Monday, 5/30

On the road to Oban I noticed that I seem to have a semi-permanent taste of whiskey in my mouth. I imagine this to be the permanent state of many Scots. Also on the road to Oban, I noticed a few thickets by a loch with trees so big they seemed to be ecosystems within themselves, with ferns growing through the bark of their trunks and flowers growing out of the stumps where trees and branches had been cut. This seemed to reaffirm my notion of Scotland as a place where the years compound the life they've produced.

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle

We stopped on our way into Oban at the pleasantly under-curated Dunstaffnage Castle. My iPhone's memory was full and I was having technical difficulties making memory space, so I only got an initial shot of the castle's facade, which actually reiterated the, well, everyday feel of the castle. Quite a few locals - workers on lunch, locals walking their dogs and taking advantage of the generously blue skies - were sauntering about the grounds, looking relatively unconcerned with the historical significance of this monument, leaning instead into the sensory experience of this evanescent moment. Unlike most of my other memories of Scotland, I see this one as pure, unadulterated by frozen images, only translated through words into this experience I now share.

 

 

 

 

 

To summarize Oban: It is an oceanside town composed mostly of tight angles and steep inclines. It has a distillery named after it which I was not terribly fond of, and lots of townie bars I enjoyed much more. Most of the B&B's and guesthouses look out onto the city from the tops of its many bluffs, including the Greencourt Guesthouse where we stayed. We ate languostines, crabs, and salmon at Ee-Usk (Gaelic for "fish") one night and the Waterfront Fishhouse the next. It is easily accessible via mass transit, with both a train station and a ferry hub in the town center. One of its most prominent street signs warns against "Fouling," with a symbol of a dog defecating that's specific enough to include steam rising from its symbolic shit. On the street leading up the hill from the town center to the guesthouse district is an activist coffeehouse built into an incline so steep that the downhill side of the storefront is roughly three feet shorter than the uphill side. It is a city of tourists, but also a city replete with private gardens, and friendly cats with bells around their necks.

Tuesday, 5/31

Unlike Skye, Dr. Johnson quite liked Iona, the small island we took two ferries to reach on our second day in Oban that is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. I could see why he liked it, though perhaps I felt a little underwhelmed simply because, after Skye, it was more of the same. It was just a very high level of the same.

One of my favorite things to do is to sit and ponder the passage of time. From the seconds passing as the wind ripples a field of buttercup daisies to centuries-thick slabs of stone arranged into temples, the isle of Iona is well-suited to this activity. Centuries are glanced over in historical markers, but I imagine the slow passage of time in the tiny prison cells, the punctuated sessions passed in the little reading nooks with slivers in the stone that look out onto the beautiful, menacing ocean. Sitting in a dark, tiny reading room at the top of a tight spiral stone stairway at Iona Abbey and looking out one such sliver onto the blue water surrounding the island, I imagine years and years of monks, nuns, and abbots reading and writing here, in this place founded at the advent of Scottish Christian history by St Columba in A.D. 563, interrupted periodically by colonizing kings and invading Vikings, some perhaps thrown from their reading nooks into the prison cells just meters away, eventually settling with the rise of Scots democracy into a hippyish enclave surrounded by livestock, a small children’s nursery, broken down boats, and cerulean water. I imagine looking up from my book, perhaps swearing forced allegiance to yet another reformation, then getting on with the important business of getting on with it.

Sitting and looking at the photos I've taken so far, I'm reading from Knausgaard's My Struggle (Book II, p433): "When I was outdoors walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning." Even here, as I've been temporally in this country, this mythology, this restricted code, I've felt myself becoming attached to the photos I've taken, the pieces into which I'm cutting up and preserving the landscape, to the ways I'm entering into an ancient (by human standards) culture by cutting it into these pieces I can digest. Before I even got home I ordered Johnson's account of his journeys through this same land centuries earlier - in this small way I feel like I know him, through this shared bit of land and sea, caught in words.

If the passage of time was a theoretical consideration while on Iona, it was a practical consideration—nay, a sword of Damocles—once we left it by ferry and drove across the Isle of Mull to the Oban ferry. Scotland’s highways, for all their one-lane, sheep-ridden charm, are not a place to drive in a hurry. Never was this more readily apparent than when traversing the 36-mile length of the Isle of Mull to and from Iona. After spending the day on Iona and eating a smoked venison plate at The Keel Row, we thought an hour and a half would be sufficient to reach the last ferry. It was, by less than five minutes. We were especially surprised at how many tour buses not only use these one-laners, but don’t use the passing places; they simple roll along, and god help the poor mortal driver who doesn’t get out of their way.

In the handful of minutes waiting to load onto the ferry back to Oban, I looked down at the solid stone beach. The cracks were what most drew my attention - out of every one, and even in some of the shallow pockets worn into them by centuries of water lapping upon them, were small, bonsai-like hedges capped by purple flowers. I thought of the thicket I'd seen from the car on the way into Oban. This moment was already gone, but the stone would remain. And so would the flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In almost every public space in Oban, including the pubs, were posters laying out the pros and cons of the upcoming European Union secession referendum, or Brexit as I heard it dubbed on my return home. This was my first real experience with the revolt that has now come to pass. To a man (and woman), every Scot in every tavern and every public place was for staying in the EU. Even I, with my going-on-a-week's education in Scottish history, could see why: The EU had been much kinder to Scotland in its fifty-plus years than England had been to Scotland in the thousand or so years previous. I was tempted to compare the referendum to the U.S. voting cycle, the xenophobia that seemed to drive British voters to the xenophobia and racism that drives Trump voters here. But then I thought, People don't talk about these things in American bars. Official political discourse like all these posters is not allowed in public places, and some misguided sense of personal privacy allows Americans to think it their right to vote on uncritiqued prejudice without revealing it. Unlike the UK and the rest of Europe, we don't have millions of refugees fleeing a brutal dictator knocking at our borders; in fact, we whine and cry when our President allows 10,000 - 10,000! - of them into our borders. I thought then about my tendency to despise the line of thought that clings to cultural purity, and yet one of the primary reasons for my attraction to Scotland is its cultural singularity, its purity.

