Europe · Life in General · UK

Hallelujah! A Musical Christmas Card

A couple of weeks ago, I listened and watched the entire oratorio of Handel’s “Messiah” presented at the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It had been quite a while since I had heard the lesser-known pieces. If you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the “Messiah”, you have probably heard of one of the songs in it: the “Hallelujah Chorus”. The music took me back to Messiahs of other years.

During the middle of my time in high school, my father became the pastor of a small rural Lutheran church in northwestern Ohio. There, we lived at least ten miles from a town of any size. In the fall of my senior year and the fall following my graduation, he and I joined 150 other singers of the regionally famous Mennonite Choral Society in Berne, Indiana for practices and a performance of the Messiah just before Christmas. I don’t know how he found out about it or even if any auditions were required. I enjoyed singing some pieces from the Messiah at my previous high school the year before, so that could have been the catalyst. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and I sang soprano.

Once every week night, he and I headed out on dark and sometimes snowy or icy farm roads over the state line to Indiana to attend practices fifteen miles away. He was a taciturn man unless there were subjects to discuss that he was passionate about, so I don’t remember our conversations on the road – or even if there were any. I just remember the pride that I, and I’m sure he, felt about being part of such a wonderful performance. Knowing my dad, he probably was very happy that I did it with him.

The choir had performed the Messiah every year since 1893. Soloists were flown in from Chicago, which was Very Big Stuff to a small-town Ohio girl like me. A grand, beautiful pipe organ and small orchestra accompanied us.

The Messiah takes words from the Bible and tells the story of the nativity and its prophecy, as well as the crucifixion of Christ and victory over death. Even if you do not believe, the music itself is dramatic, heart-stopping, and absolutely beautiful. Both the oratorio and another piece, “Water Music Suite 1”, put Handel firmly in the list of my favorite composers. George Frederic Handel was originally German but he adopted London as his home. At age 56 he composed and had the very first Messiah performance not in London but in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742. Not Christmas time? No, it was originally written as an Easter Oratorio.

How the Messiah came into being at all is an interesting story. The words had been compiled and edited by a man named Charles Jennens, who gave it to his friend Handel to put into music. The well-known story is that Handel completed it in 24 days without eating or sleeping much. After the composition of the Messiah, Handel was going through a difficult time. Overworked and laden with debt, he accepted an invitation from Lord Devonshire for a ten-month stay in Dublin. He brought with him the musical score he had worked on while living in London, and the rest is history.

While we were in Dublin this summer, I looked for signs that Handel was here, and I found them. Dubliners are still proud to have hosted the first performance, all these hundreds of years later.

Before it could ever happen, Handel needed an organ to work the oratorio through, and it is reputed that St. Michan’s Church of Dublin graciously let him use theirs. The church has a long and storied history, which you can Google if you’d like. St. Michan’s is now a bustling restaurant and bar called “The Church”, and we had dinner there in what was formerly the balcony. The keyboard to the organ sits in the little alcove below the pipes. In converting to a restaurant, renovations were thoughtfully and respectfully made to keep some of the original architecture and furnishings in place.

It was interesting to think what the former parishioners would have thought about food and alcohol being served in their church!

It is still the same organ Handel played. The restaurant would like to renovate the organ. If you have $100,000 to spare, you can help them out!

The inaugural Messiah was played at the then-new Musick Hall on Fishamble Street. The original entryway is all that remains; behind it is an apartment complex.

I also found a plaque nearby that commemorates the occasion.

A open-air Messiah is performed near these gates in the Temple Bar area every year on April 13. This past year it was presented by Our Lady’s Choral Society and the Dublin Handelian Orchestra. The streets are packed and people sing along with the music.

I came full circle with Handel when we later visited London and Westminster Abbey. He is buried there, and a life-size sculpture on the wall near his grave is a memorial to him.

A fitting tribute, indeed, to a great man.

