Sunday, March 10, 2019

A mild March in Aberdeen (so far)

The spring bulbs are out in Aberdeen, and so are the cherry trees, despite dire predictions of the winter weather that often comes out of nowhere in March. It may yet arrive, but for now, people are enjoying the relatively mild weather. Today is an unusually bright, sunshiny day, and people are out walking and soaking up a little vitamin D.

Catching up on interesting tidbits...our class has had a busy month (which has something do to with why I haven't written a blog chapter in a few weeks). Back in early February, we spent a rather amazing five days in the Borders area of Scotland, criss-crossing over to England and back again.

The purple places are a few of the highlights of the many spots we visited;
the map would be unreadable if I labeled everything we saw!
We knew only that we would be going to see some of the annual Spring ritual ba games (a kind of village football game that goes back to medieval times) in Jedburgh, that we should wear warm layers and raingear, and that we should expect to share rooms, as we had in the hostels (and the  famous blackhouse!) in our first Field School. So we gathered as usual in our rented van at 8 am, prepared for a rustic week, and headed south, stopping off for some favorite breakfast treats at The Horn near Dundee, famed for its enormous bacon rolls and other wonderfully heart-stopping menu items. (They also make great scrambled eggs and toast.)

Can't miss it; it's got a large black-and-white cow on the roof!

On the way, we stopped at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and toured the archives, even having a bit of time to browse through the archives. This will definitely mean at least a future day trip to Edinburgh, as it just whetted the appetites of anyone looking for old recordings, photos, and source material...

South of Edinburgh the landscape changes to rolling patchwork hills and valleys with old stone bridges arching over streams and burns. This is the beginning of the Borders country, with beautiful ruined abbeys, castles, baronial estates, and much history.

Dusk was settling in as we drove past a sign for Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott, and turned left onto a narrow road to the House. I thought it might be a little late for a tour, but one thing I've learned since September is not to be surprised at what our fearless director, Dr. Tom McKean, can make happen. We drove up to a lovely house, complete with turrets and portcullis, outlined against the sunset, with a few welcoming lights in the front rooms. Tom jumped out and said he'd check to be sure they were expecting us for our “micro-tour”; about 45 seconds later he returned and told us all to come on into the front hallway. We did so, and he announced, “Welcome to your home for the next four nights! Go get your bags!”

Like I said, there's always a surprise around the corner here! We delightedly obeyed.

We were staying in the part of Abbotsford House that was built by Sir Walter Scott's son after Scott's death, and where his son and grandchildren lived. The house was lived in by his descendants until fairly recently, and it feels warm and lived-in.

We were assigned bedrooms, two of us to a room, and each one was more comfortably elegant and interesting than the last. We explored the whole house from top to bottom. The enormous kitchen was on the ground floor, and we spent a lot of time there each evening making traditional dishes from old recipes. It was marvelous. Eleanor wasted no time in finding the Bechstein grand piano in the sitting room!

Alison (our Elphinstone Institute guardian angel who keeps us straight) lit a lovely warm fire in the fireplace for us, and we spent a good part of the evening after supper, reading excerpts to each other from Sir Walter Scott's novels that, of course, were in the library.

I could almost have fit my whole house into the kitchen...but it felt homey and very pleasant.

There were staircases everywhere...we got lost frequently.

The dining room was huge, but again, quite comfortable, well-suited for a family of 18 or so. I couldn't quite get it all in one photograph! There was a small kitchen immediately off the dining room, which would be useful for keeping dishes warmed and ready to serve.

One of the more opulent rooms was the one with a canopy bed. Definitely not a rustic hostel kind of accommodation!

Each bedroom overlooks something beautiful: formal gardens with ancient stone artifacts acquired by Scott during his lifetime, a kitchen garden courtyard, a view of the River Tweed in the valley behind the house.
This was our home base for the rest of the Borders trip, and it was a marvelous Field School week. 

The next day was spent in Jedburgh, home of the beautiful ruined 12th-century Augustinian abbey. Only ten miles from the border with England, it has seen more than its share of strife. The ruins that are there today are magnificent, and worthy of a few hours’ exploration. There is a tiny spiral staircase at one end of the chapel that leads to a balcony; if you can manage the climb up the narrow stone steps, there's a great view. If not, no worries: the views are splendid no matter where you stand.