Both nights in Oban we watched UK game show The Chase at a bar while drinking Caledonia Best ale, neither of us knowing there is actually a U.S. version of the show. We followed along with the leadup to the EU referendum, and also as the verdict was handed down in a horrific child murder case involving a two-year-old boy who was beaten to death by his mother and her girlfriend. This was during the same couple of days when U.S. social media exploded after a gorilla was shot while possibly trying to protect a boy who'd fallen into its cage at the zoo. No one in Oban had yet heard of this gorilla, and when I told the bartender about it, she laughed. I laughed too. She told me this two-year-old boy had fallen off the social radar after his daycare workers had noticed signs of abuse, and had spent months thereafter in a cage in their home. He died in their bathroom of a ruptured heart caused by blows to his body. Everyone in the bar stared at the TV, in shared horror at the crime that had not receded in the months of the trial. I saw no relief on any of their faces at the just verdict. For the rest of my trip, continuing to observe the ruins of empires and the lives and deaths of important, historic, abstract visages while hearing and seeing about the latest battle for sovereignty, I thought most about that boy and his tiny, destroyed heart.

 

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Saturday, 5/28

My image of the passage from the West Coast to the interior was one primarily of shrinkage, like going from the edge of the world to its warm, pulsing center. While speeding down the relatively wide highway A82, we watched the sun slowly set over the stone-flecked hills, then drove through darkness into and out of numerous tiny stone-built hamlets - Benmore, Comrie, finally Dunkeld - mostly via one-lane highways made more navigable by their simple fact of their almost complete desolation. The only life we saw were the frequent animals - deer, sheep, hedgehogs - crossing the roads in front of us as we passed further and further into a part of Scotland that felt somehow both manicured and wild. We arrived at Kinloch House after 1 a.m. Not wanting to wake hotel visitors who were staying in rooms overlooking the entrance, we parked in the far lot. Out ran a man in the most well-pressed suit, with the most perfectly trimmed beard and the most well-enunciated English, who seemed a bit put out that we didn't invite him to carry our luggage but invited us once we were settled to come out to the fire with him and have a drink. "After a long journey," he said, "everyone deserves a seat by the fire." My most pressing thought was an intense, almost shameful self-awareness that we have the money to be rewarded for our mistakes by drinks at the fire with well-dressed men with perfectly trimmed beards who speak perfect English.

Sunday, 5/29

Even the wheelbarrow's placement feels intentional.

Even the wheelbarrow's placement feels intentional.

We woke up as if from a nightmare into the most wonderful dream. After bathing in a tub with a golden faucet shaped like an old-time telephone, we had breakfast seemingly with a server for every meal item. I don't watch Downton Abbey, but my wife kept invoking it. After breakfast, our host encouraged us to take a stroll through the grounds before departing. Walking through the perfectly manicured walled garden, I thought to myself, My god, our little garden at home is so small-time. Every color on the spectrum seemed to be represented in the flowers and leaves and buds, and the birdsong seemed to include every note on the high end. Everything was just so well-cultivated, and this place is in the middle of nowhere. It is meant to be experienced by few, the few. I didn't want to leave, but neither did I want to get used to it.

 

 

We decided to spend the day in Pitlochry, a small township that boasts an inordinate number of distilleries even for Scotland (my favorite was Blair Athol, though we didn't get to try Ebradour because it's closed on Sundays), a relatively hidden waterfall called the Black Spout, a hydroelectric dam with a salmon ladder, and a wonderful restaurant called the Old Mill Inn that serves a special Sunday meal of sliced beef covered with gravy and puff pastry the size of an infant's head, all of which can be experienced on foot over the course of a longish afternoon. After mistaking Pitlochny for Loch Lory, I realized that almost everything in Scotland has loch, noch, or ness in its title.

The unassuming splash at the left was, just milliseconds earlier, a flying salmon

The unassuming splash at the left was, just milliseconds earlier, a flying salmon

My favorite part of Pitlochry, successfully predicted by my wife, was the salmon ladder, a strange and wonderful part of the hydroelectric dam that simulates an upriver migration for the native salmon at the Pass of Killiecrankie. I'm not entirely sure how it works, but it seemed to stimulate the salmon in the river itself enough to take periodic leaps into the air above the current. I became temporarily obsessed with trying to catch a salmon in flight, sitting at the bank with my iPhone steadied on a section of the rapids that seemed to have the most fish-flight activity for a good fifteen minutes. After a number of misses - fish out of frame, too slow at the trigger, etc. etc. - I finally caught, or thought I caught, one in the air. Alas, I visited the salmon ladder at Pitlochry, and all I got was this lousy splash.

The Pitlochry hydroelectric dam and salmon ladder

The Pitlochry hydroelectric dam and salmon ladder

On the road to Perthshire in the middle of the previous night, I’d gone ahead and found a place to stay on this night, even though the bank holiday was technically over. I’d found what looked like an old Victorian plantation on the outskirts of the small township of Alyth that had been converted into a hotel and restaurant, interestingly named Lands of Loyal. Similarly to Kinloch House, the place was situated outside any town proper, and surrounded by a garden. It was older than Kinloch house, more ramshackle, with a skeleton key to our room door and a giant main hall with deep-cushioned couches, a whiskey menu on every coffee table, and an elk head above the fireplace. The owner, a soft-spoken middle-aged woman who made the immense space of the main hall feel warmer when she entered it, told us about the yaks—I mean cows—that grazed in the lawn next to the fountain outside the dining room, about the twins cats that looked like small leopards prowling the estate’s perimeter, about the history and community of Alyth, a township composed almost entirely of stone. She reminded me of the man at Kinloch House the night before, only she, like Lands of Loyal, felt less formal, more organic, like she and her hotel had grown out of the culture here rather than being planted into it fully formed.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 6/2

After traveling back to the coast for two days in and around Oban, we traveled quickly through Stirling on our way to Edinburgh. Our first stop was Doune Castle, the main draw of which I freely admit was the fact that a certain scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed there, and I felt a distinct air of whimsy around the place. I took a quick photo of its front, imagining a crazy Frenchman farting in my general direction, while a couple of women arranged miniature gnomes on the lawn to photograph in front of the castle.