There have been other Messiahs over the years since the two years in Berne, Indiana. A few years ago, I sang with the church choir that I was a member of for its Christmas Eve service. My oldest sang the soprano solos, and the torch was passed. Over the years, my voice dropped from soprano to alto, and now a frog has moved into my throat, so I no longer sing publicly. But no performance has ever been the same to me as those in the Mennonite Church long ago.

I looked up the choir on YouTube, and found a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus from the 2015 performance. It was years after mine, but all was exactly as I remembered. I have placed a link here for your enjoyment.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: why does the audience stand up when the Hallelujah chorus starts? The very first audience in the recital hall on Fishamble Street did not. Almost a year later, the Messiah performed in London, and King George II was in attendance. He stood up when the Hallelujah chorus began. It is believed that he was so moved that he stood to show his reverence. Although maybe he was just stretching his legs, who knows? Because the king stood, the audience had to stand too, and audiences have done that ever since.

It’s time for me to have some eggnog, a Christmas cookie, and another listen to the Hallelujah chorus. Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! See you again in 2023.

Next time – a return to the RV’ing life in New Mexico

Europe · UK

A Visit to the Island of Skye, Scotland – Europe Travels August 2022

This was the day I had been waiting for: another Rabbie’s tour. The trip around Inverness with Rabbie’s had been so interesting and fun that we looked forward to our trip out to Skye for several days. It would be a much longer day: twelve hours, because Skye is a fair distance from Inverness. This tour is very popular, and although we were still in a small minibus, there were two of them waiting when we arrived at Inverness bus station.

First things first, though. There were Highland cows to see on the way out, and we had a much better view of these than we had on the earlier tour.

Besides these two, there were an additional two further out in the field. The cow on the left was very friendly and trotted right out to see us.

If you want to attempt to sound like a local, you would call this animal a “Heelan Coo”. It is indigenous to Western Scotland. Highland cows are as docile as they are cute. This one even stopped to show us one eye beneath all that hair.

Cuteness overload!

When we left Inverness, the skies were clear blue. As we got closer to Skye, the clouds gathered and the day became gloomier. I hear this is pretty typical for Skye. The average amount of sun hours for Portree, the largest town on Skye, is 1,170 hours annually. If you figure an average of twelve hours of sunshine daily, more or less, that works out to only 98 days when you may luck out and get a sunny day.

Arriving on Skye, our first stop was Glen Sligachan, with the Cuillin Hills in the background. This area is peatland, which the locals once used to cut for heating and cooling. About 20% of Scotland is covered in peatland. We walked over this bridge for a better look.

It was beautiful, but there were too many people about and not enough time for a venture further into nature. People were wandering everywhere. And therein lies a problem: these peatlands are fragile and protected. A signboard made a plea for a donation to the John Muir Trust to upgrade the paths.

The two men in this statue are John MacKenzie and Norman Collie. They climbed, mapped, and named the Cuillin hills in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Their partnership together lasted fifty years, and they are buried next to each other in a small cemetery within view of the mountains they loved.

The Island of Skye is covered in sheep. Unfenced sheep are grazing everywhere. There are over 100,000 sheep on the island of Skye, with blackface being the most common breed. I stopped to admire this little group, grazing near the bus park where we had stopped. They were too busy eating to turn around and pose for a picture.

Our guide had plenty of information for us as he drove. In the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, people built new homes next to the old thatched roof ones that had housed their families for generations. They removed the thatch, replaced the roof with cheap tin, and the old home became their shed. I looked for these as we rode and found several of them. Old stone fences also criscrossed the landscape.

We had some delicious fish and chips for lunch in the town of Portree. It was the second time on our trip that we ate in a former church, and these folks were doing a brisk business. It was the only item on their menu. The tour buses and minivans that are on the island for the day all converge on Portree at the lunch hour, so every eating establishment is full.

If you have ever watched the series “Doc Martin” on PBS, Portree looks a lot like the fictional “Portwenn” from this view.

