#InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog

Happy International Guide Dog Day.

Image by C. L. Tangenberg – Our first family pet Elyse, an American Brittany (spaniel). Although not a certified guide dog, she taught us a lot and guided our hearts.

On the Blink

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

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An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4

Last updated March 17, 2017

My previous posts in this series collected and presented the vast majority, a total of 37, of the options for Outlander tourist attractions in Scotland: book- and film-related sites numbering 15 in Part 1, 11 in Part 2, and 11 in Part 3.

This post tells the story of my planning process for our own Outlander-themed Scotland trip, complete with changes in scope, backtracking, enlisting outside help, comparing and revising itineraries, and reflecting on the choices we made. Next time, I’ll provide a review of our Outlander tour experience and of the tour company we went with for our day tour.

Also in my final post in this travel guide series, I will list and discuss Outlander tour companies and tour options, including additional film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, compile a list of all the resources linked and discussed in the first 4 posts, and run down a list of websites and apps I used and loved but didn’t mention here. I’ll also provide some final thoughts on travel for Outlander, in Scotland, and generally. A sign-off of sorts with directory, closing credits, and bibliography.

Other Scotland trip posts down the road will add to the trail of breadcrumbs I’ve laid down since last October, to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured. Be glad you weren’t subjected to a slide show at my house; you have the privilege to take in these servings in digestible portions. In case you missed the first several, see the list at my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.”

March 2016

It was about this time last year when I began my months’ long planning process for a UK vacation with an Outlander focus. I don’t recommend spending as much time as I did—even if you have it; I simply have an obsessive, high-maintenance approach to project planning. I “just want it the way I want it.”

Still, as with many transcontinental excursions, for travelers from outside the UK going there for the first time, there are some things you should consider and do several months in advance of your departure. The most obvious include booking airfare, lodging, and, of course, your dream Outlander tour. In most cases, it will be wise to book the tour first of all.

Where I Started

My first phase involved researching England and Scotland for places and attractions I would most like seeing. In addition to doing online research, I purchased a set of travel guides and magazines at the bookstore instead of from online, where I previewed them and their reviews, so I could flip through the pages of the options, get a feel for each one’s layout, focus, ease of use, size and weight before buying. These included a combination of books and magazines:

  • the pocket guide DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 London 2016, filled with best-of lists
  • the full guide books DK Eyewitness Travel Great Britain (2016) and Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain with the Best of England, Scotland, and Wales (2015)
  • Discover Britain magazine (Apr 2016)
  • London 2016 Guide from Britain magazine
  • Scottish Life magazine (Winter 2015) focusing on Orkney
  • Scotland Magazine (Mar 2016) featuring “Best of Argyll”

I had enjoyed the color illustrations, digestible organization, and other features of DK’s guide to Provence when I traveled for study abroad in college, and I was not disappointed in any of the DK products I bought for this trip. Fodor’s turned out to have a valuable alternative perspective along with stellar regional maps and recommended sites labeled by “Fodor’s Choice” in each region.

Curse of Abundance

In addition to taking notes on the overall highlights of each major city, I compiled lists of attractions from different regions of England and Scotland into groups. After a few weeks of attempting to narrow the list down to a reasonable set of regions and sights, I then used the suggested itineraries in the guide books to draft a few possible trip outlines. The shortest trip I could stand to plan under these constraints was 16 days, and that turned out to be too long for us due to the budget and timing of our trip.

Getting Unstuck

To solve this problem, I took a different tack: First I created a checklist of steps to consider taking to strategize our tourism.

  1. Hire a travel agent!
  2. No more than 1 of each of these types of attractions per day in regional, smaller towns and countryside. Countryside:
    • castle & historic home
    • museum & castle
    • home & museum
    • < 2 castles
    • 2 historic homes & 1 home’s grounds
    • < 2 larger museums

          In town:

    • shopping (1 street or 1 famous shop)
    • art gallery/antiques/architecture walk
    • bookshop
    • park
  1. Travel by train or car only; buses take too long (this would later turn out to be a false assumption). Again, for smaller towns and the countryside, unless otherwise advised.
  2. Choose 2-3 regions of England plus London, maximum.
  3. Choose 2-3 regions of Scotland plus Edinburgh (or Glasgow?), maximum.
  4. Plan a trip that lasts more than 14 days (a fortnight). Otherwise, you won’t even squeeze in 2 regions per country beyond the major city.
  5. Choose a theme of types of places to focus on, especially in smaller towns & countryside, one theme per region or town. Possible themes:
    • history – range of periods for greatest variety
    • literature – there are lots of literary tours and trails highlighted in guide books, and I took special interest in crafting some possible versions of literary tours in both England and Scotland, focusing naturally on Shakespeare, as well as Burns, Scott & Stevenson, among others.
    • sports/contemporary culture
    • views/vistas
    • nature walks
    • art/architecture
  1. Consider avoiding longer ( > 1 day or ½ day) scheduled tours, being locked into those.