My mother was not a hamster, and as far as I know my father had no contact with elderberries.

My mother was not a hamster, and as far as I know my father had no contact with elderberries.

Stirling Castle, a few miles down the road, was a significantly more immersive experience. Second only to Edinburgh Castle in immensity among the castles we saw, it feels not just like a home or a stronghold, but like a metropolis. Like Edinburgh, it sits atop a bluff surveying the land in every direction. Inside its walls are many alley-like corridors, a number of booming-ceilinged auditoriums, a public square, shops and reliquaries, prison cells, immense kitchens and dining halls, and purple flowers growing directly out of the stone constructions everywhere. These tiny purple flowers, which I’d by then seen growing out of the stone coast of the Isle of Mull and the base of the Old Man of Storr, had come to represent Scotland itself to me: flourishing from antiquity in places they don’t seem to belong, stubbornly syncopating its landscape by making their homes in the least habitable places. I now understand why those rascally Scottish twins dedicated their 2001 album Persevere to this ravaged archipelago.

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Deciding where to go this morning with her seven-year-old sister:

7YO: Let's go to a museum.

ME: It's nice day. I think we should do something outside. Central Park?

4YO: But I don't want to go to a museum!

ME: I know, I just said we're going to do something outside.

4YO: But I don't want to go to a museum!

ME: Listen to me. We. Are. Doing. Something. Outside. Not the museum. I've said it twice now.

4YO: No, you didn't. You said it three times.

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Friday, 5/27

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

On our way out to Skye we stopped at Eilean Donan, one of the most visited castles in Scotland. After paying the requisite fee at the visitors' center, we crossed the moat to the interior of the castle and watched the introductory video narrative told by actors from the perspective of various relevant historical personages. I thought, after hearing an English naval officer speak of blowing up the castle to rout the Jacobites and Spaniards occupying it, that for a ruins, this castle is remarkably whole. And as I walked through it, I kept thinking, There sure is a lot of wood in this stone enclosure. The castle itself, as I soon put together (or my wife soon told me), is almost entirely a rebuilt facsimile. As such, it's one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland. Many couples, in fact, have rented the space for weddings, filmmakers have used it for shoots, and shortbread and whiskey makers have used its likeness on their packaging.

 

 

 

 

 

As we drove from Eilean Donan into the edge of Skye, we noticed the mountains got craggier, more barren, more stone-laden, more imposing. We stopped at Cuillin Brewery outside Sligachan and had fish and chips and Black Face beer (named for a type of sheep, not a brand of racist minstrelsy) for lunch. Sipping the lukewarm (was that intentional?) brew, I thought, as my wife excused herself to use the restroom and I watched a father and his grown son play pool, that this has happened not just for decades but for centuries. Not the pool game necessarily - maybe it was dice, or other games of leisure and chance with which people have kept themselves busy and in company. This universal impulse - to drink fermented beverage and do nothing together - has sustained culture just as reliably as building fortresses, fighting wars, and sustaining family lineage. Looking out at the craggy mountains littered with the stony remains of pre-organic volcanoes, drinking made more sense to me than perhaps it ever has.

After lunch and beer, we drove past Portree to the Old Man of Storr. We didn't know it, but we saw the old man coming from miles away. "Look at that range," I told my wife, pointing to an abnormality in the rock formation. "That part of it looks like the teeth of a key." As we drove closer, we found that the "teeth" were giant volcanic rocks that did in fact look vaguely like giant people gathered at the top of a mountain, with one, the Old Man, seemingly holding forth in ancient assembly. The sign at the bottom of the trail leading up to them told us that these volcanic stones are roughly 55-60 million years old. As we made our ascent, I became more and more aware that this might be the most overwhelmingly majestic vista I would see in my life - blue sky above, blue loch below, pockets of water nestled in the crevices of the mountains, and these giant rocks whose existence began with this world's first rumblings of organic matter. Almost at the peak, I looked down at my wife sitting on a stone and looking over this expanse, her red curls flaming in contrast to the green and blue and grey, and thought she - this woman I know more intimately than any before or since her - looked almost mythic, unknowable.

After snapping shots of my wife, I looked up at the Old Man. I wanted to know him too. Without telling my wife, I began climbing on all fours up the almost-sheer rock face leading up to him. This was not my most thought-through move. About halfway up, I looked down. There was no going back, at least not the way I came. I looked at the next stone to pull myself up, and saw a orange on it. Someone had not only left this orange, but carved a smile into it seemingly in the style of that creepy How Are You Peeling? book. I smiled back at the orange, and continued up. When I could climb no further up, I found myself standing in shadow at the foot of the Old Man. I wanted to breathe that moment deep into myself, feel the wide expanse of time and space within and without me. I thought about Andy, my good friend and colleague who fell to his death from Breakneck Ridge off the Hudson a week before we'd left for Scotland, and wondered if this was the last thing he felt. When I climbed down, my wife was almost frantic. "Where did you go? I thought I lost you!" I told her about the feeling at the top, and about Andy. "I thought about Andy too," she said, glaring. "Don't do that again."

