketch of Burns by Lisa McDonald, 2009

The 'ploughman poet' of Scotland is celebrated all over the world in a month or so of Burns Suppers, with variations on the same program that includes bagpipes 'piping in the haggis' as it is carried proudly into the dining hall, the Selkirk Grace said before eating, the famous address to the haggis, a toast to the 'immortal memory' of Robert Burns himself, a toast to the lassies and of course, the 'reply', and music, whisky, dancing, and readings from Burns' works. (The National Library of Scotland posted a link to a short 1953 film of Burns' Tam o' Shanter--worth watching!) The Burns Night tradition began not long after Burns died in 1796. It is a wonderful and companionable way to celebrate in the midst of a dreary time of year.

I found an interesting and well-written guide to having your own Burns Supper event here. Lots of interesting tidbits--about Burns, traditions, the lovely Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat an' canna eat
An' some wad eat that want it
But we hae meat an' we can eat
An' sae let the Lord be thankit.

The Selkirk Grace was around long before Burns. But he is said to have recited the blessing at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk, hence its name. 


This January has been the usual kind of midwinter chilly month, a time of waiting – for a bit of warmer sun to encourage bulbs to spring forth; for a newer, kinder leadership; for a chance to draw a deeper breath and feel that things will be all right. 

Since last Spring, as the reality of the pandemic settled into our consciousness, I have been taking photographs each day of things I find that bring me joy--flowers, birds, clouds, sunrises, sunsets. I post them on Instagram and Facebook to offset some of the rampant negativity. 

As we wend our way through winter, I feel like I am having trouble finding 'interesting' pictures to share. No spectacular flowers yet. None of the usual 'wow' pictures that pretty much stage themselves. I have to look a little closer, a little more microscopically to see patterns and beauty. 

It's a good exercise for me--finding something remarkable and beautiful every day and sharing it. 

So here are a few of my recent finds. Nothing earth-shaking or worthy of publication, just glimpses of a bit of the world as I see it.

I love late afternoon light - the 'golden hour'. Edges of things become sharper, more dramatic. What I sometimes fail to see at noontime pops out and is suddenly rather magical. (And as my eyesight isn't getting better, this is all the more fun. Cataract surgery is in my near future...)

Sometimes I don't have my camera in my pocket, and almost inevitably that is when something really interesting appears. Then I must rely on words to relay that story. 

I was sitting on a garden bench last week in an almost-warm afternoon, and heard a familiar bird song. Bluebirds? I hadn't seen a one since September. But there was more than one, a lot more. I looked up to see a beech tree, still clad with its crispy brown leaves, inhabited by at least 15 bluebirds having a conversation amongst themselves, not in the least disturbed by this lowly human watching them. Bright flashes of blue amongst the beech was lovely. Turns out one of my neighbors has a feeder that they use as a communal hangout nearby. They are all around her front porch!

And then there are the more down-to-earth denizens...bright ornamental kale!

There are always interesting patterns to see, as in the winged elm trees and reflections in the small lakes I often walk beside...  

  Paths along the lakes and ponds are well cleared, but not manicured.   

Until a year or two ago, there were several beavers who enjoyed pruning the smallish trees along the edge of the water. Sadly, the beavers needed to be relocated to a place where it didn't matter if they caused a little ponding and flooding in folks' back yards. But evidence of the beavers' work still remains...


If I think to look down at my feet as I walk (the saying 'dig where you stand' comes to mind) I might notice other, more mundane evidence of animal life preserved in a sidewalk...

And when I'm back home, not walking and looking for bits of beauty outside, I'm continuing the unusual luxury of reading. 

Last night, I finished reading Nan Shepherd's little gem of a book, The Living Mountain. It bears a second (and third, and fourth, etc.) reading. 

I'd heard about Nan Shepherd when I was living in Aberdeen (she taught English literature at Aberdeen University until she retired in 1956), but I never took the time to read her novels, or this little book, which I just discovered a few weeks ago. I thought it was a book about the Cairngorms, the mountains I drove around in a great deal while I was there, talking with people who lived in little towns at the foot of the mountains. So I was surprised to find that it is about the mountains, and yet not just about the mountains. It is more about the connectedness of people and nature, and how the natural world directly affects our own well-being. Nan Shepherd was a hill-walker, a visionary, and a startlingly good writer. Her prose is poetic, incisive, and visual. 

I want to read The Living Mountain again; I missed so much this first time around.