In Portree after lunch, I poked around a local craft market and found a Skye author, Liz MacRae Shaw. Her books are historical fiction. One of them, “Love and Music Will Endure”, portrayed the life of Mairi Mhor Nan Oran. She was a poet and political activist from Skye during the 19th century.

The British had decided they wanted more sheep from Scotland, and Skye in particular. The landlords were encouraged to increase their income by replacing the smaller farms in their holdings with larger farms with more grazing land. They also wanted to reduce population. As a continuation of the hardships imposed after the Battle of Culloden, they started squeezing out those smaller farms in the 1750’s, now known as “crofts”, in a policy known as “The Highland Clearances”. There was forced migration and old ancestral homes were set on fire. To add insult to injury, the potato blight struck, just like in Ireland. People were suddenly homeless and crowded into local churches. Poverty reigned, and many former crofters left for the large industrial city of Glasgow to work. Some were involuntarily sent to Canada or the United States. The Highland Clearances went on for almost a hundred years.

Mairi fought for crofter’s rights in a time when women were supposed to be tending the hearth. She expressed her love for her homeland and the need for change through her poetry. I purchased the book, Liz signed it, and I spent the next week or two engrossed in this place at that time in history.

Looking down Skye’s rugged coastline from Portree

Back on the road after lunch, we headed northward along the coast. We were sometimes on single lane roads, preariously winding around the mountains, rising in elevation, with the wind picking up. The next stop: Kilt Rock or, in Gaelic, Creag An Fheilidh.

The cliff face that looks like a kilt is in the top rear of this photo. I was honestly more entranced by the gushing waterfall in the foreground. By now we had some light rain in addition to the wind, so this was a very quick stop.

Away from the coast and higher into the mountains we climbed, with the rain coming down in earnest now. When we finally arrived at Quirang, I was stunned at the panoramic beauty of the place.

I was cold, wet and almost blown away by the wind. Cal thought this was an auspicious time to take my picture!

The view at Quirang was more than worth the time we spent out in the weather.

We had seen the other Rabbie’s minibus here and there throughout the day, but by Quirang it was nowhere in sight. When I expressed my appreciation to our guide/driver for making this stop in deteriorating conditions, he said that some of the other guides don’t bother with it when the weather is getting bad. It was his opinion that you shouldn’t miss seeing what you’ve paid for. Of course, I wouldn’t have known the difference if we hadn’t stopped, so I was glad that we were on this particular minibus! For me, it was the highlight of the day.

It had been our furthest point north, so we started on our way back. At the bridge to the mainland, we stopped for a cup of hot cocoa and a look at some ruins.

We took a different way back to Inverness with completely different scenery. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take pictures out the window since it had rained off and on throughout the day. Especially closer to the island, I would have liked to know what I was seeing but our guide fell silent. He’d been regaling us with his stories and talking all day so I guess he was just tired! Our Rabbie’s day had been stellar, just like the first one had been.

I will be on a Christmas topic next week, and then will be taking a week off from the blog for the holidays. What about our RV’ing life, and what did we do after we returned from Europe? I’ll be answering those questions when I return.

There will be one more blog about our travels in Scotland. I’ve left out details of three things that many people think about when they think of this country. Do you know what they are? I’ll leave you to ponder that until I get back to it in 2023!

Next time – A Musical Christmas Card

Europe · UK

Circling Inverness, Scotland – Europe Travels 2022

Glen Affric, Scottish Highlands

In the months leading up to our trip, I joined a Facebook group for travelers to Scotland. People like me who are planning a trip here can ask all their questions and there is a ready supply of people who either live here or have traveled here to provide answers and suggestions. One lengthy discussion revolved around top sheets – or the lack thereof – on beds in Scotland because everyone in Europe uses only a duvet. The person was thinking about packing one, despite the fact that her trip was only ten days long. Another prospective traveler fretted about blow dryers (every single AirBnb we went to had one). A recurring theme was a concern about the availability of American drip coffee, which is not the way European coffee is made. You can try an “Americano”, which Cal did while we were here, but it’s not the same. He survived in fairly good humor for three months just fine without, in his opinion, a decent cup of coffee.