From this process, I color coded my previously handwritten notes, highlighting preferences and categorizing attractions by type. Fodor’s and the top 10 guides were particularly helpful to this end in their category pages by type of attraction or experience. These included castles, palaces & historic homes, villages & towns, cities small & large, gardens by season, and things like parks, mountains, lakes, and walks.

To narrow further, I even created a Must-NOT-See list of things to avoid because either I did not care about them, they seemed overrated or tourist trappy, or they might even disgust, offend, or otherwise dampen our adventure.

The Must-Flee List

My must-not-see list included things easily captured in online pictures or video and grandeur for its own sake. Between college visits, study abroad, and post-college travel, I had already been to Paris, Normandy, the Loire Valley, Provence, the Riviera, Venice, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Holland, as well as Utah, Colorado, New York City, Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach, western Massachusetts, upstate New York, and several parts of California. My husband had already been to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ankara, Istanbul, and Paris.

And together we’d been to Chicago, Wisconsin, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower and the Badlands, the Great Plains, Denver and the Rockies, Northern California, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, North and South Carolina, Orlando and the Florida coast, and on a western Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon. With everything we’ve been blessed to see, we didn’t need to be dazzled by immensities.

Other no-nos included shopping meccas (not my thing); Wales which has lots of cool castles (plenty of those in Scotland) but not much else of obvious interest; places too far out of reach, such as the Outer Hebrides, Ireland, Northern Ireland, East Anglia, Cambridge, and the Orkney Islands (though I might make a beeline for Orkney next time for all its uniqueness); gardens best seen in other seasons; famous sites too far off our “circuit” unless personal meaning demands it; too many churches; and too many castles. In London, I discarded Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, and anything focused solely on the Royals. I just didn’t care.

Chopping Block

When all that was said and done, even with all that trimming and relinquishing, I finally realized and admitted to myself that we couldn’t do both England and Scotland in a feasible amount of time without feeling rushed and disappointed by what we would miss. Over the years, my vacation philosophy has evolved to a preference for more in-depth exploration of a smaller territory over the impulse to cover as much mileage as possible before throwing your exhausted carcass back on the plane or in the car home.

At that point, I asked my husband if he would object to visiting only Scotland this time around, and to my surprise, he agreed. I had been laboring under the assumption that he would very much prefer England due to his greater familiarity with it, his frequent exposure to English Premiere League football matches, his Manchester City fandom, and, frankly, his lesser interest in Scotland and Outlander compared to mine.

I was so relieved to gain this freedom of focus, to be able to plan a trip that wouldn’t be the typical whirlwind tour of a vast region that goes by in a blur and becomes more stressful than the everyday work situation your vacation is meant to offset.

Scotland it would be.

Scotland Guidebooks

To adjust to this change in plans, I purchased the DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Scotland pocket guide and a used 2011 edition of Peter Irvine’s Scotland the Best, touted as the guide preferred most by Scots. The top 10 guide provided the same format of best-of lists in various categories—some regional, some interest based—found in the London version.

I would have purchased a more current edition of Scotland the Best, but the best option would not be released until October, after our trip would have ended. I felt the older edition served its purpose and did not regret buying it. Without illustrations or photos, Irvine’s guide focuses on providing comprehensive best-of lists in a broad range of categories and subcategories.

Certain of Irvine’s preferences I found surprising compared to those in the other guides that seemed more in agreement with each other. As a later purchase following so much in-depth research, Scotland the Best turned out to be less useful than the collected wisdom from the other guides, but I was still glad to compare viewpoints and learn about some attractions beyond the beaten path.

Drilling Down

With these new tools, some of my more intensely focused additional considerations consisted of narrowing down options among types of attractions found in abundance, such as castles, to only the very best, those nearest along our natural circuit through the country, or those with special literary, historical interest, or film association. For instance, having traveled in Europe and to several major U.S. cities with rich arts scenes, I already knew which types of art I preferred and what kinds of activities my husband and I leaned towards.