And so here it is, two days after the official Burns Night celebrations, two days later than I had intended to finish this entry. As Burns wrote, 'the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley'. (Burns Night celebrations are still ongoing, and will continue well into February!)

Today I will finish this latest rambling series of thoughts and send it out into the world to my friends. Be well, stay safe. And thank you for reading this with me.

All the best,

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The first week of a new year


We made it through the first week of 2021. Let's hope the next few weeks are less exciting and stressful.

For John and me, it's been a good week for just staying put and catching up on things, focusing on the world in a more positive way. 

I've been reading, a rare activity for me in the old days when I was driving all over the eastern US for gigs. I have more time for reading now, and I want to use it. Margaret Fay Shaw's From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides is a lovely picture of her life as she grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (by way of Philadelphia, New York City, Glasgow, and Paris). I found myself thinking as I read how lucky she was to appear on the scene as important things happened, the dream of every photographer and writer, I suppose. She captures glimpses of old traditions, songs, ways of life, skills, and reflects on them; she herself was part of them, too, as an observer and participant. 

Now I am reading about the Stevenson lighthouses in Scotland, how Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather, father, uncles, and various other relations were lighthouse designers and engineers. From 1811 through the late 1930s, they were responsible for designing many important lighthouses in the Orkney Islands, Shetland, Lindisfarne, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, and numerous lighthouses along Scotland's coastal waters. I can see where Robert Louis Stevenson's novels might have found their backdrops...he had a lot of opportunity to visit many of these lighthouses, although he disappointed his father a bit by becoming a man of letters rather than an engineer. An interesting mix of history and reflection, The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst is opening my eyes to a lot more than just the beautiful scenery of Scotland.

Today, after a bit of snow decorated the shrubs overnight, I decided to catch up on a few things outside our new home, like cleaning out and refilling bird feeders, tidying up, and finding new homes for things stuffed unceremoniously into corners. One item I picked up was a quirky carved statue of St Francis that a friend gave to John years ago; it has hung outside of our house(s) for years, much beloved by animals. It looks like it, too...the squirrels long ago took a great liking to his face and hands.

St Francis is an unofficial patron saint around here, as shown by a nearby large statue of him that some of the resident workmen carved from a dead tree; it graces the corner of our street in Twin Lakes. He still has his face and hands, unlike our much-beloved carving.

I desperately needed a way to secure the top of a bird seed canister, a supposedly rodent-proof galvanized container that sits outside the back door on the patio. More than once I have found not one, but two squirrels sitting inside the container, chowing down on the bird seed. They are smart creatures; lids and locking handles don't even slow them down. Perhaps St Francis could help out. I wedged our well-chewed statue under the handle. It fit beautifully, and seems to work pretty darn well. Now our new guardian of the bird seed can makes it impossible (I believe) for a squirrel to actually get a grip on the lid and pry it off. 

Nevertheless, they persist...

(Apologies for the screen blur in this picture taken through the window. Squirrels have great peripheral vision, are fast, and are very good at leaving in a hurry.) I took this picture about 20 minutes after St Francis began his new job as bird seed guardian. 

There's probably a small council of squirrels meeting at this very moment, contemplating how to break into the bird seed can. 

I know a lot of folks don't think much of squirrels. Glorified tree rats. Bandits. Sneaky thieves. My dad tried his best to thwart their efforts at emptying the bird feeders (as do I), and once or twice resorted to BB guns (I won't do that). But whatever you think about them, they're entertaining, acrobatic, and occasionally hilarious. I loved watching red squirrels in Scotland, and black squirrels I've seen in Maryland and in Toronto. 'Shadow-tails' are well-named!
We do have a little wildlife hereabouts, although nothing particularly exotic (a good thing, I suppose). Bluebirds, mockingbirds, chickadees, Carolina wrens, cardinals, rufous-sided towhees, brown-headed nuthatches, red-tailed hawks, chipmunks, bats, and rabbits all abound, and I glimpsed a fox trotting through the grove of trees in back of our house the other day. The balance of nature... 

Enough for this week! Not exciting stuff, but that might be a welcome contrast to what's in the news. One last thought: someone asked me the other day about studying in Scotland and what it was like. I was interviewed by Jamie McGeechan of The American Scottish Foundation in late 2020, and he asked me a lot of questions about that. Many of you reading this blog already know some of the experiences I had and how I came to be in Aberdeen and at the Elphinstone Institute for a year. The podcast with Jamie, however, focuses a little more on it, and I was happy to talk with him and to be a part of the ASF's exploration of topics about Scotland. (Some good marketing soul suggested that I post the podcast on my website home page, so I have done that. I'm not very good at marketing.)