In between all the mundane stuff, I picked up some good sightseeing tips. The Dean walk that we had taken in Edinburgh was a suggestion from this group. Knowing nothing at first about what to see, I made a list of all the Highlands sites that sounded interesting. Cal and I decided fairly early on that we did not want to rent a car, but to take occasional day trips for sights that would be out of reach otherwise. A tour company name that kept popping up on the Facebook group was Rabbie’s, so I booked two day trips with them during our Inverness stay.

The first tour was called “Glen Affric, Culloden & Clava Cairns” which is exactly where we went. I had heard a little of Culloden before, and nothing of the other two. Culloden and the cairns were not far from Inverness so I thought it would be a great place to start. Both of these tours were in a small group and we rode in a mini-bus. Our driver was also our guide, and from the time we left Inverness she supplied us with a lot of information about what we were seeing.

Clava Cairns are burial tombs from the Bronze Age – about 4,000 years ago – in a circular shape. They are sacred to the people who built them and to the people who reused them some 1,000 years later. Some have an entranceway to a single burial chamber, as the one I am standing in does, and it would have been covered. Others are an unroofed ring with no access to the stones. There are four cairns here, and actually fifty of them in the Inverness area. This group is called the Balnuaran of Clava.

This signboard shows what a burial ceremony may have looked like here. It was interesting for me to compare the place to the tombs we had seen at Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland. This site was much smaller. Just like Newgrange, though, the sentinel standing stones light the passage on the winter solstice – but at sunset, not sunrise.

This is a cairn that did not have a passageway

Although it looks like just a weathered grey pile of rocks now, the builders chose stones in various hues for their cairns. There were reds, pinks, and whites, and it is thought that the various colors had a meaning.

We had some extra time, so we strolled down the road next to the cairns to look at the railway bridge that was off in the distance.

The Battlefield of Culloden was not far from the cairns. Our guide gathered us near the visitor’s center to give us some history, and then turned us loose to explore as we wished. Inside the visitors center were historic armaments and archaeological finds from the battle. An immersion theater with a 360-degree view very realistically puts you in the middle of the battlefield with the Jacobites coming on one side and the British on the other, while you stand in the middle. The story of this battle is fascinating, complicated, and very sad. It marks the last battle that was ever fought on Scottish soil.

On Culloden battlefield; the blue flag at far right marks the front line of the Jacobite Army. The picture is taken from the British Army’s side.

The Jacobites were supporters of the restoration of the Stuart line to the British throne under Prince Charles, and they were a political movement from 1688 until this day of battle. Nicknamed “Bonnie” for his youthfulness (he was 24 years old), Prince Charles’s court was in exile in France. Having won some skirmishes, he was master of Scotland and summoned troops for the uprising. The army was made up of French fighters as well as Irish and Scottish clansmen. William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, led the British soldiers on the other side. The battle occurred on the 16th of April, 1746.

Looking over the heather to the red flag marking the British side; the visitors center is left.

The battle was a rout. The Jacobites had numbered 5,500. By the time the battle was over, 1,500 Jacobites had been slain compared to only 100 of the British. The bonnie prince turned tail and eventually ended up in Rome. This memorial, built in 1881, remembers the Scottish lives lost.

The Battle of Culloden marked a turning point in the British treatment of the Scots people. For the next 150 years, they worked hard to break up the clans by banning traditional songs, the wearing of kilts, and the Gaelic language.

Several clansmen are memorialized with stones such as this, which reads: “Well of the Dead. Here the chief of the MacGillivrays fell.” The well is on the left.

As we strolled through the battlefield, I kept eyeing this picturesque little thatched cottage on the far side of it.

Leanach Cottage existed when the conflict occurred and was once part of a larger farmstead. Immediately afterward, it was used as a field hospital.

