Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

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edition I recommend for print reading

Between Dust and Star

Today Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the theaters, but I’ll be waiting to see it until the heat dies down and the Christmas season ends. It’s important to me, but not so much that I would insist on joining the literal crowd. Life is, as it turns out, already quite crowded enough.

I was scanning satellite radio today, which I do not normally do, while running errands, driving through our snowy streets with my dog in the backseat, when I happened upon a mind-blowing discussion. The BBC radio program Crowd Science on Sirius XM, in my first time listening, was airing an episode about the science of household dust.

What struck me, among other things, is the living diversity resident in our everyday dust bunnies. Millions of microbes, fungi, insect and arthropod parts, dead skin, hair, and mostly fabric fibers. VOCs, too, to be sure. One perspective urged policy changes in the safety of household products to reduce the numbers of toxins sold to consumers, while another noted that we can safely live with a fair amount of dust and that some of the ways it is created (bacteria pooping out gold, for instance) may actually be beneficial.

Interesting as well was the expert perspective on how and how often to dust one’s home. Not too frequently but just enough so that the dust doesn’t permanently attach to the surface of furniture and other materials, which it will do for a few different reasons, by a few different chemical processes. One has to do with bacteria, another with humidity changes, and I forget the third. Dust on surfaces of dressers and tables can become permanent film that only a professional restoration service will be able to lift.

One’s dust can reveal under a microscope quite a lot of specifics about who one is and where one lives. Bald residents without pets will have far less hair in their dust bunnies, as a volunteer resident of Australia helped the program to reveal. And certain plants and fungi only live in certain areas, laying their detritus in the trims of our doorways to the outside. Dust is usually gray, even if you have colorful hair and a vibrant wardrobe, due to the blending of many colors that can be seen individually only when examined up close.

My own thoughts from the program?

Although we have the traditional saying from the Bible “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” little did we then know how much more than inanimate dirt our dust contained. Even after we die, the microbes we have shed comprise our ashes, especially when mixed again after, say, crematory sterilization, with the living ecosystems in outdoor soils, material surfaces, and liquid solutions. In death, there is always life, not just the promise of new life. It is not a linear, isolated cycle but a multifaceted, continuous whirlwind.

This quite changes the view of our bodily rest.

If spiritually we find peace, rest assured, our bodies and their shed layers never really do. We might as well say the remains of our deceased have been laid not to rest but to writhe and wriggle, freeze and thaw, moisten and re-crystallize, expand and contract, and generally remain restless and teeming with all kinds of life, as long as some trace of themselves stays detectable by microscope in their bodies’ places of final rest.

It lends new meaning, but perhaps less importance, to the notion that our molecules go literally everywhere whether we are alive or dead, and that our skin sheds enough to help create a whole new being left behind from our person repeatedly during our lives.

The bottom line is that there is no true separation on a physical level, none that we can see and distinguish with our hands and eyes unaided by science, between our biological lives and the lives of millions and millions of others of too many different living species to count.

The implications are up for grabs. Be grossed out. Claim it as an incentive for wildlife conservation (“we are one, literally”) and the fight against climate change, which may be inevitable regardless of human effort (the fight and the change). Justify strange personal hygiene habits. Do what you will with the information.

I find it fascinating whatever the outcome. The fullness of life is restored in my eyes. We’re not alone, in so many ways, and now in so many more. With knowledge come further questions and mysteries to explore. What does it mean for DNA testing or insect phobias or the obsessively compulsively clean? Are identity errors somehow possible because of these minglings and cross-contaminations, if you will? How can allergens in food products take our blame, or at least all the blame, for auto-immune conditions when the number of possible allergens in our environments is so unimaginably large? Far more in the air and environment than in our food, and even more so when we ingest them with our food. #washyourhands

Can we be too clean? What then? If we all live in such bodily zoos, should we re-define what it is to be dirty? How do all the tiny lives of our dust affect our thinking, behaviors, and fates? How does our awareness of them change our sense of ourselves? Of who we are as individuals or groups?

Above all, how does this influence our answer to the question of what it means to be human? If cleanliness is next to Godliness, do we not now see that it was always a pipe dream to strive for divinity? For purity? For resemblance to the necessarily unnaturally immaculate deity? For this vision of God does not allow for God to know dirt first hand.