So...Jedburgh Abbey is beautiful. I could have cheerfully stayed there a good part of the day, but in the rest of the town, a very important ritual was taking place: the annual Ba Games. We were there to witness and document it (and Dr. Tom McKean never passes up an opportunity to participate, either).

The Ba Games are a mysterious and puzzling tradition that has been going on for many centuries. Perhaps it symbolises the passage of the sun (night and day) and the turn of the seasons. Several other towns in the region also have Ba Games, usually early in the year, before Spring. Teams in the town (the Uppies and the Doonies) struggle to gain possession of a small leather ball that has ribbons sewn onto it. The ball is tossed into the air, and there is a mad and intense scrum to get hold of it and carry it to the goal. In Jedburgh, the Uppies try to get the ball and take it up the hill to the castle; the Doonies try to get it down the hill to the Jedwater. The Mercat Cross marks the center of the town, more or less the midpoint between the goals. As the teams / clumps of men or boys travel up and down the main street, sometimes it is hard to tell who has the ball, or indeed, who is at the bottom of the pile of people in the middle of the street. Whose feet are those sticking out...?

The Mercat Cross is an interesting combination of Queen Victoria and fantastical beings. I was intrigued by the curious creatures and gargoyle heads decorating each side and corner of it. Are  some of those pine martens, I wonder?

The games are traditionally for boys or men, but recently, some Ba Games do allow girls and women to play on their own teams. Jedburgh's games were for boys or men only. Sisters, mothers, and wives, however, often run alongside the teams, cheering them on (and staying well out of the way).

This lady's family has been participating in the Ba Games for decades; here she's showing me the small, leather-covered ball stuffed with moss or straw. She has stitched the ribbons into the leather (and yes, they definitely come off by the end of the day). Different organisations sponsor the games, and balls will have the sponsors' names on them.

Girls and women can toss the ball in the air for the teams, as in this video:

I suppose the high point of the day was seeing Dr. McKean (the blonde man in a black and purple jacket in the center of the circle) tossing the ball. He was also frequently spotted somewhere in the middle of the scrums during the rest of the day, too...

Building owners take preventive measures to keep windows from being shattered by placing wooden grids across the storefronts. Ironically, the 1812-era Court House didn't have any boards across its windows, and a ground-floor window was broken. That was the only damage I actually saw that day, apart from a few cuts and bruises on cheerful faces.

It was chilly and raw, and it was a great treat to stop in for a cup of something in the one restaurant that was open (although well-boarded up to protect windows and customers). This view was from inside, looking out between the wooden slats. I was rather glad the wooden slats were there!

The next day we crossed the border into England (only about 10 miles away) to visit Heatherslaw Cornmill, in Northumberland ( It is a fascinating and historic working mill on the River Till that has been grinding oats, wheat, and barley for over seven centuries.

Don't be confused if you see no corn here; in this part of the world, corn is only a word used to mean whatever grain is grown in an area, like wheat, barley, and oats. But probably not corn as we know it.

The river Till was flowing fast and furious, as it had been raining a good bit.

Dave Harris-Jones, the head miller, is a quietly enthusiastic guide, and he led us through the entire operation of the mill. The old building is not only where the current mill operates, but it is  a history museum for the area. After business dwindled in the mid-20th century, the mill fell into disuse. In 1972, it was rescued from demolition, and it was made into a working mill once again, also serving as a history museum.

The mill is actually two water mills in the same building, each with its own water wheel and mill race. The upper mill is fully restored and produces about seven tons of flour each year. The lower mill is much as it was before restoration.

And the pinhead oatmeal (what I might call steelcut oats) that I bought at the mill makes wonderful porridge each morning!

We stayed in England for a while longer as we drove along the River Tweed to the Chain Bridge Honey Farm (, where we sampled different kinds of honey and learned about the behavior of bees. The fragrance of honey and beeswax was delightful, and so was the heather honey comb! I had wondered why it was called the Chain Bridge Honey Farm, and we soon found the answer. Passing drifts of snowdrops along the side of the dirt road, we walked from the honey farm down to the Union Chain Bridge, or Union Suspension Bridge, built in 1820, which straddles England and Scotland over the River Tweed.