I also felt the need to mix in a variety of activities requiring different levels of energy, foot travel distance, and other demands on the human body or mind, spread across several days with rests or natural lulls built in. Thus, an all-day Jacobite Steam Train ride after several days of hoofing it to cover our bases. Hubby slept a total of at least an hour on that West Highland line while the spectacular countryside meandered by, but he had the very legitimate excuse of having been the designated driver of the previous week, adapting to opposite sides of car and road, as well as single-track, stone-sided, and winding roads, for the first time. I was just the navigator.

Outlander Tours

As for factoring Outlander in with all of these guidelines, I had already begun screening the other guides for popular Scottish sightseeing and scanning Google maps to locate as many Outlander-related sites as possible. I had also oriented myself to some of the better, recommended Outlander tour companies, using Diana Gabaldon’s website as my starting point.

Newly applying the Scotland focus to the Outlander tour search, I then began narrowing down those options to find one that would be more than a half-day but less than 3 days in length so we wouldn’t overdo Outlander at the expense of classic Scotland and an overall varied set of experiences.

I settled on Inverness Tours early on, but as the timing and focus of our trip evolved and solidified, I lost my window of opportunity to book a day tour during the dates we had selected. My second choice became Slainte Scotland, but I hesitated, corresponding with the company to gather more information to clarify exactly which sites the tour would include.

Reaching Out

Although it might not seem like we needed it, I did end up hiring a great travel agent, Chima Travel in Akron, Ohio, which helped with reality checking, pre-packaged tour awareness, and eventually discounted airfare and hotel package booking. However, our agent was impressed by my prior homework, to be sure.

Excited to see the trip taking shape, as I mentioned in my overview in Part 1 of this series, I laid out our tentative list of sites and sights in the post Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland.

“Five Scottish regional destinations for a 2-week visit, clockwise order from the south-west: Most preferred sights are listed for each area, though we may will not make it to all of them.

  1. Glasgow and environs (4 nights Glasgow) – Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Park, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral/Necropolis, a play, boat ride on the river Clyde; Cumbernauld (Outlander studios drive-by), Falkirk Wheel, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle (Monty Python, Castle Leoch), Wallace Monument

  2. The Trossachs, Argyll, and Central Highlands – Loch Lomond (and maybe Loch Katrine) in Trossachs National Park; Loch Awe, Inveraray Castle; Glencoe

  3. The Great Glen, Highlands, and west coast (2 nights Fort William) – Fort William, Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite Rebellion launch), Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, lochs and walks in the Great Glen; Eilean Donan Castle

  4. Inverness and environs (3 nights Inverness) – Inverness Visitors Centre, excursions to Foyers Falls, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle (maybe a boat ride), Cawdor Castle (Macbeth), Culloden Moor (Jacobite Rebellion), Clava Cairns (standing stones with split rock), Cromarty, Black Isle, Moray Firth

  5. Edinburgh and environs (4-5 nights Edinburgh) – Edinburgh Castle, National Museum of Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile main street, which includes Writers’ Museum, Greyfriars Kirk (“Bobby” the Westie), St. Giles’ Cathedral, Scott Monument, and more; Southern Uplands including Rosslyn Chapel and maybe Abbotsford House (Sir Walter Scott) and Melrose Abbey

The above sites are separate from several specific towns and rural locations where the Outlander TV series has been filmed. After some consideration, I’m inclined to skip a packaged Outlander tour in favor of making our own. I know enough about the books, TV series, and show creators that information won’t be lacking, and we need not be further restricted in our movements or schedule. ”

What I ended up doing is splitting the difference and combining self-guided Outlander tourism with a single day’s guided Outlander tour, taking the official tour early on and scooping up the remainder once we obtained our rental car on day 4.

Another part of reaching out came to me around this time. My friend and fellow Outlander fan called to tell me she and her husband would be going to Scotland in July with another couple for 10 days and that they had booked with Inverness Tours. She thought I’d be jealous, but I told her about my planned trip too, and we ended up sharing in each other’s excitement. She agreed to help with recommendations after her trip to inform mine, and she even looked at my itinerary to weigh in on its feasibility. I’ll share their circuit and some of her tips in my final post in this series.