When the lines of our very beings blur so completely like this, what implications could the inherent blending have for other lines in our lives? Other boundaries? Limitations? Segregations? At what point do physical differences then stop influencing minds and societies? At what point should they? We have more in common, as they say, than we have of differences. This turns out to be truer than we had ever before imagined.

However, I am no more or less motivated now to dust my home. Housekeeping was never a calling for me, but at least now I feel a little better equipped to cut down on my household dust and keep it in check.

The BBC’s dusting experts say to (1) use a natural-bristle brush to lift the dust, holding a vacuum hose inches away to suck up the lifted particles; (2) concentrate on the areas of the house between hips and shoulders, the places most visible to guests, and (3) dust regularly but not frequently so as not to increase health hazards, though meaning well, by excessive diligence.

Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner. Dust often enough to prevent the humidity cycle from laying down that cement-like, microbe-moistened film layer on the night stand. Clean every room thoroughly once a year, rotating from one room to the next each month so as not to live only for spring cleaning—all spring long. Use the right tools or hire a cleaning service, and don’t go overboard with sterilization.

If you’re worried about the effects of toxins on child development, reproductive health, and cancer prevention, there is evidence you should be aware of them in order to mitigate the risks. Above all, spend more time outside the home if you are usually a home body (like me, unfortunately); chances are your indoor environment is much less healthy than the outdoor. Keep moving.

“All we are is dust in the wind,” or, you know, the doldrums. Pieces of ourselves lay scattered about our homes and workplaces and vehicles and yards and apartment buildings, and those pieces are lifted easily when disturbed—that is, until they crystallize on our furniture.

So if you want to make your household objects your own in a really primal way, no need to mark your territory Fido style. Just neglect your dusting for a bit, and voilà, pieces of you are embedded in the baseboards, the chairs, the counter tops, your appliances, your books and electronics, and even the porcelain throne, to say nothing of the carpet. Just be ready to share that space with millions upon millions of other lives.

And remember, if you must clean, you won’t just be killing strangers and unknown neighbors—fungi, insects, mites, plant sheddings, pet sheddings, bacteria, and parasites. You’ll be erasing bits of yourself as well.

This reminds me of the practices of Ethan Hawke’s character Vincent/Jerome in the 90s sci-fi film Gattaca. Working for a space exploration company toward his own voyage to space, the heart-defective Vincent borrows the identity of the genetically perfect but paraplegic Jerome through blood, urine, hair, nail, and other bodily samples that he uses for access and carefully spreads around his workplace while Hoovering up his own “de-generate” cells.

Knowing what Crowd Science has imparted, it strikes me how not only impractical but impossible erasing his true biological identity would really be if anyone in authority had bothered to screen more regularly and rigorously. And outer space would have remained only a dream for our underdog hero, though as he says at the end, we will all still have come from the stars.

Heavenly, long-dead stars or living, putrescent particles, it is all in where—and how—you look.

Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! 

From Scotland with the Wee White Dug, a tale of adventures in the Highlands, including the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition in Strathpeffer, a view of Castle Leod (seat of Clan Mackenzie), the Touchstone Maze honoring Scotland’s historic sites, a Moray Firth cruise with Dolphin Spirit Inverness, enchanting music at Embrace Gifts shop along with wood carvings at Victorian Station, the Eagle Stone of The Pictish Trail, and more. Just further proof, as if we needed any, that your Scotland trip deserves quality time in Inverness-shire and at least a glimpse of the Northern Highlands.

Scotland with The Wee White Dug

Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.

Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.

The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.

Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.

The Victorian Station

When we arrived at the station a cute little shop calledEmbrace…

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Who might you be otherwise?

“I was reflecting, in the first place,” replied Dantès, “upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained. What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?”

[The abbé replies] “Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect. Compression is needed to explode gunpowder. Captivity has brought my mental faculties to a focus; and you are well aware that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced—from electricity, lightning, from lightning, illumination.”

– from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Vol. 1, Ch. 17, “The Abbé’s Chamber”


True or false?

