Monday, November 26, 2018

Autumn in Aberdeen

Autumn in Aberdeen... It's not quite winter here, but it is getting close to freezing, which you notice most when a solid wind greets you as you turn a street corner. Trying to tidy one's hair is a futile occupation. I bundle up and enjoy my walks each day, which can be an experience in time travel.

The modern route is King Street, where I share my journey with buses, trucks (lorries here), and incredibly brave bicyclists. Most of the granite houses lining the street were built in the late 19th and very early 20th century. It might have been quieter then, but there would have been the sound of cart wheels and carriages on cobbled streets and horses clopping by. At first glance, the houses all look alike, but each has its own way of marking itself as different from its companions.

Tiny gardens decorate the front of some; others prefer the look of unadorned gravel. 

Many houses have low garden walls with mysterious holes in them. The holes are where there used to be iron railings and fences; the railings were sawn off and donated to the government during World War II. (Ironically, they may never have been used.)

Late autumn here is a beautiful time, despite the short days and often rainy, blowy weather. (Sunset is at about 3:30 pm right now, and sunrise is about 8:15 am.) One of my favorite walks is through an old graveyard next to the building my flat is in. The trees have changed color now, and dropped most of their leaves. Astonishingly red berries hang down over gravestones. Frost occasionally whitens the carpet of colourful leaves on the ground.

And in a sheltered planter, it's not unusual to find the last roses of the season.

Another way I like to walk to class is the more leisurely 16th-century route, around the graveyard to the road called The Spital, and on up the High Street, into the old College Bounds. Here, the sounds are people talking as they walk to class, the occasional car tires stuttering along the cobbled streets, and bird calls.

This is the route past the King's College Chapel (1495), Powis Gate (which is not as old as it looks, built in the 1830s), tiny alleyways, and lovely granite walls. It's not the easiest thing to walk on a cobbled street, by the way.

King's Chapel (1495)
Powis Gate (1834)

Alleyway leading to Sir Duncan Rice Library 
from the High Street

Decorated windows along the High Street (the lower one was taken in early November, just after Halloween)

Looking down the High Street from an upstairs window in the old Town House and King's Museum,
University of Aberdeen

And speaking of pumpkins and the Hallowe'en, they celebrate it well here. However, their jack o' lanterns are not exactly like those in the States. It is actually far easier to carve the traditional turnip than a pumpkin, as our director, Dr. Tom McKean, demonstrated. For one thing, they're considerably smaller, and easier to scrape out.

Not unlike other countries, Scotland starts thinking of Christmas not very long after Hallowe'en. The Christmas tree in the market square on Union Street in Aberdeen went up before mid-November!

Christmas tree (photo taken at 7:30 a.m.
--dark mornings here!) 

The harbour at sunrise
On most of my trips outside Aberdeen, I walk down to Union Station to catch the bus or the train, past the market square where the Christmas tree is. The nearby harbour is always full of ships, and the Maritime Museum is definitely worth a visit. Some of medieval Aberdeen is still visible here, if you know where to look for it. The Carmelite Hotel, although 19th century, may have been built on part of the site of the 13th century building housing the Carmelite and Trinitarian friars, who were there for three centuries until they were murdered during the Reformation. What is left now is mostly the names: Carmelite Lane, Carmelite Street (and Car Park), Trinity Street. Place names like Old Blackfriars Pub and Greyfriars Church hint at an older Aberdeen. 

Old Blackfriars Pub, an excellent spot for good beer and great music sessions on Thursday nights!
St Nicholas Kirkyard, adjoining the lovely old church, is an oasis of quiet in the bustling downtown. I like to take a little detour through the graveyard and read the gravestones (there's a good map of them at the entrance). 

There is no oasis of peace and quiet when it comes to seagulls. Seagulls abound here. The biggest seagulls I've ever seen, they are remarkably  aggressive, too. I suppose something is officially a public nuisance if there are signs warning visitors about it...