Our Scotland Trip

Next is a look at our two-week trip overview and a comparison between the planned and actual itinerary of the first two days. While day 1 turned out quite different from its plan, day 2’s plan came to fruition, except for the Real Mary King’s Close, which was our last major Edinburgh attraction on the 19th. Note the bit about where we dined and what I ate.

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:56:18_p1d1-2

And the rest of our itinerary . . .

Sept 16

We flew in overnight on September 15, arriving September 16 late morning in Edinburgh, and used a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Residence Inn south of Old Town. After sleeping very little on the plane, we snoozed in the restaurant of our hotel waiting for our room to open up, then slept the rest of the afternoon and had a late dinner at Vittoria, which serves up-scale Italian food.

We then used a combination of buses, trains, a tour van, and our unaccustomed feet to explore the hilly, cobbled Edinburgh and surrounding areas over the next three days.

Sept 17

Outlander Tour of 5 filming sites. A 9-hour tour with Slainte Scotland, led by Managing Director of Clyde Coast Tourism Ltd., proud Scot, and Outlander STARZ TV series extra, the lively, lovely, and knowledgeable pro tour guide Catriona Stevenson: Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Falkland (1940s Inverness), Doune Castle (Castle Leoch) including whisky tasting, Culross (Crainsmuir and Castle Leoch herb garden).

That evening at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, we attended a vibrant performance by the Dundee Rep Theatre of the ceilidh-style historical and political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, which kept us awake even after an all-day tour and with jet lag setting in from the day before. Seeing this play early in the trip provided essential perspective on the past 200 years of Scottish-English relations and politics, which we could then reflect on as we traveled the country.

Sept 18, 19

Edinburgh city tourism, including book sites Palace at Holyroodhouse and walks through Old Town, setting for the printer’s shop and smuggling outfit of A. Malcom, Jamie’s alias in book 3, Voyager. The main focus on these days, though, was catching some of Edinburgh’s major attractions, including Edinburgh Castle, the Writers’ Museum, the Real Mary King’s Close, and Scott Monument on Princes Street—well worth it!

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:59:36_p-1d3-4_18-19_re-done_WritersMuseum

We picked up our car on the evening of September 19, our last night in the capital before heading north to the Trossachs and Argyll early on Tuesday morning.

Sept 20

All-day personalized journey through Argyll & Bute’s vistas and sites of ancient Scots roots and a Gaelic kingdom’s medieval hillfort, with the delightful Àdhamh Ò Broin, Gaelic Language Consultant for the Outlander STARZ show. We hired him for a day of his time to share his love and knowledge of the endangered Dal Riata Gaelic dialect, the wonders of Argyll, the region of his upbringing, and insights into the everyday lives of Scots from the past and today.

We managed to fit in views of island mountains, croft ruins, standing stones, ancient hill fort, cairns, sheep, a few castles and ruins, lochs and hills, bagpipes, singing, cattle, jokes, supernatural stories, local color tales, coffee, lunch, two churches, and a night view over the Kyles of Bute. We even took a close look at a caterpillar (in Àdhamh’s hand on this blog’s recent header image) at the Kilmory Oib Township ruins.

Phew! What a day. By far superior to anything we could have done on our own. As a result, we skipped visiting Inveraray Castle and the Auchindrain Museum village, though we passed by both. The richness of our experiences made those omissions irrelevant.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-1only_d5partial_20th_topScreenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-2d5partial_20th_middle

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:50_p-2d5_20th_bottom

Sept 21, 28

Combined with unrelated but great attractions in the vicinity, we selected additional Edinburgh-area Outlander options among Glencorse Old Kirk (visited, film), Linlithgow Palace (visited, film), Hopetoun House (skipped, film), and Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot (skipped, farther east, film). Upon returning to Seabank B&B at the end of day 2 in Argyll, the Trossachs, Stirlingshire, and Midlothian, we encountered our previous day’s guide Àdhamh Ò Broin at the Drover’s Inn, on the north end of Loch Lomond! Well, it is a small country, after all.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:01:31_p-2d6-7_21-22

Sept 22

Drove through Glen Coe—an absolute must for any first-time visit to Scotland—on our way northward up the Great Glen toward Inverness. Parts of Glen Coe were used for long shots during Outlander‘s credits.