Dial up the sun

Dial up the sun

November 8, 2016

As the year draws to a close, 
with the loss of late-day light, 
when holiday sweetness goes, 
where bright trees slumber nude, 
so fades a fraught election. 

If one worse thing eludes,
invoke the sun and know: 
Change is certain. Some things 
do evolve, and all must 
end eventually. 

So after deeply breathing, 
or sighing deep relief, 
find a world-class museum, 
admission free, to nurture 
the best of humans, nature, 
and the world. Then become
a member, praise and breathe.

Peace.

Sundials at the National Museum of Scotland, September 18, 2016

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poem and photos copyright © C. L. Tangenberg

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Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison

A labyrinthine ruin on a promontory overlooking beautiful Linlithgow Loch and Peel (royal park), Linlithgow Palace stands proudly within the town of Linlithgow, west of Edinburgh. The palace served both as the site of Mary Queen of Scots’ birthplace and of filming for Outlander STARZ’s Wentworth Prison exterior and corridors in episodes 115 and 116.

Linlithgow, pronounced like Glasgow with a long “o” sound, means “loch in the damp hollow” in Gaelic. For apt description, more places in Scotland should probably bear the same name.

With four towers and accompanying spiral stone staircases, straight steps up and down to various corridors, hidden nooks, prisoner pits, larger chambers pitch black at mid-day, and overlooking terraces to the interior, Linlithgow Palace feels like a kind of jungle gym for older kids and energetic adults. But that’s not all it has to offer.

Isolated corner courtyards, numerous royal chambers, a great hall with adjoining kitchen, a chapel, an elaborate central courtyard fountain, a small accompanying museum, and a visitor centre gift shop nearly complete the picture.

On our first day while staying in Edinburgh, we consulted our Outlander day-tour guide about the time needed to explore Hopetoun House (the Duke of Sandringham residence in episode 109: 2+ hours) and Linlithgow Palace (about an hour). She also said she preferred the latter, so we chose the ruins over the polished stately home and were glad we did.

Linlithgow Palace is significantly larger and more complex than other ruined castles like Doune and Blackness, which we saw on the Outlander tour, and there’s a good historical reason for that: 6 centuries of Scottish and British royal residence, strategic military use, and general admiration.*

The earliest recorded royal occupation of the palace was by King David I in 1143. Destroyed by fire in 1424, the medieval palace was aggressively rebuilt by James I, becoming the grand royal house of the Stewart court. Developed and remodeled over the centuries by different kings, the palace owes most of its current shape to the 15th-century efforts of James IV.

In 1746, the fire that sealed the fate of the palace occurred three months before the Battle of Culloden, which ended Jacobite hopes for restoring the Stewarts to Britain’s throne. Linlithgow Palace has remained uninhabited ever since but was placed in State care as of 1853, and is now a Historic Scotland property. This site is one of only two places we visited where I purchased a book about it. The other was Culloden Battlefield.

Both places piqued my interest with their prominent use in the original story (Culloden) of Outlander and in the TV adaptation’s series 1 filming (Linlithgow  for Wentworth Prison exterior and corridors). My respect and wonder have only grown from seeing them up close and first hand. Much more later from this blog about Culloden.

Below are some corridor shots of locations in the palace I’m guessing found use during filming of episodes 115, “Wentworth Prison,” and 116, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” the darkest times in series 1 for our heroes Claire Fraser and especially Jamie Fraser.

Rooks and pigeons roost willy-nilly undisturbed and are the new kings and queens of the palace. But the available notches, ledges, sheltered stalls, window frames, crumbled walls, and even window seats far outnumber the birds occupying them when the public’s around.

Views from the northwest tower, housing Queen Margaret’s Bower (the sheltered tower room up the stairs shown below), reward those who brave the spiralling climb. Visiting Linlithgow Palace on our last full day in Scotland was well worth the extra trip from Glasgow, even in steady rain.


* My source for the historical information was Linlithgow Palace: The Official Souvenir Guide, published by Historic Environment Scotland.

For more information about Linlithgow Palace, its long and fascinating history, its connection to Outlander, or about other Historic Scotland properties, start with:

To learn about dining, accommodation, and other things to do in the surrounding town of Linlithgow, see the links provided at the Linlithgow page of VisitScotland.com.

