Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

You can also get to them directly here:

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

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.

 

leaf-sky-black-white-crop-auto-contrast-less-bright

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


Other examples of original nature poetry

  1. Five-Phrase Friday (21): Original Poetry – on the trail
  2. Original Poem: Of all the signs of spring – ironic sunshine
  3. Backyard Bloodshed – poor creature
  4. Backyard Brief: Influence – gardening and children
  5. Original Poetry: Inspirator – imagined fire
  6. Cheshire Cat’s Message: An Original Poem – from my novel-in-progress

Complete series of original nature verse in bits

  1. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 1 of 10 – barely alive?
  2. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 2 of 10 – the lizard
  3. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 3 of 10 – competition
  4. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 4 of 10 – electric trees
  5. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 5 of 10 – border danger
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 6 of 10 – life under soil
  7. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 7 of 10 – sky under sea
  8. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – feeble competition
  9. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 9 of 10 – the hawk triumphs
  10. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10 – the turtle’s gaze

And the underlying philosophy

Call of the Wild Poetry

Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

a pressed post

Source: Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

Response – the comment that wouldn’t post:

Great topics, Hannah! Thanks for the photo inspiration, too. I like the rice terrace idea Nathan mentioned.

Let’s see, other settings – canyons, badlands, active volcanoes, forests made of giant stalks of crops (wheat forest!), mine dwellings, something like the chocolate factory, castle as entire world, Africa-like savannahs or bush, underwater bubble worlds, some kind of constantly stormy place.

I’m writing a Through the Looking-Glass fanfic of sorts. I’m keeping all of the original features—chess squares, railway, reedy lake, Knights’ Forest, nearby meadow, Tulgey Wood adding a ravine, Garden of Live Flowers, magical brook crossings, feast hall for Alice’s coronation. I’ve added a river, sea coast, bog, mountains, alpine lake, farm, and Wonderland as the next-door neighbor, at least for now. This is my first foray into fantasy writing, so I’ll have to consider these other ideas! It helped to draw a map.

Does it automatically switch from fantasy to sci-fi if we go to space? Do we care?

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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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