Sept 22, 23

Made sure we passed Loch Ness (book) to and from other adventures, such as our Jacobite Steam Train ride from Fort William (book) to Mallaig on the western coast and back. The train passes and stops at Glenfinnan after crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which was used in the filming of Harry Potter. The Glenfinnan Monument is the site where the standard for the Jacobite Rising of 1745 was raised by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:01:57_p-2d8-9_23-24

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:06_p-2-3_d9-10_24-25partial

Sept 25

Drove to Loch Rannoch area, Perthshire, sort of hunting for the site of Craigh na Dun‘s filming, surmising also about the location of the Mackenzie rent party’s rides on the way for Jamie to meet Horrocks through the forest near Aviemore, along the way to and from Rannoch Forest, Loch Rannoch, Rannoch Moor, and Kinloch Rannoch. It was actually somewhere on the nearby Dunalastair Estate where the Craigh na Dun set was created and filmed.

Sept 25, 26

Identified Inverness (book)-area Outlander filming and book sites to choose from, visiting the gorgeous Beauly Priory (book), mysterious Clava Cairns, and humbling Culloden Battlefield (book & film), as well as Cawdor Castle (the Macbeth castle), while skipping Loch Garve (book), Falls of Rogie, and Castle Leod (book) in Strathpeffer.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:16_p-3_d10-11_25-26

Sept 27, 28

Scouted and targeted Glasgow city centre and metro-area filming sites, including George Square, Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis, Pollok Country Park, and the Outlander studios in nearby Cumbernauld. On our last day of sightseeing, we visited Linlithgow Palace, used to film the exteriors and corridors of Wentworth Prison in the last episodes of series 1, and finished the day at Hampden Park, home of the Scotland National Football Team, of the Celtic Rangers, and of the Scottish Football Museum. We ate a fabulous lunch at The Cotton House, in Longcroft, Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire (http://cotton-house.co.uk/).

                        Planned                                                                Actual

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:36_p-3_d12-14_27-29

Some days fulfilled the carefully assessed, vetted (by recent Scotland traveler friend), and revised plan, but most deviated quite a bit, and some plans were totally replaced. Overall, we managed to meet our priorities, fit in some spontaneity, and get sufficient rest to keep going.

End of the Tourist Season

One thing that really helped us was favorable weather for outdoor activity during the whole first half of the trip, including our day-long Outlander tour on the 17th. A mixture of sun and clouds with highs in the mid 50s to low 60s held strong through most of each day from September 16 to 23. From all I had heard, this was like winning the lottery. Actually, my research showed September to be generally drier than late summer, but we were lucky, too.

Before making final reservations at B&Bs, and for the Outlander and train tours, and before purchasing tickets for the play, I asked my husband whether he would prefer a train trip or a boat ride on Loch Ness. He chose the train. I originally preferred the boat cruise, but a train excursion turned out to be the wiser choice, as it rained the whole day of the 23rd and the train offered shelter and the occasion to nap, which hubby really needed at that point.

We had a rainy afternoon in Perthshire on the 24th while the west coast got hammered (we were lucky to miss the really bad stuff in Mallaig the day before), but we enjoyed a beautiful sun and clouds Culloden visit that morning. Then, the daylight hours of the last two days in the Highlands—25 and 26 in Inverness, Moray Firth coast, Beauly & the Black Isle—were uniformly gorgeous.

Once we got to Glasgow, our last leg of the trip, the rain mixed with the cloudy skies more often, but shelter was easy to come by and most of the 27th was conducive to picture taking at Glasgow Cathedral and around town. Finally, the 28th provided steady light rain throughout our visits to Linlithgow Palace (castle ruins), Outlander studios (front gate), Pollok Park (driving around), and Hampden Park (indoors).

The Verdict

My experience of this trip was so absolutely positive, I don’t hesitate to call it the best trip of my life, and my husband is nearly in agreement on that score. Thorough, careful planning surely played a key role in increasing the chances of such an outcome, but we must also give proper credit to the place, the sights, and the people.

What we might have done differently if we had a do-over

Top changes I would have made to smooth out the schedule, without looking at weather:

  1. Limit the 17th to only the 9-hour Outlander tour to reduce exhaustion for subsequent days. If possible, schedule our viewing of the play’s performance for the evening of the 16th instead.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling exploration of Inverness-shire for Loch Ness Marathon weekend, for greater flexibility.
  3. Travel earlier in the tourist season to increase Jacobite Steam Train scheduling options.
  4. Book lodging at three major bases instead of four, to allow more time to explore and spend less time packing and unpacking, as well as adjusting to a new home base.
  5. Allocate sufficient time each evening to literally map out the next day’s specifics.
  6. Skip the interior of the Palace at Holyroodhouse, or reduce the time spent, in keeping with my lesser interest in pomp, circumstance, and royalty. Focus solely on its abbey ruins, and then climb Arthur’s Seat instead.
  7. Visit a local pub for a pint or a dram and strike up a conversation with a native.
  8. Walk less and see fewer sights during one of our packed days to make doing #5 and #7 more plausible.

