Friday, September 26, 2003

"Scotland: The Good, the Bad, and the Macabre''
Friday, September 26th, 2003
The Highlands, Isle of Skye, and Edinbourgh, Scotland

It would be doing a grand injustice to the majesty of Scotland to not write further about the end of our here it goes. I'll pick up where I left off.....just 10 days ago in the East of Scotland, in a tiny little town called St. Andrews sat two innocent young Americans munching on a salty bowl of chips....

Just outside only yards away and gleaming in the moonlight was the 9th hole of the oldest golf course in the entire world. (Doug had just about died when he stood on the green) As I ate my food, I turned and noticed a young Scottish couple beside us and a cherubic looking little toe-headed kid sitting in a high chair. Now, I must admit that sadly, the Scottish have neither been blessed with looks or with culinary acumen. But where they lack in these god-given gifts they make up for with good humor and even more entertaining accents.

I was struck by the good looks of this little Scottish boy. (Maybe they start out cute in Scotland) and mustered up the best possible compliment I could think of:

"He's such a doll. He looks like a young Prince William."

The kid's father just about choked and threw up his last sip of beer. He slammed his glass down on the table and said in his thick rolling accent:

"Wellll, that's about the WORRRRST thing you could say to a Scotsman!"

His wife nodded in agreement.

"Well what would be better?"

"Well, for starrrters, you could say he looks a little like Ewan MacGrrregor."

End of story. That about encapsulates the unwaivering national (I suppose that's the real dilemma) pride and passion that defines the Scottish and all that they hate in English. Just about everything.

In our abbreviated time in Scotland, we found two kinds of weather: threatening to rain and raining. The Scottish also have two main food groups: beer and anything that's rectangular (snickers bars), flat (pizza), or round (cadberry creme-filled eggs) and deep fried. No joke. There are actual people in this world, ancestors of mine no less, who have eaten deep-fried pizza and snickers bars. It's no wonder that the Scottish have one of the highest rates of diabetes and heart attacks in the civilized world. But they'll go down kickin' and screamin' dammit with a full pint of beer!

Secondly, everything that you've read about in the history books and seen on Braveheart was true. Well mostly. Everything except the fact that there ever existed any man as good-looking as Mel Gibson in Highland History (Sean Connery and Ewan Macgregor not withstanding). It's true that the Scottish Clansmen actually charged the battlefields either naked or half-naked and painted entirely blue.

Kind of makes you think, huh?

Well, the Romans took one long look at the Highlanders and high-tailed it back. They decided there was no way in hell they'd succeed in conquering them so they decided to build an actual wall--think the "Great Wall" meets "Highlander"--that stretched the width of the United Kingdom in Southern Scotland. Those completely freak-out Romans kept the wall constantly guarded so the Highlanders wouldn't 'invade' their civilization.

Well, it turns out that there was a method to their warrior madness. The Scottish Highlanders went into battle naked and half-naked because so many of fatal injuries during that time were caused by arrows that penetrated flesh after first cutting through a layer of rather rank-smelling, unhygienic clothing. The Scottish Clansmen figured, "What the hell? We'll free-ball it and charge the fields NAKED!"

And history was made. I swear to god. You can look it up.

Doug and I drove into the heart of the highlands on a rainy day and watched thunderous waterfalls crashing down the hillsides. We drove what would be the distance from Santa Barbara to San Francisco on the left side of the road with no shoulder and in the rain on a road half the width of San Marcos Pass.

The further North we drove the more misty and severe the landscape became. Wide open valleys lined with chilly rivers and groves of aspen and pine. You could almost hear "Enya" and "Clannad" playing in the background and envision tribes of men cloaked in animal fur and brandishing spears and bow and arrows filing down the mountain sides.

We explored the Island Of Skye off the West Coast of Scotland. The most accessible of the Scottish Islands and one of the largest. We were blessed by obscenely gorgeous weather during the day we explored one of its peninsulas and made a hike up one of its mountain ridges to be rewarded with a quintessential Scottish vista: expansive rolling hills dipping down into the ocean. a perfectly sculpted wall of mist rising over the mountain tops and the sky just on the edge between rain and almost raining.

We feasted on fresh ginger scones and hot tea and coffee. visited the ruins of an ancient castle clinging to the last vestiges of a seaside cliff. shared pints of beer and tequila shots with local islanders. The very same castle where that great classic from the 80's--"Highlander"--was filmed. Tried to decipher all the Gaelic (pronounced Gallic) signs we came across. It's incredible that the islanders are reviving the language of Gaelic. Many families are now sending their children to kindergartens and primary schools which either teach only Gaelic or English and Gaelic. With the renewal of the language comes incredible cultural pride.

To cap it all off, Doug and I ended our Scottish sojourn in the medieval city of Edinbourgh...for some reason pronounced as "Edinburrrrah!." Rent the movie "From Hell" with Johnny Depp and you'll get a little taste of what the city might have looked like over a hundred years ago. Pretty much the same only without as many tourists and stores.

The ancient city all emanates from "The Royal Mile," a cobblestone street which leads to the Royal Castle, perched at the very edge of an ancient volcano. Centuries ago, thousands and thousands of peasant lived within the city's walls for protection from intruders. As they had no radio or "Regis and Kathy Lee," the peasants and city workers would often gather in the public square to watch executions and public tortures...some of which lasted at least 30 minutes before the 'criminals' died from the rope burns and bleeding.

The natives had no sewage system so they gathered up all the day's "slop" in a communal bucket and tossed it out the windows between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. Walking the streets of Edinbourgh in the early morning was a 'dirty' and precarious task. All the city's waste would drain down the streets to a pond that lied below the city. When the city's pond was eventually drained to become a park, carcusses of animals and 200 women's bodies were found in its bowels.

It turns out that the scene about witch burning and drowning from Monty Python was all for real. Back in the day, if a woman was accused of being a witch, she was thrown into the pond to see if she floated. It was highly scientific you see. For witches are supposed to float. If she floated, then she was a witch and they burnt her at the stake. Well if she drowned, then oops, she wasn't a witch after all. She perished in the murky depths of the city pond.

Rather enlightening sense of justice. Truth is stranger than fiction.

On our last night, Doug and I had the twisted pleasure of accompanying a ghost tour through the bowels of medieval Edinbourgh. Along with several other misguided souls, we were led into the underground catacombs of the city where the criminal underbelly of the city once flourished. Lit by candlelight, we traced the footsteps of serial killers and graverobbers. Because the Medical School was only given one cadaver a year, there was a black market in corpses. Many disadvantaged fellows acquired skills at digging bodies up from the graveyards and selling them to the Medical School.

And you thought you had a tough job.

We last heard a pretty macabre story of two best friends who began killing people so they could sell the bodies to the medical school. Well the story eventually ends with one guy getting a pardon if he turns his best friend in. The latter unfortunate serial killer suffered the twisted ironic justice that only the medieval Scottish could conjure up. He was killed, his body was quartered and donated to the Medical School for scientific experiments and his glass-encased skull now overlooks the great Anatomy Hall at the School of Medicine in Edinbourgh.

These images, and those of idyllic rolling pastures and countryside, are what I envision when I think of Scotland now. In all of its mighty glory and beauty, we've still a long way to go! The romance of the past holds less allure to me now. I'd rather rent a historical period piece movie and linger in the ambience for a couple of nights with a plate of nachos than survive the horror that was medieval Europe. Ahh, the delights of living in the 21st century!

Cheers to all of you,