Crathie Kirk

Several of my out-of-town trips this past month have been out the Deeside Road, which runs along the River Dee just south and west of Aberdeen. Crathie, a idyllic tiny town about two hours' bus trip west, lies beside the River Dee, and has been a favorite retreat for the Royal Family since the 1850s.
The old Crathie post office

The original Crathie post office, built in the mid-1850s, has been owned by the Thomson family of postmasters until this past year, when it was sold. One of the descendants, Bruce Thomson, still lives nearby. He and his wife own the Knock Gallery about a mile from the old post office. It's not only a lovely gallery, but it offers amazing views overlooking Balmoral Castle and dark Lochnagar, a mountain in the Cairngorms, made famous by Robert Burns. 

Lochnagar is a magnet for hikers and rock-climbers, and is notorious for rapidly changeable weather. The picture below is taken from Knock Gallery, looking out at Lochnagar, which at that moment was shrouded in thick clouds.

If I'd just waited another 10 minutes...

View from Knock Gallery, Crathie

Grave of J. Scott Skinner

So...a good part of why I'm here in Scotland is its music. On the early part of the trip from Aberdeen along the River Dee is Allenvale Cemetery, where the great Scottish violinist, J. Scott Skinner, is buried. He was born in Banchory, about halfway between Aberdeen and Crathie. Not only a violinist, he also played the cello, and was an excellent dance-master. He taught dancing for many years at the Balmoral estate in Crathie.

More music, ceilidhs, trips, and news to come! Visits to local violin ceilidhs (Polish and Scottish) organ concert in King's Chapel...a local arboretum...  Next weekend I will be in Sheffield, England, helping out at the Festival of Village Carols, and I will be sure to have some good pictures and recordings of that.

A glimpse of blue sky in a rainy week is welcomed!
Someone thoughtfully tucked a red rose in J. Scott Skinner's cravat.

And...a wildlife sighting in the koi pond of the David Welch Winter Gardens, Aberdeen. Could it be...Nessie?

Thank you for reading this! More stories soon...

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

As promised, Part 2! 

The ferry from Ullapool, on the mainland, to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis (the Outer Hebrides) takes 2-1/2 hours. Once we got out into the open water, away from the sheltering inner islands, The Minch, as it's called, transforms into big rolling waves with a good bit of wind. (There's a great tune called Crossing the Minch, and yes, it was an earworm that day!) We reached Stornoway without any trouble, but we didn't have a lot of time to explore the town that day. We had more surprises in store for us.

First stop: Ness, Isle of Lewis. We visited the Cultural Center there and heard about the projects they are involved in to preserve and encourage the use of Scots Gaelic (pronounced more like the word Gallic than the Irish Gaelic). Only about 18,000 people live on the Isle of Lewis, with another 2,000 on Harris, a very rocky peninsula in the southern part of the island. Everything must be brought in from the mainland. One has to think ahead for grocery shopping...

Our next stop prepared us for how we would be living for the next four days, although we didn't know it yet! The Arnol blackhouses are beautifully preserved and presented traditional cottages, the kind that would have been the main kind of houses in northern Scotland. Walls two feet thick; heavily thatched roof made of layers of wood, heather, and straw; peat fires in the tiny fireplaces; a few tiny windows--all combine to make a rather snug and cosy place to be when the wind and weather are threatening. The weather is always something to consider, and one just learns to dress for it. (Something about there being no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing...)

Our next stop was where we would be living for the next few days: Gearrannan, or Garenin, on the far western coast of Lewis. Perched just out of reach of the sea, surrounded by hills and rocks (and sheep), is a community of blackhouses that was lived in until 1974, when the last three residents were moved to more modern accommodations on the opposite end of the village. The sisters, Anne and Peggy Macleod, probably appreciated the convenience of their new home, but with very mixed feelings. They insisted on being able to have peat fires still. And they were allowed to do so!

We stayed in No. 5, where Peggy and Anne had lived. It had been renovated considerably (we had all the modern conveniences, and bunk beds as well, so we were not roughing it). This had to be a tough life. The sisters never married, and they were fisher folk; they traveled quite far to get work fishing. No grocery stores. Electricity only got there in the 60s; running water about the same time.  

We settled in and explored our new temporary home. The blackhouse across from No. 5 is the museum, and it retains the peat fireplace and much of the way a blackhouse would have been when the sisters lived there. 

The stack of peats was outside in back of the house. Not that different from having logs out back, but the aroma of a peat fire is unique and wonderful. (I wish I could include that peat fire aroma in this short video, but you'll have to imagine it...