 

At the foot of the Old Man

At the foot of the Old Man

At the foot of the Old Man

At the foot of the Old Man

We drove back down to Portree with a sense of the world opening up to us. We had no rooms booked for the weekend, figuring we would find a room each night wherever we ended up. The first we found, Braeside B&B, had one of their three or four rooms available, as the man and woman drinking on the porch told us ("Eighty dollars if you pay in cash. Pick up the keys at the foot of the steps inside, and pay us in the morning. Wifi is rubbish, but the passcode is on the door."). We walked the town for hours to the sound of accordions from every corner as there was some sort of accordion music festival in town for the weekend. We found a hole-in-the-wall, perhaps popup seafood restaurant on the pier where the fishermen unloaded each morning and evening, got pleasantly drunk, and disputed the number of accordions playing at once in the town (my wife insisted it was impossible for ten to be playing at once in one bar). We read the municipal bulletin board and discovered a Citizens Advice Bureau, a non-profit dispensing free advice on request. We had dessert at a hotel lobby, where the teenage hostesses were too concerned with attracting the attention of some boys outside to ask us to pay. And then we slept.

I keep thinking now, looking at the maps that guided us through Scotland in the ensuing weeks afterward to remember the names and places we visited, about the opening lines of Laura Riding's "Map of Places": "The map of places passes./The reality of paper tears./Land and water where they are/Are only where they were..." In the weeks before our trip, my wife repeatedly asked me to take a look at the atlas and guidebook she'd gotten, and let her know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to see. I didn't look at the map or the guidebook until we were on the plane, and even then only cursorily. This has been my m.o. pretty much any time I've visited a place entirely new to me: wanting the thrill - or pseudo-thrill - of discovery, I shun graphic representations and brief touristy summaries of what has to be a more interesting reality. But after the trip, as my wife bugs me to give up the atlas so her mother can use it to plan her own upcoming trip to Scotland, I find myself hoarding it, looking at the highways we traversed, the names of places we saw and didn't see, the blue veins of water running through everywhere, trudging up memories and associations that deepen the experience of these Scottish places for me by mapping them. A map is a system; the terrain of the journey is the habitation of story. It is this reverse-mapping, a fairly useless skill while traveling that undoubtedly makes me a more annoying travel-mate for my wife, that makes a journey a journey, and not just a series of places.

On our way to the fairy pools we took a wrong turn off B8009, toward the Talisker Distillery. I'm so glad we did. As we looked over the grey-blue water of a small loch whose name I can't recall or find, we saw a small mountain plateau with twin tips, one reaching toward the sky and one reflected in the water. I thought of Calvino's Invisible Cities, particularly the city of Valdrada, built on the shores of a lake perhaps like this one, where "the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down." Much like the invisible city of Valdrada, this mountain and its evanescent twin undergirding it "live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them." Later in the day, after we'd finished at the fairy pools and were on our way back to Talisker, the wind had picked up a bit and the second, invisible mountain was gone.

The twin-topped mountain

The twin-topped mountain

I'm glad we did the Old Man of Storr and the fairy pools in back-to-back days; in many ways they are inverses of each other. Whereas the Old Man leans upward with all-encompassing majesty, one must fix one's gaze downward to catch eternity in the the cerulean water of the fairy pools. Whereas my wife's frustration with me at the Old Man was mostly in my losing her while going upward without my consent or knowledge, her annoyance with me at the fairy pools was more that I stopped at every little myriad pool, so that she always seemed to be at least a hundred steps ahead of me. The path along the pools leads to the foot of an imposing range, one whose sheer bluffs and cloud-tipped crags made me jealous of the people passing by us with climbing equipment. But the pools were enough; they were plenty. Looking at the diminutive stream containing them from the top of the trail had me wondering, though: Where are the pools? Unlike the Old Man, they were not looming over the road for miles, or even any distance, in any direction. They only reveal themselves when you are upon them.

The fairy pools in summary from the road

The fairy pools in summary from the road

The fairy pools in detail

The fairy pools in detail

The fairy pools in detail

The fairy pools in detail

One little fairy pool, in ultra-detail

One little fairy pool, in ultra-detail

Before lunch we visited the Talisker distillery, one of the few whose name I recognized before coming to Scotland (the others, Glenlivit and Glenfiddich, we didn't visit). Maybe it was the linguistic familiarity, but this was my favorite distillery. I loved the industrial exterior - the entire distillery was rebuilt in 1960 after being destroyed by a still fire - and the whiskey itself was second in my book only to Blair Athol (keeping in mind that we only bought bottles under forty pounds in price). I'm sipping a little of the Talisker Skye right now at home while writing my remembrances from notes. I was shocked and dismayed, however, to find in the distillery's given history how badly Samuel Johnson thought of the isle of Skye. "...a dry day was hardly known"...I wish he'd been here when I was. I would have happily shared with him the langoustines I bought at the oyster shed up the hill from the distillery.

 

 

 

Langoustines: Like crawdads, but bigger. Like lobster, but smaller. And they call them prawns.

Langoustines: Like crawdads, but bigger. Like lobster, but smaller. And they call them prawns.

