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. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Into the home stretch...just a few months to go!

Lambing season has been busy around here!
Exams are over, friends and family have come to visit, I have spent some time exploring in London, attended a folklore conference in Hertfordshire, and after coming home and replenishing my sleep supply, I'm feeling slightly more organised. I've had a few days of doing very little academic work (I needed a short break, and I very much needed to catch up on laundry and house cleaning), and now it's time to settle into a new routine of pulling the threads of all my research together and weaving something from it.

One of the things that we were required to do this past term was to make a short film about something related to ethnology or tradition in Scotland. We split up into three teams of two people each. After batting some ideas around for potential topics, my film partner and I decided to do something on a local fiddle maker and repairer, Ian Greig, who lives in Banchory, about 45 minutes' drive from Aberdeen. 

Several people have asked if I would share the film, so with some trepidation, I will! Be merciful. ;)
It's too large to put in this blog, as it's about 9 minutes long, so here is a link to it, if you're interested:

Since my last post, I've been to a lovely place not too far from Glasgow, called Cumbrae. It's a small island in the Firth of Clyde.
The Loch Shira ferry between Largs and Cumbrae
The only way out to it is by ferry, which stays busy--it's a popular place to enjoy some beautiful scenery. Our host, Jimmie Hill, took us on some trips around the island to enjoy its history and landscape (thank you, Jimmie!). This short video is a 360-degree view from the top of Cumbrae. (It's windy there, by the way.)

And a grand way to enjoy some of that scenery and beautiful weather, we discovered, was to rent a unique contraption called a conference bicycle (tricycle?) and dodge traffic on the front street along the harbour. It takes teamwork (seven people pedalling, with one steering), and it's a lot of fun. Here's a bit of live action:

Potholes and unprotected edges along the harbour wall are to be avoided at all costs.... 

It's a bit tricky taking photos while propelling a conference bicycle! When our hour was up and we'd had fun dodging buses and cars (we missed hitting the police car!) and had some other adventures involving driving through a classic car rally, it was time for ice cream.  

Cumbrae is a beautiful spot to visit, and it has had its share of visitors over the past millenium or so. Vikings were a powerful force in the western isles from about 800 AD, frequently raiding from across the North Sea. In 1263, not far from today's ferry mooring, King HÃ¥kon IV of Norway and his forces were defeated and driven out of Cumbrae. It was the last time a Norwegian king would mount a military assault on Scotland. For a bit more information on Cumbrae:

Back in Aberdeenshire, puffin nesting season is here, and I am on a quest to see some puffins. When friends from North Carolina visited a few weeks ago, we went up to several beautiful spots north of Aberdeen on the east coast. We saw splendid seascapes and rocky coastlines, but no puffins! We saw thousands of other birds, though, as we walked carefully along the tops of steep cliffs near Cruden Bay and saw the amazing Bullers of Buchan, mountains of rocks along the coast that have been carved out by the sea over time:

The waves have created several dramatic arches like this one along the North Sea coast, as they eat their way through the ancient rock. There are nesting seabirds everywhere--cormorants, kittiwakes, razorbills, auks, guillemots--but no puffins that day. Another time...

The Bullers are impressive. Narrow, deep paths trace the contours of the sea coast cliffs. You need to watch where your feet go. An occasional rocky beach comes into view. It's hard to see the scale of these cliffs, but you can get an idea if you see two very small humans climbing down to the large boulders on the beach...

Not far from the Bullers of Buchan, the ruins of Slains Castle perch on top of the cliffs. There are two Slains Castles, one old and one new. (Actually three, if you count a pub called that in Aberdeen.) This one with the bay windows overlooking a seascape is the New Slains. It has had layers of fortress / house / castle / built onto it since around 1597, when it was built onto an older tower house by the Earl of Errol. It was added onto in 1664, and again in 1836. Bram Stoker is said to have stayed here in the late 19th century, and it may have been the inspiration for his 1897 novel, Count Dracula. (I believe it.) Samuel Johnson and James Boswell did indeed stay here, and there is a delightful account of their visits to both Slains Castle and to the Bullers of Buchan. Boswell points out that Bullers is probably derived from the English word boiler, and that makes a great deal of sense, as you watch the roiling waves smash their way into the spaces and crevices in the rocky coastline. 

The older Slains Castle, by the way, is a hulking 12th-century ruin about 5 miles farther down the coast. It also belonged to the Earl of Errol (he who built the new Slains), who made the mistake of being part of a plot against King James VI in 1594. The King reacted by blowing up the Earl's fortress and exiling him for three years.

There is not much left of the castle today, but it makes a lovely garden feature for the small house that stands beside it. Sheep wander through it now and then.

Of course, Aberdeen has its own seacoast, not so rocky and dramatic, but quite nice on a sunny afternoon--if you're lucky you might see dolphins and seals. The afternoons and evenings are, of course, lasting much longer these days--sunset isn't until about 10 pm, and sunrise is just after 4 am. It starts getting light about 3:30 am, and doesn't get very dark until about 11 pm. Plenty of time to spend looking at interesting things in the evening! The photo below is from the harbour in Aberdeen, looking at the lighthouse and a departing supply ship heading to the rigs offshore. This was taken about 9:45 pm in the middle of May.

John came to visit in mid-May, and I think he might have enjoyed Aberdeen. We stayed at Brentwood Villa guest house across from the University, with a delightful host named Mary who loves to cook. She's not even afraid of vegan diets! (I definitely recommend this place if you would like a homey place to stay.)

We were busy while John was here! We saw Crathes Castle, Balmoral Castle (the Land Rover trip through the lands around the castle is a great thing to do), various restaurants, the University, St. Machar's Cathedral, and visited several friends who live near Aberdeen.

John and Mara sitting on the front porch of a quiet cottage on the Balmoral grounds.
John was lucky enough to visit when it was sunny and beautiful in Aberdeenshire.
I think that was the first time I've had to wear my sunglasses in several months!

From Aberdeen, we took the train to London and Heathrow, which is a nice way to see a lot of countryside in one day without working at it. From there, we headed to Hamburg to meet a good friend. Lots of walking, and lots to see, and a wonderful few days. That Hamburg - Frankfurt journey could be a whole new blog chapter, so I might wait for another time for that one!

I had a conference near London to attend after John went back to the States, so I took a bit of time to explore and see some of central London and the south bank. It's ridiculously easy to keep walking (just to see one more thing!), and then realise that the reason your feet are complaining is that you've actually walked about 13 miles that day!
An iconic view of the Thames

Big Ben under wraps...he tells the time, but he's quiet about it.

I ended that 13-mile day with a peaceful two hours in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, listening to a concert by the Trafalgar Sinfonia of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, along with pieces by Bach, Purcell, Corelli, and Warlock. The night sky when I walked back to my tiny hotel room at 10:00 pm was a deep luminous blue, not quite dark yet.

So the next day I and my feet were very happy to sit in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House (home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) and be surrounded by dozens of English fiddlers' 18th- and 19th-century tune book manuscripts. What a great way to spend a day!

Now, home in Aberdeen again, I'm settling back into a routine of reading and writing, as I head into the last few months of my stay here. The dissertation is due by the end of August, and I fly back to North Carolina on 4 September! I will keep you posted on progress...wish me luck!

A page from the 1850 Scottish manuscript tune book I am working with for my dissertation

And as always, thank you, thank you...