Stay well, be peaceful. And thanks for reading this!


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Here begins a new year, and a new journal. Welcome!

Looking out my windows at a raw, rainy, foggy day at the beginning of a new year. The last year was any number of uncomplimentary adjectives: challenging, difficult, horrible, deadly, and of course, the word I refuse to employ ever again, 'unpr*******ed'. One of our neighbors gave us a Christmas ornament that sums it up nicely.

The Grinch

I hope 2021 will be a little less stinky. Is that hope I see way off on the horizon? Maybe.

In the meantime, we will stay more or less to ourselves, cautiously avoiding close quarters with other folks, and trying to stay out of the way of the Covid-19 virus and all of its emerging variants. Perhaps by mid-2021 we will be able to emerge, like songbirds huddling in the shelter of shrubbery after hawks pass by. 

This past year has not been entirely awful, at least not for John and me. It has been a time when we accomplished a move from our house of sixteen years in Raleigh, North Carolina to a retirement community in Elon, North Carolina. (If I had to lose every gig for the foreseeable future, this was a good time, I suppose.) We downsized. We set up a new house and established new friends and relationships in a safe community with good medical support for John. They have a nice sense of fun here, too, and they love decorating for holidays (especially Christmas). It's meant a fresh start on new gardens, assisted by some transplants from the old ones. John has had weekly gatherings with his children and grandchildren on Zoom, and we have had a number of large family gatherings this way. It's different, but rather fun!

Reflections in the lake near us

I have (gratefully) learned how to teach fiddle lessons online via Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Hangouts, Google Meet. I learned how to record myself and layer in harmony parts so I could post English country dance recordings on BandCamp for dancers and teachers. I have been able to join my friends at the Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society for weekly rehearsals and workshops, and have joined various international sessions. I participated in an online international conference on Traditional Tunes and Popular Airs and presented a paper, recorded beforehand. ( to video oneself giving a PowerPoint presentation on Zoom...and edit out all the 'umm' noises? Another darn learning curve.) I even have a short article coming out in Fiddler Magazine in 2021! 

New tricks...and our sense of 'place' has suddenly shifted from geographic to time zone-centered. All these wonderful connections would not have been possible, ironically, had it not been for a pandemic. 

The sadder part is, of course, the loss of friends and relatives to Covid-19. We've had too much of that.

Fingers crossed...I think we might make it through all this. As a flight instructor told me many years ago, 'just keep that artificial horizon the right way up!' Bumpy flight so far, a few red lights are on, but we're still in the air...

Cheers, and all the best for this coming year.


Sunday, November 24, 2019

A closing chapter

20 November 2019, Elphinstone Hall, University of Aberdeen. 

A windy, grey day in late autumn, with a bite in the air that suggests winter might not be far off. Thankfully, it is not pouring rain, and that is a great thing as the five of us MLitt students trek across campus in our billowy graduation gowns to the heart of Old Aberdeen and New King's Chapel. There, we sit with several hundred other students awaiting instructions about how to proceed with our graduation ceremony.

The Sacrist (the person in charge of the proceedings) and half a dozen assistants come around to each of us, checking our names and positions in line, making sure that we process in the correct order and end up in the right seats in Elphinstone Hall, where we will be presented to the Chancellor, and be granted our degrees. The music of bagpipes grows closer and greets us as we walk single file to the Hall and process up the center aisle to our seats. I feel just a little teary, but take a deep breath as I look up at the beautiful arched ceiling and oak-panelled walls.

It is a bit like stepping back a century or two. The graduation ceremony in Elphinstone Hall is in Latin. Sitting there under the gaze of Mary Stuart (in one of the oil paintings in gilded frames hanging above me on the wall), singing the words of the medieval Latin student song "Gaudeamus Igitur," I can easily imagine being a scholar here a couple of centuries ago, breathlessly awaiting the conferral of an academic degree.

The relatively new Elphinstone Hall where we sit is a twentieth-century replacement of the old Great Hall, built to recall an earlier era in Old Aberdeen's history. It feels ancient, the home of old traditions. As each of us hears our name called, we walk onto the stage where our professors are seated and receive the traditional tap on the head with a ceremonial cap, conferring our degrees on us with the phrase, "Et te creo," meaning (roughly) "I make you [a master of your discipline], also." The Sacrist places our colorful silk hoods over our heads, and we turn and walk down the center stairs of the stage back to our seats, suddenly changed into masters and doctors!

