* yes, there should be FIVE sets of boots but Allen ignored my advice to get adequate rain gear...

Sunday, December 30, 2012


The first time we landed in Holyhead I was quite confused.  The signs were in 2 languages.  I initially assumed that since we were on the Irish ferry system that they carried over writing the signs in both English and Irish.  After a few minutes, I finally noticed all the double f's, y's and double l's and realized I was looking at Welsh.  We traveled the Welsh countryside via train to get to London most recently and to and from Scotland previously.

I don't know why but I would say Wales is what I picture whenever I am given cause to visualize the English countryside.  The seashore towns are quaintly picturesque in a manner Disney can only hope to emulate.  Huddles of houses ring harbors that have been home to fisherman since before remembering. Quintessential sheep graze in every grassy nook with stone farmhouses that seriously do look like they could have just emerged from the earth wholemeal.  Finally, the train makes it way through small villages and town clusters of brick and stone houses that simply must date from at least the Victorian period.  It's all surrounded by the sort of rolling hills you see on biscuit tins.  When you look sideways, through sleepy eyes, at the misty mountain tips and the marshy down below, it becomes clear why this was a land of sleeping dragons, fairies, and Arthur's court.  Lest you think all this is the glitter and sparkles of modern imagining, you would do well to revisit the old tales.

My earliest, conscious exposure to the wealth of fantasy that pulls on the rich wellspring of myths and legends of the British Isles was The Dark is Rising.  Don't give the movie a thought and read the series in the order they were published rather than based on series chronology.  I enjoy pretty much any retelling of the Child Ballads.  My very favorite of all time is Tam Lin by Pamela Dean with Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones being a close second.  Musically, The Knight and the Shepard's Daughter as sung by Halali is based on Child 110 and hauntingly well done.  I can't find a full version but you can hear the clip here and it's worth the 99 cents.  A theme of all these is the idea that a woman in love is a powerful force; while men have the stronger hand, women were blessed with strong hearts.  The battle between light and dark; true and fairy; love and loss is fierce and comes with consequences.  The people of the Isles knew that a fierce heart is your greatest weapon and a woman in love is your greatest ally.

English spoken by a Welshman has a rolling quality.  It's like the relentless rolling of ocean waves.  There seem to be no full stops, breaths, or consonants; just an ebb and flow of sounds; a river of syllables.  It becomes clear why Wales is a land of poets.  This youtube video is worth a watch if you are curious about how spoken Welsh sounds.

FYI- The idea of women being a force in of themselves comes up in a variety of other cultures.  The Spanish tale of Princess Florecita and the Iron Shoes is an excellent example.

Monday, December 17, 2012


When Allen asked me about what I wanted to see in Scotland, I put a high priority on the Highlands mostly due to the influences of Hamish MacBethMonarch of the Glen, and the Outlander Series as well as a liberal smattering of romances set in the Highlands.  I was pretty sure that the Highlands would be epic with a deep sense of history and a dash of mystic Druidy-ness as well as full of time traveling kilted hunks or, at the very least, kilted hunks wandering about tossing cabers.  Imagine my shock when this wasn't completely the case!

Megan on super scenic walk to playground
Inverness has a population of around 60,000 and is by far, the biggest city around.  It reminded me a lot of Upstate New York in weather and general atmosphere.  We went at the end of October so the sun rose after 8 and set before 5.  The temperatures were running in the 30s and 40s (2 to 6).  This is a little colder than it was in Dublin but it actually felt a little warmer.  It had that crispness that I associate with late fall on the east coast and I finally got to see some proper foliage.  I assume from the crispness that it was a drier cold which supports my theory that damp cold just feels colder.  While it may have been short on the kilted time travelers, I will say that the Scots seem to have a more stoic attitude towards cold than the Irish.  We saw young men in t-shirts, girls dressed in a distinctly unbundled fashion and children frolicking about in jackets (even the odd pair of shorts) rather than parkas.  It seems that if you are facing a winter where it will almost definitely get much colder and much darker before it is done, you had better be sure you have perspective about what warrants full on cold weather gear.  The Scottish men were different as well- some were tall and lanky but a good number were decidedly tall and not lanky.  There actually did seem to be some foundation to the speculation that they grow them bigger in the north (or at least have a lingering Viking influence).  I also overheard an extensive discussion amongst some teenage girls as to if the college boyfriend (from somewhere other than the Highlands) was going to last.  He was going to have to "be made of sterner stuff" between the weather and the economic climate.  I got the strong impression that the women were well able to keep up with the men.  If you watch Dr Who, it will be very telling that Karen Gillan (Amy Pond) is from Inverness.

Noah focused on filling his pockets with leaves

We spent a lot of time traveling around the Highlands via train.  It was absolutely lovely in a very rugged way.  There weren't a lot of trees.  I believe it's due to a lack of topsoil.  The ground was scraped quite clean by the glaciers.  Although, there were some fairly significant pine forestry operations.  We also saw our fair share of sheep.  Sadly, no caber tossing.

Charlie occasionally sits still
We spent one day in pursuit of Nessie which thrilled the children to no end.  Allen worried that the boat tour and museum visit would be too cheesy.  I reminded him that we were traveling with a 4 and 6 year old.  The discussion was closed.  Megan swears that she saw something that may have been Nessie's back but the rest of us missed it.  Of note, this account didn't come until a day AFTER the trip.  Charlie was completely sucked into various theories about the Loch Ness Monster being a wayward prehistoric beast.  Noah wanted to know why we kept dragging him places that weren't playgrounds.