Top changes I would have made if I were in better shape, without looking at weather:

  1. Add a whisky distillery tour in the Highlands or a whisky tasting experience in Edinburgh.
  2. Make the effort to climb up Arthur’s Seat near Holyroodhouse and take in the view of Edinburgh and environs.
  3. Climb all 237 steps to the top of Scott Monument, the tallest monument to a writer in the entire world.
  4. Visit Calton Hill for more views of the city from the opposite end nearest Edinburgh Castle.
  5. Do more hill walking among the lochs in the Trossachs, at Schiehallion near Rannoch, or around Loch Ness.
  6. Walk up and through the Necropolis path (also if I hadn’t been so fixated on capturing every last nook and cranny of the Cathedral) in Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made if we had had more time, without looking at weather:

  1. Spread out our Edinburgh sightseeing across 4 full days instead of 2.5 (18, 19, and only a bit of 17 and 16). Our last day in Edinburgh was a bit stressful as we tried to cram in all the best of the rest, including The Real Mary King’s Close (accomplished) and the Scottish Whisky Experience (skipped).
  2. Visit Gladstone’s Land and Georgian House for the Old Town-New Town classes comparison in Edinburgh.
  3. Make sure to enter a bookshop dedicated to selling books. This notion ended up on the chopping block, but I did purchase a National Trust Scotland book on Culloden, and Historic Environment Scotland books on Cairnpapple Hill near Edinburgh and on Linlithgow Palace.
  4. Go back to Culross to see West Kirk (the Black Kirk) and visit Hopetoun House (Sandringham) and/or spend more time at each stop of the Outlander tour, including Culross Palace and Falkland Palace.
  5. Go back to the National Museum of Scotland to take in more of its numerous galleries.
  6. See more waterfalls, try harder to see wildlife, and make a point of seeing sea wildlife, especially otters.
  7. Spend some leisure time enjoying the amenities and luxuries of Daviot Lodge, including the garden, the living rooms, and the huge bear-claw tub!
  8. Take a ferry to the Isle of Skye and explore it for at least a day, including the Fairy Pools and the Cuillin Mountains.
  9. Make a more concerted effort to find the Craigh na Dun set at Dunalastair Estate, Rannoch.
  10. See the Burrell Collection and/or Pollok House at Pollok Country Park, Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made to lighten the luggage load and save time, without re-considering weather:

  1. Pack fewer jeans and more leggings and light-weight, comfortable pants to reduce laundry needs and vacuum bag compressibility.
  2. Pack fewer toiletries and over-the-counter medical provisions, allowing occasions to purchase them as needed in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Inverness areas.
  3. Pack no reading materials for leisure that were not directly related to the current trip; have audio books available instead.

What you can do

While careful, refined planning can have positive outcomes, as you have gathered by now, it’s no quick or easy process. I had to contact multiple service providers directly, exchanging emails with our tour guide at Glencorse Old Kirk and hosts at Daviot Lodge and Seabank B&B, arranging Alamo/Enterprise car hire (I was more successful at finding good rates than my travel agent was!), and booking the Jacobite Steam Train excursion, our viewing of the Lyceum Theatre play, and our Outlander tour directly from across the pond.

All of this was of course predicated on gaining intimate knowledge of distances and durations of travel between key towns and cities and spatial relationships among sites on our must-see list. I spent countless hours just perusing Google maps, creating personalized travel guides including a chart of distances between cities, and bookmarking and starring favorites toward making this a great trip.

Then, I familiarized myself with money-saving strategies such as purchasing Historic Environment Scotland’s Explorer Pass and National Trust Scotland’s membership to reduce costs at individual sites. In the end, it was cost effective to buy the Explorer Pass but not the NTS one in our particular case. I oriented myself to banking, traffic, and other infrastructural systems, often trying out apps for satnav/GPS, bus systems, and rail networks. I even had my husband program our Garmin Nuvi GPS with Scotland maps, which became indispensable when trying to save mobile data with phone satnav.