Fearless Dr. Tom slowly drove our rental van over the bridge back into Scotland, as we walked well behind, a bit worried about the signage:

Eleanor documenting our progress from England, about to cross to Scotland

The next stop was carefully timed. We had to arrive at the causeway to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island off the coast of northeast England just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, at low tide. Much earlier or later, and we would be a boat. This dependency on the tides definitely shapes the workdays of the residents living on the Holy Island. 

Lindisfarne is a magical place. The ruins of the old abbey and monastery on these windswept tidal islands still carry a lot of power.

St Aidan of Iona founded Lindisfarne Monastery here in 635 A.D., and was its first abbot and bishop. The beautifully-illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels were created here in the late seventh century A.D., perhaps in honor of St Cuthbert, who eventually followed in St Aidan's footsteps as bishop.
There is actually a fair bit of information about Cuthbert, and he had an interesting life. He tried to be a hermit (the Holy Island(s) are a good place to do this), but he was well-loved, and the world kept knocking at his door. Cuthbert died in 687; after he died, many miracles were reported from folk who made pilgrimages to his grave, and in 698 it was decided that he would be elevated to sainthood. This was about the time the Lindisfarne Gospels were created here. Today, the manuscript lives in the British Museum; it is one of the most beautiful medieval manuscripts in the world. (

The tiny island nearby is where Cuthbert
spent several years before he was made bishop.
He really did want to be a hermit.
When his body was exhumed in 698, the monks were amazed to see that there was no skeleton, as expected. His body had not deteriorated at all.

In the 8th century, Viking raids became a real menace for the abbey, and St Cuthbert's body and various related treasures were moved by a complicated series of travels to the site of Durham Cathedral, which has become a shrine to St Cuthbert. ( ; take a look at the short video on this web page to hear and see more about the coffin and other treasures.)

Long way around to say that this place is still a Holy Island. Each year, thousands of people still make pilgrimages here. I was grateful we could visit in the off season, when we were the only people wandering around the island.

At dusk, we went to the small chapel next to the ruins of the old priory. The wind howled outside, but inside it was peaceful. One of my classmates sang for us as we sat in a few moments of meditation.

It was a day well spent in a very special place.

Looking across at the 16th-century Lindisfarne Castle, built about the time that the monastery and abbey were abandoned. The builders of the castle used many of the stones from the old abbey to construct the walls of the castle, and it was extensively rebuilt in the late 19th century. There is a beautiful walk along the shore to the castle, but I think I still like the old abbey ruins the best.

Inside the chapel is an impressive life-size wood carving representing the monks carrying St Cuthbert's coffin on its very long journey that finally ended at Durham, only about 80 miles away from Lindisfarne.

Sunset over Lindisfarne
Our last place to visit before we returned to Aberdeen and resumed our normal everyday routines was another magical place: Rosslyn Chapel. We arrived Sunday morning just in time for the 10:30 service, which was simple, intimate, and peaceful. I hadn't known that the 15th-century chapel is still an active Scottish Episcopal church, but it is a vital part of the Diocese of Edinburgh. 

The chapel became widely known after Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was published, and then after the subsequent film.

Unfortunately, absolutely no photography is allowed in the chapel, so I don't have any photos of the wonderfully beautiful carvings. Visit this website to see some lovely pictures of the inside of the chapel:
Faces and creatures abound inside and outside the chapel; the pillars inside are intricately carved with animals, vines, flowers, musicians holding old bagpipes and fiddles and harps...
Another chapter in this adventure comes to an end (with quiet apologies for the length of it). We are now back at the University of Aberdeen, picking up where we left off with lectures, reading, film-making, interviews, and a great deal of writing. 

By the time I write the next chapter of my travels, it will be Spring here. The snowdrops have been out for several weeks now, the crocuses and daffodils are wildly abundant, and yesterday I saw several large azalea bushes in full bloom. 

Till soon! Thank you again for reading, and for supporting me in this adventure. And comments are most welcome, as always, either by email or at the bottom of this post!
A brief stop at the grocery store along our way...we're waiting for Tom, who has the keys to the van...and hmm, it's a little chilly out here...