Our next stop was Fort William. We decided to take time getting there, riding the ferry across Armadale Bay from Ardvasar to Mallaig, then listening to BCC Scotland in the car as we drove the hour or so the rest of the way. On coming into Fort William around five or six, we wondered if we should have dinner or find a hotel first. Seeing some No Vacancy signs on the first B&B's on the edge of town, we figured it might be a good idea to find a place first. We checked the bigger hotels downtown, thinking we might just walk around what looked like a bustling downtown and then to our room afterward. No Vacancy. We got back in the car and drove to the south end of town, where we'd been told were a ton of B&B's. There were, and all of them had big No Vacancy signs out front. We spent the next three hours driving down the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe almost to Oban, meeting either No Vacancy signs or confused proprietors who'd forgotten to change them. One of them told me that it was a banking holiday, which meant all the Brits were flooding the West Coast of Scotland for the weekend. Every B&B and small hotel was loaded with merry people, and every person there looked at us with pity and/or revulsion, as if to say "You didn't make reservations on a banking holiday?" and/or "Dumb fucking Americans." As it became more and more possible that we had no place to stay - no place to stop even, as every small town, hotel, or B&B had a manager, cook, or self-designated watchman letting us know we should keep moving - we became more and more desperate and more daring, venturing far into backroads in search of unreserved accommodations and even begging a few places to find us a room, any room, it didn't matter, we just wanted to stop driving, eat, and sleep. We drove through the tourist village of Glencoe slowly, dodging children riding bikes while examining every place we saw for any sign of a possible opening. We stopped at the Glencoe Hotel, which like everywhere else offered no vacancy but unlike everywhere else had a friendly manager who wanted to help us. This lovely person - her name was either Shana or Shannon - called place after place, accepting rejection after rejection on our behalf. "Would you be willing to go further inland?" she asked. "Perthshire, perhaps? It's a three-hour drive, but far enough away from either coast that touristers would be uninterested." Sure, we said, looking at the hotel clock. Almost 10:00pm. More rejection, until finally Shana or Shannon brightened up while chatting on the phone. "Ok," she said. "Kinloch House has one room left. It's a bit pricey and out of the way..." "We'll take it," I said. After making the reservation via phone, we thanked her and asked if she knew where to eat on the way out of town. "I'm afraid everything's closed but the Cooperative. They might have some fruit and a pre-made sandwich. Good luck."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Wednesday, 5/25

Sleeping in my cell

Sleeping in my cell

After a layover in Dublin where I slept in a cell for children, we flew to Inverness on a very small propeller-powered plane. On the way, we chatted with a man originally from Inverness who was traveling back with his mate. In many ways, our early plans were shaped around his advice - don't let yourself stay in the car all day, and don't get too attached to the map. We checked out our rental car, a very small and lovable Vauxhall. In order to save $80 on the second-driver fee, we had to chose one of us to drive. The thought of the opposite lane thing making my driving even worse prompted my wife to volunteer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In planning our trip, we arranged much of it around distilleries and castles. We visited our first, Cawdor Castle, before even checking in at our hotel. I'm glad we did, though we were too late to catch the guided tour. The crest on the main archway has become my current motto:

The castle itself and surrounding woods and garden are pretty stunning as well:

My wife also found another, at-least-as-interesting set of old stones near Inverness before we checked in, the Clava Cairns (nearly everything one might visit in Scotland involves collections of old stone in one way or another). The stones and their possible function are the subject of endless speculation, but it's generally agreed that they're roughly 4,000 years, or two A.D.'s, old.

After one castle and one mysterious ruins, we decided to check into our hotel in Inverness. We soon enough found the Columba Hotel's name portentous - nearly every major town we visited had something named after Saint Columba, the first Irish evangelist to bring Christianity to Scotland in the 6th Century. But more on that soon.

That night we had our first pub meal at Hootananny in downtown Inverness. The name itself gave me an initial twinge, as I've always spelled it hootenanny. After a quick online search, I found that apparently a few other UK randoms use the a instead of e; I'll chalk it up to to-mah-to.

Thursday, 5/26

We started with breakfast at Columba, the first of many traditional Scottish breakfasts I enjoyed. Allow me to summarize here, even while recounting the first day, from a whole trip of traditional Scottish breakfasts served at many different places and accommodations. A traditional Scottish breakfast consists of eggs (most likely poached), bacon that any American (myself included for the first two days) will call ham, a pretty large sausage link, one pan-fried tomato, sauteed mushrooms, haggis (for the brave), and black pudding (for the masochistic), all arranged neatly on one plate. You'll also probably have toast (white and/or brown [don't call it wheat]), and possibly a bowl of porridge, yogurt, juice, and tea or coffee. I don't tend to be much of a breakfast eater (which the New York Times says is ok) but a week of Scottish breakfasts might have changed my morning appetite entirely.

This seems as good a time as any to admit that I have no idea whether the adjective for that breakfast or anything else in Scotland is "Scottish" or "Scotch." (Apparently "Scots" can also be used as an adjective. Not helping, Scotland.) I tend to trust word maven Patricia T. O'Connor, so here's what she has to say.

Back to Inverness, and driving. Even from the limited amount we’d done so far (and by “we” I of course mean my wife), I came to my first Things Are Different Here realization: Scotland is pedestrian- rather than traffic-friendly, even—or especially—in the cities. Unlike most American cities, the courtesy of not making someone feel in danger walking, or even standing, in the street always trumps the impatience to get where one is going.

We noticed this as we drove out of Inverness on our first excursion, around Loch Ness. Once we got out of town, we discovered another, much more innervating element of driving in Scotland: one-lane highways. I don’t mean one lane in either direction—one lane, shared by vehicles moving up to 50mph in both directions, with periodic “passing places,” extended shoulders in the road to pass, every couple hundred meters. This also, while perhaps sending me home with another ulcer or two after a week of it, has the probably-systemic effect of encouraging friendliness and consideration while driving. When drivers see each other coming, the one closest to a passing place pulls off, perhaps flashes the headlights, and allows the other driver to pass, to which the passing driver nearly always gives a friendly wave. This system works pretty well, except for two quirks: 1) Nearly all the roads in Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands, are terribly curvy, incurring many blind spots in a trip where drivers hope and pray no one is speeding toward them, and 2) The roads are travelled not just by compact vehicles like our little Vauxhall but by service trucks and even in some cases by tour buses, nearly all of whom barrel through on the correct assumption that in the event of an accident the other guy’s going to get the worst of it.