The little town of Beuly was also on our agenda for the day, and on the way to it we caught a glimpse of our first Highland cow. It wouldn’t come any closer than this for a picture, though.

Beauly was a lunch stop, but it also contained the ruins of a 12th century priory. What is a priory, you ask? I looked it up for you: it is a small monastery.

We had circled Inverness from Clava Cairns and Culloden on the east to Beauly on the west, and now it was time to head south to Glen Affric. We were on narrow roads, getting deeper into the Highland hills, and I was impressed that our guide could negotiate the traffic and also talk to us, all at the same time. Riding on the left side was still awfully confusing to this American and I was sure we were headed for a crash!

We stopped at River Affric, in Glen Affric, for a hike. There were a couple of trail options, and also an option to just sit. The group split up, and when we set off on our chosen trail we mostly had it to ourselves. The forest was hushed, the air damp. We walked through blooming heather, ferns and lush greenery, tall trees and hills, and the beautiful rushing river. A picture from our hike is at the top of this blog, and there are more below. I will leave you here for now to just enjoy them. We thoroughly enjoyed our day with Rabbie’s.

While hiking, I was struck by the vivid multi-hued green of the forest
Those trees…
Which would you choose?

Next time – out to the Island of Skye

Europe · UK

North to Inverness – Scotland- Europe Travels August 2022

Inverness, Scotland

Have you ever traveled from Minneapolis to Duluth, Minnesota in the United States? It’s about a two-hour drive. Traveling north to Duluth, there is a feeling that you are entering another, separate world. Open Midwest farmlands disappear and you start to see birch trees. And then, you get a great view of Lake Superior, plunge down a massive hill on I-35, and the temperature drops. Down by Lake Superior, it can feel like you’ve stepped into a refrigerator. The distance from Edinburgh to Inverness, Scotland is a little further, the scenery completely different, but the perception is the same.

We began the first official day of our Euro Rail Pass by traveling from Edinburgh to Inverness. We had the same awareness of entering a different world as we left the city and suburbs surrounding Edinburgh behind. The villages were smaller and more spread apart. We entered the wild Cairngorms with its mountains swooping up from the valleys and the sheep grazing in the heather. There were dense forests and castles off in the distance. Stepping off the train, the cool and rainy weather let us know we were much further north. The weather felt the same as Duluth in August, although it of course did not look the same at all.

Inverness Castle was picturesque but closed for renovations when we were there

Inverness is only half the size of Duluth in terms of its population of almost 47,000 people. It is the Highland’s largest city and its cultural capital. Instead of Lake Superior, there is the River Ness, and inlets that empty into the North Sea.

The first priority is always to find our Airbnb, and we were delighted that what we needed to do was simply to follow the river. There were footpaths on either side. The question throughout our ten days here was: “which side of the river shall we walk on?” Every time we walked down these footpaths toward “home”, with the castle behind us, I felt so happy to be here. Imagine walking home on these paths every day of your life! You buy your groceries, run your errands, and maybe pick up some takeout on foot, and then just follow the beautiful river home. If you have a dog, what a perfect place to walk it. I guess I wouldn’t like being out much in the winter time, though, and I’m sure it comes early here.

Inverness Cathedral is on the left of this photo; it lies directly across the river from the castle

People in the UK walk the same way as they drive: on the left side. I took the picture below on a beautiful Saturday so there were more people out than usual.

If we walked on this side of the river, we had to take the footbridge over to our side, which was always an extra treat.

The bridge made a thundering sound and swayed slightly when other people besides us were on it. A thrill every time!

Our AirBnb was just a block from the river and was the last in a little row of townhouses with some pretty daisies growing out front. You can just barely see the outline of the door in this picture. Inside, we had a one bedroom apartment and every room was entirely separate, our largest stay in the entire trip. It was perfect for what was to be one of our longest stays.

These pictures are a collage of many that I took while we were in Inverness. In all of our days in the town, there was plenty of time to explore. Sometimes the sun shone, sometimes not.