Glimpsing all the detail, reading, rehashing, clarification, and direct booking that went into my process should tell you one of a few things about your own planning. It may tell you either that:

  1. You had better get cracking and start planning well in advance if you insist on a DIY experience of some duration and are a first-time traveler to Scotland or the UK.
  2. This self-tailoring is not for you; your best bet is to trade flexibility for a pre-packaged set of experiences where the details are out of your hands and you can just relax and enjoy. Or,
  3. If you do like the idea of going it alone for whatever reasons and you’re confident you can take a much simpler approach than I did, perhaps in part because you don’t mind healthy doses of spontaneity, you can separate which factors are deal breakers and which ones you’re happy to leave to chance.

You may discover that you couldn’t care less about Scotland itself (or at least cared less than you thought you did) and are only interested in the Outlander attractions, or heaven forbid, vice versa. If so, more power to you, but if you can stomach the stress of it, I recommend splitting your focus between the two.

The good news is that Outlander‘s growing popularity continues to boost Scotland tourism (confirmed by both my own travel agent and Scottish news sources). As a result, more and more travel companies and touring services have added Outlander to their repertoire in one way or another or enhanced the offerings they already had.

Just remember for me in reading this post, the previous ones or the next, that . . .

(Disclaimer) It’s ultimately up to each of you as trip planners to verify details to make your stay go as smoothly as possible, details such as which sites are open to the public (not all are), how, and when, especially if you intend to take the DIY approach for all or part of your trip. I have and will continue to provide some resources to get you started, but information and access can change, and the location property owners and stewards have the final word, so be sure to do your own verifications.

In the next part of this travel guide series, we’ll focus on Outlander tour companies and tour options, along with film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, and bring together all the shared and unshared resources I used and liked. I’ll close with some thoughts on Outlander, Scotland, and general travel.

But wait! There’s more. In future posts, I’ll continue to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured during our trip. Keep coming back to my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.” to get the full scope of available bits from just after our trip last fall through the rest of this year.

I hope all this helps you get through Droughtlander, at the very least. Thanks for reading.

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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session

Barring some spotty transmission of sound, tonight’s Skype session with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon was a treat–and free! Connecting from her Santa Fe, NM, getaway house (lives in Scottsdale, AZ) to our own Lake High School Performing Arts Hall in Uniontown, Ohio, the Goddess of Jamie and Claire Fraser chatted to upwards of 200 people.

To start the presentation, Diana skipped the most common questions avid fans know the answers to, such as how she started writing the first book. Instead, she shared highlights about book 9’s progress (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone–finish date still unknown), her writing, research, and editing processes, her three main types of characters (“mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts”–see Part 2 of her reference book The Outlandish Companion for full details), and impressions from consulting on the STARZ TV show adaptation.

In her explanation of character types, she used the case of Mr. Willoughby in Voyager to illustrate how a character springs up like a mushroom. Jamie and Claire are onion characters, with layers that keep revealing more depth. Then, some characters she is “stuck with,” hard nuts such as history’s George Washington, as she writes her current book during the American Revolutionary War, and Brianna Randall, Claire and Jamie’s daughter who had to be born for the long-haul story to work.

Diana has to get to know such characters gradually as they reveal themselves to her. She also noted that she doesn’t “kill” characters; they just die and she, too, finds those events “distressing.” She depicts her role as more of a conduit or vessel through which her stories create themselves. While it is not a passive, or by any means easy, process, she works intuitively and must remain receptive. She uses the senses to pose questions that her imagination then helps her answer.

True to her science background, (former) Professor Gabaldon described her writing in terms of natural processes. She revealed how her scenes start from “kernels” (a vivid image, a line of dialogue, a certain ambiance, a physical object) and proceed by an organic process that she compared to both “growing crystals in the basement” and “a slow game of Tetris.” She “fiddles” until the pieces fit together just right.

Perhaps unusual for a novelist, Diana doesn’t write in a straight line or plan her books in advance; she works wherever the images come from and cobbles or, as some have said, “quilts” scenes together. From the beginning of her book making, she has combined the research and writing processes, toggling back and forth to learn more and make corrections as needed. Her research prowess has become legendary among fans. She also shared how each book ultimately forms a geometric shape. Dragonfly in Amber is like a barbell, anchored by a framing story on both ends, and Outlander has a series of three pyramids or triangles where tensions rise and fall.