On our last night there, the seven students in our programme teamed up to make cullen skink (the recipe is from Alison, who holds the administration of the Elphinstone Institute together!). Cullen skink is a really good hearty soup or stew made of smoked haddock, onions, potatoes, milk and cream.  Even the folks in our group who were hesitant about fish found that it was a pretty darned good stew!

After supper, we had a bit of a ceilidh in the museum blackhouse, gathered around the peat fire, using no lights or electricity. We told stories, sang a few songs, and shared an evening the way it might have been not all that long ago, and that had been that way for centuries.

In our few days at Gearrannan, we made trips to some astounding places.

The Calanais (Callanish) standing stones are awe-inspiring. Situated on a hilltop some 5000 years ago, surrounded by small lochs that reflect the changing clouds and weather, these stones could tell stories...and I wish I could hear all of them.

That night was the autumn equinox. We returned to Calanais through sheets of rain blowing sideways. The weather here is unpredictable and can shift in seconds. Mysteriously, as we drove up the track to the stones, the rain stopped, the wind abated, and a full moon appeared from behind the clouds. We walked silently among the guardian stones in the moonlight, feeling touched by more than a bit of magic. 

Right: Calanais
at night

I wish I had a picture of the next surprise in store for us: As we turned away from the stones to return to the van, a moonbow stretched across the sky in front of us. I had never seen one. A perfect half-circle of shades of grey, a rainbow without the colors!

When we were not at Gearrannan, we took field trips, one to nearby Dun Carloway, an ancient broch tower that was very likely used for shelter and protection from seafaring invaders. 


Beasties in the field around Dun Carloway


Climbing up the hill to Dun Carloway

Another night, we joined the Ness Melodeon Band in a delightful ceilidh at their community center. Much hilarity, dancing, and a bit of spilled beer--a great evening!

On our last full day in Lewis, we drove back across the island to Stornaway to attend a traditional Gaelic church service. Despite not having any Gaelic, I felt as if I were listening to poetry. The Gaelic singing of psalms is lovely, highly ornamented, and very individual.

After we left the church, we drove down along the coast of Lewis, and I was amazed to see wide stretches of pure white sand beaches in places! No wonder the Vikings liked this place. It does have a lot of rocks and a very stony landscape, especially in Harris, but it has a breathtaking beauty.

In Rodel, at the southern tip of Harris, we stopped at St. Clement's Church, a beautiful medieval church built about 1500 by Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris. It is the burial spot of many MacLeods, and it houses some outstanding sculptures (on tombstones, and also embedded in the outside walls). The acoustics in this hall must be fabulous, too...

The beach at Rodel--not white sands, but a peaceful harbour.

Much as we would have liked to spend much more time on Lewis and Harris, after a week of traveling, it was time to head home. We left our comfortable blackhouse, returned to Stornoway, crossed the Minch once more, and drove back across the land of lochs and highland moor and heather. One more stop for us before we were to return to Aberdeen, though--at the Clootie Well of Munlochy, not far from Inverness. 

The Clootie Well is a strange place. It is a remnant of very old ritual and tradition--a holy place where people still come to leave an offering in the well, take a strip of cloth (clootie), and fasten it to a tree. The tradition goes back many centuries, when people did this in the hopes of healing from a disease or illness. As the clootie would gradually disintegrate, so would the disease, or so the belief goes. That doesn't quite explain a hillside of trees festooned not only with hundreds of clootie strips, but also with shoes, bathing suits, shirts, baby clothes, and even a wood plane. It is, however, an undeniably unsettling spot. It is still a powerful holy place--many people come there on Beltain (May 1), but folk come there to leave offerings throughout the year. 


Folklore abounds here.  

And so, we are now back in Aberdeen, once more studying and reading and writing about all these experiences, and learning how to see the world a little differently. Much work ahead, but it is enlightening and rather a lot of fun!

My classmates--the new MLitt students at Elphinstone Institute!

One more short video, taken from the top of the hill behind the Gearrannan blackhouses, overlooking the stop, somewhere north of Newfoundland! And yes, that is the sound of the wind (apologies!)--it's fierce up there.

More soon!