It happened so quickly, but it was a magical day, the culmination of a journey that I started in September 2018 with the help of many friends. In the year I was in Aberdeen, I made still more friends, learned much, and also discovered that I have much more to learn. There's no end to it!

(L to R) Dr Tom McKean,
Dr Frances Wilkins, and
Nicolas Le Bigre,
our very patient teachers and mentors
(Photo by Mara Shea)
From a video posted on YouTube by the University of Aberdeen 

(L to R) Dr Tom McKean, Mara Shea, Eleanor Telfer,
Wenqiu Chen, Anne Greig, Rebecca Palomino,
Dr Frances Wilkins, and Nicolas Le Bigre, Teaching Fellow
(Photo by Simon Gall, Elphinstone Institute)

So, part of a journey is completed. More adventures lie ahead, in what form I don't know quite yet. But I do know there are wonderful, kind, and positive friends in Aberdeen and throughout the world who love traditions – music, dance, stories, beliefs – and I am grateful for them. 

And I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Counting down the days

Saturday morning, last day in August, rainy, blowy, fairly cool. For the past ten days, I've been staying in a cottage (the former hayloft of the stables), part of a delightful 18th-century house about 10 miles north of Aberdeen, enjoying gardens, good friends, birds, bats, and peace and quiet while I finished writing my dissertation. Only a few more days left here in Aberdeen. This year has flown past! The great news is that yesterday I pressed the "Send" button on my dissertation draft, and several copies are now waiting for me in the University of Aberdeen Print Shop. I'll pick them up Monday morning and submit them to the Elphinstone Institute. With luck, I've passed this coursework and all the requirements for the Master of Letters in Ethnology and Folklore! And I have really enjoyed the journey.

It's been a whirlwind year full of discovery and new experiences and understanding. I've learned a lot about what 'folklore' means. I understand Scots dialects a bit more than I could a year ago. I've been a part of an affa lot of strathspey and reel societies, fiddle rallies, Galoshins plays, academic conferences, pub sessions, Highland Games, country dance classes. So many new friends, new places, new sounds, and great memories. I'm just plain grateful.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me in this adventure, read this blog, asked me what in the world I was doing this for (it made me think), and shared it with me. I thought I would pick out a few photos of special moments and post them here. I'm afraid to look at how many pictures I have accumulated in my Google Photos, but it's a lot more than twelve. Here are just a few, no worries...

Thursday evenings at Old Blackfriars,
a great pub on Union Street in Aberdeen

Some wonderful musicians come to share tunes...

Playing for Scottish country dancing weekends and for the Wednesday evening classes... Accordionist Frank Thomson is a wonderful mentor and musical companion! It's not all work, either, as you can see from this picture of musicians, dancers, and dance teacher trying to negotiate a seven-seater cycle at Millport Weekend in Cumbrae in May 2019!

Travelling around Aberdeenshire...remembering things I have seen

Pictish stone at Migvie Church, near Tarland and Logie-Coldstone

Enjoying a breezy day at Dunnottar Castle

Exploring ruins of (new) Slains Castle

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is an older Slains Castle (its remnants now a garden feature beside someone's house along the sea)...but the somewhat newer one is definitely more dramatic. Not to be confused with the Slain's Pub in Aberdeen...

And one of my favorites is the Bullers of Buchan, a remarkable sculpture made by the North Sea.

Seacoast scenery is amazing.

Exploring the dramatic, precipitous cliffs of Findlater Castle just before an impressive not to go scrambling up and down in a rainstorm!

Highland Games...Aberdeen, Aboyne, Ballater, Lonach...each with a little different personality.

Local bagpipe band competitions, the Lonach Gathering, beating the retreat, the showies (rides and sideshows) are all part of the fun!



Picking black currants at a beautiful farm called Tillydaff, a little west of Aberdeen, and enjoying the bees, the chooks (chickens), and kitties... 

Exploring coastal towns, like Stonehaven... 

And where there is coastline, there are the ever-present seagulls!

It is now Tuesday night, September 3. Autumn is coming to Aberdeen. The new students have arrived at the University, and seeing them walking through the lovely old campus reminds me of a year ago, when I arrived here. It's time... I have submitted my dissertation, said many goodbyes, tried to catch up with as many friends as possible. In a few hours, I fly back to North Carolina. So many memories, so many pictures, so many good friends. I hope to be back in Aberdeen soon. For now, though, I will return to friends and family in Raleigh, and share what I have found here in this lovely place. 

Till soon! Many thanks to every one of you reading this.