For a list and brief descriptions of (mostly) season 1 Outlander filming and book-related sites, as well as our plans leading up to the trip, go to Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland. Upcoming posts will offer thoughts and advice about Outlander tours and different aspects of travel in Scotland. 

Here’s what I’ve covered so far:

Scottish Color: A Photo Essay

From my trip photo collection, sample the colors and textures of Scotland.

Stirling Castle and environs is one of the most colorful places on Scottish soil. From the castle’s view of varied shades of green hills and darker trees, to rows of gray houses below and its flagged, green terraces above flower gardens, to the sumptuous tapestries, royal bedroom furniture, majestic banners, interactive kids’ exhibits, period re-enactors, to paintings and fabrics on wall, floor, and ceiling, this historic seat of power is well worth more than one visit. And don’t forget the Wallace National Monument on the next tree-covered hill to the northeast.

Besides being uniquely spectacular in mountain majesty, Glencoe is Glen Colorful. Most striking to me in contrast to shorter deciduous-covered hills of the Ohio Valley and the sharper, starker, browner Rocky Mountains in the States are the blankets of green that cover the slopes of many of these ancient peaks in the Scottish Highlands. It’s my kind of green mountain.

Some leafy trees sprinkle about them, creep up their sedimentary seams where the water rushes to the bottom. But some later-installed conifers in Argyll, the Cairngorms, and periodically up the Great Glen impose themselves like patches of black-on-black tartan made too small for its wearer. Forestry efforts compete with natural beauty. The most prized evergreens are the Caledonian forests of Scots pine, now mere remnants in the country.

All over Scotland, with a high average rainfall, green is the go-to background color. Lichens, mosses, grasses and ferns are just a few of the non-arboreal results of this pervasive canvas. Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh and the plethora of green spaces in Glasgow, which means “dear green place” from the (correction) “green hollow” in Gaelic, attest to green’s primacy in Scotland.

Red is another dominant hue in both wild and domestic Scotland. Red deer, red squirrels, Highland cows, some spray-painted sheep, and various burgundy, rust, and orange and yellow flora mingle with the greens. Ferns fade into bracken with the fall, and heather pops magenta-purple and then fizzles grey into autumn across the country’s vast moors and storied glens. Sandstone is the other big red. The Beauly Priory is a breathtaking example of ruins made largely of red sandstone.

Lilac purples add magic to the greens and reds in both sun and shade, not just with the plentiful heather but with foxgloves, gems in cultivated gardens, and of course, the national flower, the thistle. But many flowers and plants retain their bright colors well into winter, re-blooming periodically, and the typical temperate-zone transition from green summer into red, yellow, orange, and brown fall happens in Scotland, too.

Sheep are everywhere, like the grass they munch, and you probably know what that looks like. The flocks power the long-standing textile industry of wool and tweed in Scotland. Tartan long ago sported muted tones that blended with the natural landscape. After having been banned by the Crown following the Jacobites’ defeat at the 1746 Battle of Culloden, tartan’s revival in the late 1800s brought with it a flashier spectrum. Today, even women and girls can benefit from the plentiful choices in feminine shades among the clan-based plaids available at tourist shopping hot spots.

The waters of life in the land of Scots range from root-beer rapids of brown and foam along the walking paths at Carie Forest near Loch Rannoch, Perthshire, to the golden gamut of whiskies forged in distilleries from the islands to the northern Highlands, to the deep-sea and turquoise blues of clear-sky-reflecting burns, rivers, firths, bays, and lochs. Modern Scotland has done its best with drinking water bottled from mountain sources, and then its worst in the hopelessly sugary, bubble-gum-flavored orange soda that is the national drink, Irn Bru.

The British tea tradition also persists, alive and well in both city and countryside. A venture to Glasgow’s Willow Tea Room, designed by the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, gave my husband good Kenyan black tea and me some aromatic Jasmine green tea, neatly cut finger sandwiches, and a gluten-free chocolate brownie topped with clotted cream. I finished all of my teapot’s worth with pleasure, and I’m not even much of a tea drinker.