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Diana Gabaldon, San Diego Comicon 2015

During the Q&A, I was blessed enough to be able to ask Diana a direct question about how the show is adapting the Jamie-Claire relationship. I talked to HERSELF face to face sort of! Whoa. Happy Birthday (week) to me indeed. She agreed with my view that the core bond of these central characters needs some attention and further development on screen, and she indicated the producers think so, too. Diana assured us that the first six episodes she has seen of season 3 are “great,” which brought cheers from several attendees including me.

Just turned 65 last week, Diana Gabaldon is an endearing blend of erudite, friendly, and oddball. This was my second experience of a live Diana Gabaldon video session. She’s very generous and engaged with her fans, a wonderful writer and natural speaker.

Our hosts ran a solid event, the lights and audience mics worked well, and, though we were dram-dry, there was ample, delicious homemade Scottish shortbread laid out near the exit. Mmm . . . buttery, flaky goodness.

In sum, read these awesome Outlander books, people, and if you can, catch a video chat session with Herself. (Preaching to the choir?) The STARZ show really is pretty great, and season 3’s coming up. Even more impressive, though, the books are an endless fount of riches with an essence that even the very talented team of show producers and writers is hard pressed to capture in a visual medium. Books and TV are distinctly different species of animal, but in the case of this timeless, time-driven story, each is fierce and beautiful in its own way, with something for just about everyone.

Sláinte mhath from this balmy winter’s night in northeast Ohio’s Outlander fan land.

The event was hosted by the Stark County District Library, sponsored by Lake Community Friends of the Library, and buoyed by Diana’s two signed book copies for two lucky trivia game winners (not me which was a-okay).

Original Poetry: Inspirator

As it gets colder in the northern hemisphere, though we are over the hump of winter solstice, I thought I’d share a little figurative fire to brighten your holiday. I first drafted this poem from field notes written as an exercise at the nature writers’ conference I attended at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in October 2016. Here are some excerpts.

Happy New Year. And Happy 100th Birthday to the National Park Service.

Inspirator

by C. L. Tangenberg
Giddy beige feathers of tall, 
unnamed fronds perched at a tilt, 
sprout their crowns in fanned-out spikes,
forging two beings into one: fire 
and ashy aftermath.

Two heads' lengths above 
these frozen flames, 
the color starts.

Green, rounded leaves of 
chartreuse underbellies and grey-
green backs, or faces—I can't 
tell which—huddle in discarded 
half-arches, craft of the stone mason 
who made too many, just in case. 
A half-hearted bow only 
at their very tops, partly 
praising a fractional work. 

On ground farther back, 
a grander stage presents 
the proud, living burns of 
orange-tipped yellow dancers. 
Some like to sway more than others, 
some feel the fueling wind. 

A tree not yet bronzed 
stands apart, flushed with 
a green, pre-fire readiness, 
and here, at the edge of its 
leaf clusters, starts to catch.

Beside, with lifeless pallor, 
bored out, burnt out, by burning 
beetle fever, the fire of hunger—
too-soon wintered, emaciated, 
desolate—ash trees jealously 
watch their flaming neighbors.

And foraging over all heads,
some unseen spirit slurps up 
and bloats full with grey smoke
from all this combustion below, 
from above, with the yellow-
white smoke of sunlight. 

The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey, 
not white, smoke is winning. 

Stone-piles at my feet see up 
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. 

Blown quiet, I walk 
most unhurried, 
back, into no fire.

 

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Image by C. L. Tangenberg, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, autumn 2003

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

The Paps of Jura

As part of our somewhat impromptu, personalized tour of Argyll, we got to see boobs–big ones. The Paps of Jura to be precise. Jura is an island of the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, north of Islay and south of Skye, its southern half on a line west of Glasgow. These prominent breasts on Jura make for a nice focal point in a photograph across the sound on a sunny day.

Paps is a Scots term, and the Gaelic is ciochan, pronounced something like KEE uh khen. The singular form is cioch. See the following resources for more about the term and its accurate spelling (with accent mark on the i) and pronunciation (for the fricative ch):

Am Faclair Beag (The Wee Dictionary, which is anything but) – ciochan

The Unofficial Guide to Pronouncing Scottish Gaelic – a down-to-earth bit of fun that breaks things down helpfully. See the explanation for “ch” pronunciation under “Broad Consonants.”

Scotland has other ciochan as well, such as the Paps of Glencoe. Lots of paps in Scotland.