This is especially pronounced along the southeast shore of the pencil-like Loch Ness, which has no castles lining it and is relatively undeveloped. There is some wonderful sheep-watching to be had, though; in fact, at one point we found ourselves sharing the road with some of them. One notable stop on the southeast shore is the Falls of Foyers. It seems to have once been a raging falls that inspired awe and fear, but damming for electricity over a hundred years ago has made it more of a pleasant trickle. The walk to it is well-groomed and easy, and the local café at the parking spot was a good place to get a tea for the walk down.

Some sheep with whom we shared the road

Some sheep with whom we shared the road

The Falls of Foyers

The Falls of Foyers

 

 

I was rather stunned at how abruptly the character of Loch Ness changed when we crossed Fort Augustus to the northwest shore. The highway up the northwest side of Loch Ness is far more developed, for better and for worse. It's nearly all two-lane (better), but it’s thoroughly built up and branded around Nessie in a way I can only describe as Branson-esque. Not that I have anything against Branson - the centerpiece of most summers in my childhood was the annual visit to Lake Taneycomo, Silver Dollar City, and the Shepherd of the Hills - it's just that, well, this is the LNfnM we're talking about here. Like Sasquatch in North America, she represents a modern duality between fascination with the yet-unmapped and the desire to capitalize on it through cartoonish caricature. Being a North American native I was born burnt out on Bigfoot (which to me is as much a monster truck as it is a monster), though my friend Matthew Goodman, a narrative historian, recently pleaded the case for a mutual friend of ours who has devoted his life to searching for Sasquatch, losing a fulltime teaching job and a marriage in favor of a solitary life squatting in the wilds of Vermont and southeast Canada for hours on end waiting for Godot, I mean a hairy ape-like being. Matthew says this friend is actually more in touch with himself and the natural world than I or Matthew could ever hope to be, because he still looks at it with the wonder of the mysterious, the undiscovered, the unknowable. The "museums," Nessie gear, and assorted tourist traps are the flipside of that impulse, taking the legend and bowdlerizing it, bastardizing it into merch logo. I feel very lucky to have a wife who didn't once ask if I wanted to stop at a gift shop to buy something to take home to our kids.

On this day I was glad to have four of my layers: t-shirt, long sleeve, sweater, windbreaker. The weather was cloudy and in the lower 50s, just like expected. Little did I know this would be the last day of the Scottish weather for which we'd planned. This is not a complaint.

After whizzing by the Nessie nonsense, we stopped off near Drumnadrochit, at Urquhart Castle. This was our first guided tour. We started with an 8-minute movie about the history of the castle, which began with the deathbed conversion of one of the castle's first noblemen by St. Columba, the famous Johnny Appleseed for Scottish Catholicism who had come upon the castle while traveling up the ness. While the rest of the movie played, I pointed out to my wife that the film was playing against the backdrop of what looked like a retractable wall, and speculated that maybe when the movie was over it would open to a panoramic view of the castle. Then what to our wondering eyes did appear as the film ended and the walls retracted:

O lovely bones, beauteous ruins! Thou art lovelier after thine own fashion than thy reshapen, rebuilt brethren we would soon enough see.

Omnipresent at the castles and the battlefields and the mountainsides and just about everywhere on the Scottish landscape this time of year are craggly bushes with deep, canary-yellow flowers. The closest approximation I can analogize is the purple heather that dots U.S. roadsides, and I noticed in fact that some people, when asked, actually referred to it as yellow heather. Its correct name is gorse, a wonderfully harsh Scottish nomer for this rough-hewn, prickly, brightly plumed new friend of mine that bridged the scope between giant volcanic stone and just-unfurling fiddleheads.

 

 

 

After a late lunch at its visitor center, we walked the Culloden battlefield outside Inverness. Even on our first full day in Scotland I found myself decrying the mediated nature of many Scottish places, their history acted out in short films and multitudinous maps and synopses, as if brooding on the appeal of the ruinous aesthetics weren't enough. And to be honest, it isn't enough. I know so little of the history of Scotland that even these little teasers were frequently illuminating. And in the case of the battlefield of Culloden, it isn't enough for the simple reason that the monument is, well, a pretty big field. Without the sense of historical weight, it would be very easy to just walk your Scotties through the field as if it were a giant dog run (which I did observe). The monument's curators are obviously aware of this, because the mediated leadup to the battlefield itself, which visitors are not to my knowledge allowed to skip, includes a zigzag hallway with decades leading up to the battle, told from the doomed Jacobites' point of view on the right and the English throne's on the left, leading into a four-walled room with a film reenactment of the battle projected on a four walls, attacking the viewer with the sights and sounds of the massacre. It has a historical significance and a narrative tension that almost made me weep by the time I walked through the doorway at the end of it to the battlefield itself.

And we still somehow had time to drive to our first distillery before dinner. I was glad Glen Ord was our first, as the tour guide was knowledgeable and personable, and also frank with us that we could expect roughly the same tour at most any distillery. And the process and equipment were pretty much the same as a walk I took through the Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, except that the gigantic vats were made of wood instead of stainless steel, and the aging cellar for the casks was centuries old and hadn't been used to sort fish just a generation ago. That aging cellar (I'm forgetting the proper term for it) is made of stone and naturally refrigerated, making it an emergency go-to for some of the larger (for Scotland) distilleries on the occasion of warmer weather.

Speaking of warmer weather. During the short drive to the distillery, the clouds parted for the first and last time on our trip; for the final eight days of our trip, not a drop of rain fell. We did not visit one stop without at least one local telling us how egregiously and abnormally well the weather was treating us. For the first of many times over the ensuing week, we looked out on water that was not grey but blue. This first time, as we were crossing the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth, was a moment that I immediately and unconsciously knew I'd been within before, despite the fact that I'd never been near here. It wasn't until a week or two later that I remembered dreams I'd had as a child after visiting the Ozark Mountains. In the dreams I flew over a wide expanse of blue that extended into the horizon behind the mountains, an endless expanse that was both water and sky. I probably still have that dream now, but I no longer remember it when I wake. I remembered the dream only on remembering that moment. I now remember that moment as the first time I felt at home in Scotland.