I guess it was the blend of artistic atmosphere, my first real experience of tea time, and a well-chosen tea. Making it more memorable was an inchworm Jason discovered on his jacket from recent outdoor adventures. In and out of sight, we kept him alive till I dropped him accidentally on the stairway as we left. His ultimate fate is a mystery.

It was also in Glasgow that we learned about the Glasgow Boys group of artists and the Scottish colourists featured in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Influences from French Impressionists to “Whistler’s Mother,” and of course Scottish landscapes, informed their work over the years. There are life waters, watercolours, and water horses in Scotland. Modern architecture like the Kelpies, at the Helix car park and recreation center near Falkirk, celebrates the country’s artistic and industrial traditions, while one white and one black horse graze at the site of the Culloden Battlefield.

Wild bird coloring is not all that different from home. The British robin redbreast is a distinctly different species from our American robin, a rounder, more petite orange-breasted songbird with a song that sounds prettier to my untrained ear than that of the omnipresent States-side version. I knew about that difference before landing in Scotland, but I was surprised to see the dapper-looking pheasant hanging around the farm bird feeders at the breakfast windows of our luxury B&B near Inverness.

Not quite ring-necked, this male turns out to be the common pheasant of the UK, introduced to Roman Britain as a game bird from Asia. His aristocratic associations befitted our romantic, up-scale portion of the trip, evidenced by the rich red and white furnishings amidst the dark four posts of the bed and the crystalline bed-side dimmer lamps. They even gave us complimentary Ferrero Rocher truffles and a crystal of sherry and two champagne glasses.

There’s a variety of local color in soccer jerseys on display at the National Museum of Scottish Football at Hampden Park, Glasgow, home of the Queen’s Park Rangers and the Scottish National Team. But some of the most colorful parts of Scotland are still its people. The dialects, sensibilities, hotel and B&B personnel, street performers, musicians including guitarists, accordianists, bagpipers, and fiddlers, cab drivers, store cashiers, theatre players, tourism workers from receptionists to historical figure actors, mostly courteous drivers we encountered, and everyday people were always, for better or worse, innocuous, pleasant, and helpful. Good for us tourists, certainly.

Whites, blacks, and greys in the buildings, ruins, and stone monuments pulled us back in time to the mysteries of archaeological evolution. That is, the presence alone of chambered cairns and standing stone circles fascinates, but it’s even more interesting to learn of the layers of change their shapes represent, the multiple peoples and purposes that swept through a given place, obscuring the earlier inhabitants and users, muddling the picture of a Pict or a Scot or an Angle or a Roman. The clues keep bubbling to the surface in diverse ways, and their hunt can become an obsession, and a literary inspiration in the cases of authors such as Diana Gabaldon of the Outlander series.

Whether you’re one for science or for literature, which Gabaldon and I both are, the romance of the past is real, palpable, just as the puzzles, if not the ghosts, left by the remnants beckon the solvers forward. Ruins, especially religious ones even to this agnostic, possess the most affecting beauty of all historic buildings, and the monoliths are at least figuratively magnetic. Ruins speak in a steady voice of struggle, violence, survival, and death. They show the creativity, innovation, reverence, passions, sorrows, and daily subsistence of peoples long gone, and sometimes they demonstrate long periods of thriving, the revival of resilient groups, and the diligence of those dedicated to preserving history and memory.

At the Clava Cairns, I touched some of the piled stones as I walked into the center of one chambered cairn, but semi-unconsciously, I avoided touching the split standing stones. The stones at this site are said to have inspired Gabaldon’s invention of Craigh na Dun, the central plot mechanism–strange and terrifying–of the entire Outlander saga. The ubiquitous nature of stone and stonework in Scotland adds an indescribable charm to visiting this old country when one’s own is so young by contrast, but the stories they inspired are what sent me there.

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The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

There’s no generalizing Scotland, and yet the tourist tends heavily toward equating places with their people. In the end, they are inextricable, multi-dimensional, many-layered and intriguing enough to merit repeat exploration.

Besides, I just love to hear Scots speak, even if I don’t understand them the first time, or, in the case of Glaswegians, the second or third. Although I’ve seen a lot, I hope I’ll get another chance to practice listening in Scotland.

All photos copyright C.L. Tangenberg

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