This picture is of the old High Church of Inverness, built in the 18th century on the spot where in 565 AD a gentleman by the name of St. Columba preached to the native Pictish people and their leader, King Brude. It is the cradle of Christianity in the Highlands. We received a fine view of the River Ness from here.

Two churches, including High Church, seen from across the river.
Abertaff House, built in 1593

Most European cities that we visited had statues of one kind of animal created in many different ways for photo ops here and there on the city streets. In Inverness, it was the Highland Cow, affectionately known as a “Hairy Coo”. Besides this one, we would regularly see another covered in pennies when we were downriver near the footpath.

We saw the young man below standing in a cold drizzle. Michael is 15 and started playing the bagpipes at age 11. Probably more impressive, he was spending a Monday morning out on the street in his kilt. He played beautifully.

Like everywhere in the UK, Inverness had its share of pubs

On our first Saturday afternoon in Inverness, there was a full downpour. We whiled away the afternoon by listening to traditional Scottish music at a different pub from the one above, called Hootananny. They have music that goes on through the night on two floors at this popular pub, but this afternoon they were having a “ceilidh”, which simply is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing. We enjoyed listening to them. Are you thinking that “Hootananny” is an American word? It comes over as that way to me, but the word was brought over to Appalachia from the Scots. It has roughly the same meaning as ceilidh, but somewhere along the line the spelling changed to “hootenanny”. Whatever it’s called, we enjoyed the music and the company in the pub.

Venturing a bit further downriver past our AirBnb, there are some islands in the River Ness called, appropriately, Ness Islands. This was a relaxing walk on a Sunday afternoon. I admired the homes along the river pathway.

A walk over a little bridge took us to the first island. It is a beautiful, serene place even with all the other people out enjoying the day.

Cal always appreciates a restful park bench with a scenic view

From the islands, it isn’t far to Inverness Botanic Gardens. The gardens are small but I enjoyed seeing the hydrangeas and other flowers blooming.

We spent a greater portion of another day hiking the Caledonian Canal. It begins at Inverness and connects the east coast to the west coast. The canal was envisioned as a throughway and safe harbor for shipping during Napoleon’s reign. During its construction in the early 1800’s, there were cost overruns and construction issues. By the time it was completed, it was no longer usable; ships were being built that were too big to use it. Napoleon had been defeated and the threat was gone. Although never used for the commercial purposes that it was envisioned for, it became a tourist attraction. Trains were scheduled to connect with steamboat services, and even Queen Victoria took a ride in 1873. Today, narrow boating is popular; people can spend several days navigating the canal from end to end.

The canal is sixty miles long and contains twenty-eight locks. It follows the Great Glen, which is a beautiful narrow valley, and cuts through Lochs (Lakes) Oich, Lochy and Ness.

There was a small boat progressing through the locks. Cal was totally absorbed in this process, so we watched it for a quite a while. In the picture below, the lock operator is behind the white fence on the left, and one of the boat owners is walking beside her boat to tie and untie it at each lock.

While we watched the Skimble go through, we looked down at a bridge below this set of locks and wondered: what are they going to do with this bridge to let the boat pass? After a while we had the answer to this mystery: it is a swing bridge, which rolls to the side.

After the Fort Augustus Swing Bridge the canal opens up into a marina, where I photographed this cute little houseboat:

The canal starts (or ends, depending on your perspective) at Beuly Firth, an inlet which empties into the North Sea. We walked all the way to the end of the canal.

Looking out at Beauly Firth

From here we retraced our steps back, stopping by the swing bridge at a tiny cafe for lunch. I ordered a split pea soup with a cheese scone. Look at the size of this scone! It was as big as a small loaf of bread and the leftovers were enough for both Cal and I to share for lunch the next day. We were outside and able to look at the canal as we had our lunch.

We had walked much further than we had intended when we left the AirBnb: 7 miles. When we returned, it was time for a nap!