 

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

So wow, I've been traveling, childcaring, or otherwise detained for the past two months, but I've been gathering my thoughts, photos, and memories of my May/June trip to Scotland in the free space in my schedule and am finally ready to share them! This week, I'll post once a day about five Scottish places as my wife and I went through them from May 25-June 2:

Monday: Inverness & Loch Ness

Tuesday: Skye

Wednesday: Perthshire & Stirling

Thursday: Oban, Mull, & Iona

Friday: Edinburgh

 

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I'm sitting this Sunday morning in a coffee house in Millersburg, Ohio, which I'm just figuring out doubles as a church on Sunday mornings. I honestly had forgotten it was Sunday (I'm currently at a writing residency and have sort of forgotten the world outside the words I'm writing) and was confused when we walked in to the sound of a full gospel band. I gave a look at my friend Shannon, another writer at the residency, like, Want to get out of here? But we both had work to do, so I got a coffee and set up at a table to do some work.

Then the music stopped. A pastor sauntered up and said, "I know you didn't expect this, but you're getting another sermon!"

I groaned. I should say, for those who don't know me, that I am a recovering fundamentalist. I was saved at a Jesus camp before my senior year of high school, spent my first year of college preaching to youth groups, then was taught critical thinking and read my way out of my belief in One True God. I have an aversion to church, even to remotely churchy things.

As we prepared to leave the pastor said, "Now I'm about to say something that might make some of you want to get up to leave." He wasn't talking to me. "The title of this sermon is Why I'm a Racist." I looked around this coffee-house-cum-church and was pleasantly surprised to see a racially diverse crowd. I wondered where the pastor was going with this enough to stick around.

"I'm racist," he said, "because I am a white man in a country that extends me privilege because of that." I immediately thought of a HuffPost article I posted to Facebook earlier this week, "Why I'm a Racist." The piece, written by someone who, like this pastor, is a white Christian American male. The bulk of his argument could be summarized in these of his sentences:

I live my life day in and day out and only rarely am I forced to confront these realities. Certainly the media, social and otherwise, shine a light on the issue, but that is not what I mean.  Reading a powerful blog post or an inspiring tweet does not constitute confronting anything.  What I mean is that when I get pulled over, shop in a store, go for a job interview, meet a new person for the first time, etc... I expect to be judged by who I am.  
Yes, I am tattooed and bearded so I’m sure that on occasion someone generalizes about me, but I don’t worry about it because I know that once they get to know me they will move beyond those judgements. And I assume that they will eventually get to know me, because even with their judgement, they will give me the benefit of the doubt.  I live my life benefiting from other people’s glass walls.  That is simply not true for people of color.  They are forced to confront it every single day.  Perhaps not in an overtly bigoted and hateful way (although I’m sure that happens too), but in the “deficit of the doubt.”  

The pastor here just related a similar story, telling of growing up in Oregon and deciding to leave home as an adult to make his way in the world. "I'm free, white, and 21," he recounts thinking. "Where did that expression come from? It came from white privilege." Last night, talking about my own experience growing up and leaving home, I recounted feeling the same way. I also thought out how long it took me to honestly realize how lucky I was to be given the benefit of the doubt by strangers my whole life.

By now the pastor is leavening his argument by condemning homosexuality, transgendered-accessible restrooms, evolutionary theory, and environmentalism, but by the time he got to this I was willing to accept and ignore these gaping intellectual chasms between us. This message, that we are privileged in this country to be white, and even more to white and male, is perhaps the most important one that we white people can take from the Black Lives Matter movement.

After his sermon, I'm now listening to a young black father with his toddling child discuss history being written by the winners with a young white man who is nodding his head and seems to actually be listening. I decided I had to talk with the pastor.

I just finished talking to him for about a half hour. I started the conversation by describing myself as a recovering fundamentalist, that I was just here for the coffee but found parts of his sermon deeply affecting. He countered by describing himself as a recovering narcissist. We had about fifteen minutes of engaging verbal connection, with about fifteen minutes wherein he gave me the requisite sermonizing. He is a preacher, after all. I'd say that's a pretty good ratio.

I'm still not a Christian, and I'm still a reluctant member of dominant American culture. But I just did something I never thought I'd do again: I finished a church service willingly.

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Just got my copy of my old pal Caroline Gnagy's book Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History, which No Depression describes thus:

Drawing deeply on prison records, radio show transcripts, and the words and music of the inmates themselves, music writer Caroline Gnagy passionately tells the stories of these men and women musicians — who also were inmates — in her powerful new book, Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History (The History Press). Above all, Gnagy is careful to present singers and musicians as real people — mothers, fathers, lovers, friends — who happen to be behind bars.

I haven't seen Caroline in person since high school, but we've been longtime social media buddies, sharing stories and mutual memories of ill-fitting adolescences. I can't wait to tear into this, her first full-length book pub. Even the inscription, partially to her father, whom I remember vaguely but fondly, is touching and elegiac:

This book is dedicated to all the men and women who have served time in the prisons of our nation. So many of their forgotten voices, talents and stories will never be adequately conveyed to the world. And to my late father, Allan Stephen Gnagy, who in my girlhood drove for hundreds of miles, several times a week, to teach hundreds of prisoners the value of self-expression.