Urquart Castle
I enjoyed visiting Urquart Castle which is on the other side of the Loch.  It was cold and windy (shocker!) so I wasn't able to wax romantic contemplation quite as much as I would like but there was a very palpable sense of history.  It even felt a touch mystic what with the ancient sea monster myths, lapping water, brisk wind, and swiftly changing season.  I think the best time to get in touch with your inner Druid is likely autumn.  Nothing inspires you to light a bonfire and sacrifice a deer quite like a swiftly shortening day.

Views from Urquart Castle
St Columba visited (maybe) in the 6th Century.  He was a Christian missionary from Ireland who may have instigated the battle of Cul Dreimhne in Ireland in 561.  There was a great loss of life and, to avoid excommunication, he had to save as many Pictish souls as had been lost in the battle.  Some form of fortified settlement had been on this site since at least a bit before his time.  I could just imagine standing on the rocky coast, looking out over the loch and vaguely wondering what in the world I could possibly do with yet more fish for dinner.  The castle was put through a variety of iterations and passed through several owners, figuring highly in several feuds until the English troops sacked it in attempt to prevent it from falling into Jacobite control in 1692.  (As I told Allen the other day, by European standards, pretty much the whole of the US is new construction.)

Finally tracked down the picture
of the Dalek at the book store
If you are interested in Scotland, you might consider Neil Oliver's book, A History of Scotland.  I have read scandalously little of it at this point but so far, it's been quite enjoyable.  He also hosted a BBC series about Scotland that I haven't gotten to watch but based on the Viking one, I bet it's superb.

Children in railcar
We also visited Glasgow for a blessedly brief time.  It was easier to get back to Dublin that way.  The children greatly enjoyed Scotland's Museum of Transportation and Travel.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Edinburgh Castle is perhaps the visual epitome of the Scottish motto "no one provokes me with impunity."  Look at that cliff face!  Can you imagine getting an invading force up that?  It's built on an extinct volcano which some say looks like the back of a sleeping dragon.  For all that, it's managed to switch back and forth between English and Scottish possession for the better part of the last 1000 years.  Prior to that, it had been a stronghold of assorted tribes and clans since at least the early Iron Age and perhaps since the late Bronze Age.  In short, it's likely that someone has wanted to be king of this mountain for the last 2500 years.  It's currently occupied by the British Army who actually do maintain some offices and residences.  St Margret's Chapel is also still in regular use.  In fact, it was closed for a Christening while we visited.  It's the oldest building in Edinburgh, built by King David in the 1100s.
Edinburgh Castle was especially important to visit as I have quite a bit of Bruce in my background.  While that hunk of the family has never done much in the way of genealogies, we like to assume that we simply must be worthy of the Bruce coat of arms.

We missed it as it was a Sunday but they fire the cannons most days at 1300 hours.  This acted as a communal timepiece much in the same way church bells might starting in 1861.  The original plan had been the time ball on the top of the Nelson Monument but the rather perpetual fog, mist, and generally poor visibility inhibit the efficacy of a visual time marker.  

The highlight for the children was seeing the Honours of the Kingdom.  The children were breathless with anticipation to see the "crown of gold."  We also saw the scepter, sword, and the Stone of Scone (fascinating article about the stone here, if not completely factual).  The Stone of Scone has been lugged about the Scottish and English countryside a bit.  The English insisted on it being put into their coronation ceremony around 1300 when they annexed Scotland and, so, if you look at the throne, there is a slot for the stone to be slipped under the cushion.  The stone finally made it's official way back to Scotland in 1996 with the understanding that it would be returned for future crownings.

J. K. Rowling wrote most of the Harry Potter books in and around Edinburgh.  The release of the 6th book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (where Ginny and Harry FINALLY get together, hem, hem) took place at Edinburgh Castle.  I can't think of a better location.  There is no doubt as to how you could be inspired to create Hogwarts, Diagon Alley and all the rest.
I would have really liked to have visited Edinburgh longer but our budget didn't stretch to multiple nights at the Astoria.  It has a wealth of museums as well as all manner of interesting architecture and nooks and crannies to explore.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Peat and Moss

I can say with some confidence that there are two things I will forever associate with Ireland, the smell of peat smoke and the hidden beauty of moss.

American fires are generally wood.  They have a sweet smell of sunshine with the crisp underpinnings of a winter wind.  They are boys in soft flannel shirts and giggling girls eating s'mores.  They are Girl Scouts and football.  They are maple and cherry and birch and apples and sunrise.  The smell of an American chimney is unmistakable.

Irish fires are peat.  The have a darker flavor.  They are woodsmoke mixed with cigars and smouldering leaves.  They are men wearing wool and women praying over their babies.  They are of the earth rather than the sky.  The are ferns and grass and plants from before tree's imaginings.  They are sunset and dew and ancient.  The smell of Irish winter nights is foreign and familiar.

The Irish people have been neglected, oppressed, starved, sold, invaded and sent far from home.  The island's resources are both abundant and limited.  Somehow the Irish have managed to survive, if not always thrive, since the 8th century BC.  The moss in Ireland is notable in the way it manages to gain a toehold almost anywhere.  It hides in the nook and crannies, sometimes appearing as a simple haze of green.  It perseveres through masonry, children's footsteps and frost.  The moss of Ireland is as much a constant as it's people.