 

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Since returning from my recent trip to Scotland, I've been ingesting Stevenson's essays, Burns's poetry, and Johnson's and Boswell's accounts of visiting the Hebridean Isles, while trying to turn some of my journal from the trip into an essay. I just came across these lines from Stevenson's "Walking Tours" that make me want to just stop writing and quote them over and over:

We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts - namely, to live. We fall in love, we drink hard, we run to and fro upon the earth like frightened sheep. And now you are to ask yourself if, when all is done, you would not have been better to sit by the fire at home, and be happy thinking. To sit still and contemplate, - to remember the faces of women without desire, to be pleased by the great deeds of men without envy, to be everything and everywhere in sympathy, and yet content to remain where and what you are - is not this to know both wisdom and virtue, and to dwell with happiness?

 

This chair the the Lands of Loyal Inn at Perthshire was a good place for such thinking.

This chair the the Lands of Loyal Inn at Perthshire was a good place for such thinking.

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

A couple of my Convergent Media seminar students are doing a content analysis on how plastic surgeon and microcelebrity Dr. Miami uses Snapchat to promote and market his business and his brand. I always encourage my students to go as primary as they can with their research, so these two decided to try to get Mr. Miami to give a shout to our class. And he did! I have to admit to being a little starstruck, as are my students who contacted him:

I mean he gets thousands of messages a day and he responded to us in two days… Amazing. Famous. Sigh. We should be done with the last 2-3 pages this week, but regardless Dr. Miami said we get an A.
Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I was fielding questions about students’ essays in class today, when one student raised her hand.

STUDENT: Are you mad at me?

ME: Um…Why would I be mad at you?

STUDENT: Because you didn’t answer my email last Thursday.

ME: Really? What was the email?

STUDENT: I emailed to tell you I’d be absent. You never responded, and I thought you were mad at me.

ME: I did take note of your email. I was just in the middle of looking at your essays and didn’t know you needed a response.

Another student raised her hand.

OTHER STUDENT: You did that to me last semester. I thought you were mad at me too. I even asked your wife about it, but she told me you’re just bad with email.

(My wife is also a professor at the college where I teach.)

ME: <uncomfortable pause> Ok, let me just say that I generally don’t get mad at my students. I tend to get mad at concepts more than people.

OTHER STUDENT: Oh…Like our essays?

ME: <radio silence>

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I'm happy to have my first piece in three years up on Numero Cinq, a review of Patrick Madden's recent essay collection Sublime Physick. I was a founding editor at NC, and the magazine still holds a firm grip on my restless heart. It's good to be back. Here's the first paragraph of the review:

"In the last sentence of his postscript to 'Independent Redundancy,' the mammoth centerpiece essay of his new collection, Patrick Madden quotes Gide: 'Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.' This might be just a bit too morose to serve as an unqualified summation of Madden’s essayistic perspective, but it’s pretty close. To read a Patrick Madden essay is to interface with the mind of an engaged, self-conscious thinker. Actually, that’s not quite right: It is to interface with Madden’s curation of the minds of many thinkers within the expanse of his own."

Read the rest here!

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I LOVE the Sustainable Arts Foundation. I love their mission to fund artists and writers balancing their work and their lives as parents, and I love the outreach they do to fund other such organizations. I just got an email announcing the sixteen residency programs they're helping fund this year through their grant program, and can't help sharing it. If you're a parent who is a working artist/writer, you should take note of the participating programs. And you should start applying for their bi-annual individual artist awards if you don't already!

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I'm in my office right now, and a kid in his mid-teens, probably a recruit, just peeked meekly in my door.

"Excuse me," he said, "But I just read The Crucible for my class, and I was wondering if I can take a picture of your name on your door to show them?"

Sure, I said.

As he was taking the photo, his dad appeared. "Oh, did he write a book you read for class?"

"No," the kid replied, "He's in a book we read."

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

Just to show I haven't been doing nothing while absent from my web space, I want to proclaim three upcoming pubs!

First, in early April I'll have a review of Patrick Madden's essay collection Sublime Physick on Numero Cinq. This will be my first piece on NC in a couple of years and I love me some Madden, so I'm excited about that.

Also, my piece "The Beginning and the End," a prologue/epilogue to my List and the Story stuff that I presented at the VIII International Conference on Microfiction in 2014, will be published sometime this summer in Minificción y nanofilología: Latitudes de la hiperbrevedad, an anthology of microfiction published by Iberoamericana-Vervuert (Madrid/Frankfurt).

And finally, I'm happy to announce my second publication in New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature, a personal essay called "The Eternal Return of the Grievous Angel." That'll be in the summer issue.

¡Viva!

 

It's really nice, as a writer and as a person, to feel like someone gets you. Words like this that my old friend Laurie Easter recently wrote about my essay "Meditating Underwater" make me feel gotten:

What I love about John’s writing, besides his well-crafted prose, is his vulnerability and honesty. John lays himself bare as a character in his essays, not afraid to expose himself as an example of the complexities inherent in the human condition. This capability engenders not only trust in his narrative voice, but a certain kinship as well.
“Meditating Underwater” is a melancholy and moving essay about family—both the ones we are born into and the ones we choose—and how the very fact of birth into a family doesn’t necessarily cement a longstanding belonging even amidst deep love and caring. 

She also interviewed me for her Sunday Spotlight the week before last (sorry, I've been off the map the past couple of weeks) about that piece, my process, family, and other sundries. You can read it all here!

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I think I first heard this song last spring, and it's haunted my consciousness and my playlists since. It was written by a recent Yale graduate in his mid-twenties while alone in Alaska and obviously nursing a wounded heart and ego. But it's gloriously sung by two women (on the studio recording it's Holly & Jess of Lucius!) and a band of twenty or so musicians, though they only need seven - by my count - to perform it on the streets of Paris:


Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor

I debated between this and Lucius' equally propulsive "Don't Just Sit There" (both of which are regulars on my longform running playlist). I went with "How Loud Your Heart Gets" because mine does get pretty loud, especially while running. Also, remember: "The things we know, we just don't know."

Can't wait for the new album to drop in March! In the meantime, I'll listen to their Tiny Desk concert at least once a week.

Posted
AuthorJohn Proctor