I have one more food shot for you: a Scottish breakfast which I had on our last morning in Inverness. Starting with the tomato on the top and moving clockwise, there is lorne (beef) sausage, black pudding, haggis, a tattie (potato) scone, mushrooms, and of course, egg on top and tea with cream on the side. I didn’t care too much for the black pudding. Honestly, although I enjoyed this breakfast and was glad I tried the haggis, Cal had ordered a delicious-looking plate of French toast, and I kept looking longingly over at his food..

Of course, there was more to see in our stay here than just the city of Inverness. In my next posts, I will take you out and about into the Highlands of Scotland.

Next time – the countryside around Inverness, including the Battlefield of Culloden

Europe · UK

Stories of Edinburgh – Europe Travels August 2022

One thing I loved about Edinburgh was the stories I heard about, and the connections from one place that we visited to another. There were three in particular: that of the poet Robert Ferguson and his connection to Robert Burns, the story of Deacon Brodie and his connection to Robert Louis Stevenson, and also a little dog named Bobby.

We first met Robert Ferguson on the street. I thought his young energy really came through in this statue of him bustling down the Royal Mile, book in hand.

For two years, Ferguson wrote poems about his home city. One acclaimed poem was “Auld Reikie”, which observed a day in the life of such ordinary people as shopkeepers, children, whores and dandies, lawyers and schoolboys. But his life was short. He fell down some stairs, hit the back of his head and languished in a hospital. Conditions were not good there and he died at only 24 years of age in 1774. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Although his body of work is short, he was already well known and respected when he passed.

All that I knew of Ferguson was from reading the stone about him under his statue. Seeing it prompted me to walk through Canongate Cemetery.

I ran into Robert Ferguson again when visiting the Writer’s Museum. Robert Burns, regarded as the national poet of Scotland and the writer of the song “Auld Lang Syne”, greatly respected Ferguson’s work. He was about nine years younger than Ferguson so was probably aware of him only through his poetry. One thing that he admired about Ferguson was that he had written not only in Scottish English, but also in the native Scots language, Gaelic. Upon hearing that Ferguson was in a pauper’s grave, he paid for a proper headstone to be erected for him fifteen years after Ferguson’s death.

Robert Burns himself was not all that old when he died at the age of 37 from rheumatic heart disease and a bacterial infection that followed. What additional contributions these men could have given the world if they had had the benefit of our modern medicine!

Deacon Brodie was another person whose name kept popping up. I can’t take credit for this excellent picture of him, though. By the time I connected who Deacon Brodie was, we had passed his landmarks.

Credit: David/Flickr

This statue of him stands right outside the tiny cafe that bears his name and which is believed to have been his workshop back in the mid-1700’s. We had popped in for something warm on a cold and rainy morning. His story is painted on the walls but I could only see the portion by our table, since the place was full and bustling. Outside again, I saw Deacon Brodie’s Tavern across the Royal Mile. Who was this guy?

By day, William Brodie was a cabinet-maker and city councilor, a well-respected man who came by the title of Deacon by virtue of his position in the trades guild. But the fine Deacon had his secrets: he was a drinker and heavy gambler. To cover his debts, he began breaking into houses and burglarizing them. As part of his work, he would also install and repair locks. Did you need a new lock for your front door? Better not let Deacon Brodie replace it. He would copy the keys of his customers using wax impressions, and use that key to gain entry at night. Eventually he was caught, tried for his crimes, and hanged. They didn’t mess around with breaking and entering in those days.

The sad part is that he really was an excellent cabinet maker, and there in the Writer’s Museum was one of his cabinets.

The cabinet is made of mahogany veneer, one of only two pieces existing that are known to have been made by the deacon

This lovely piece of furniture was in Robert Louis Stevenson’s bedroom as a child and captivated his imagination. (I wonder: as a child, was it he who pulled off some of the knobs?) Later, he wrote a play about Deacon Brodie. The paradox that was evident in Deacon Brodie’s life also inspired him to write the well-known novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It was published in 1886, almost one hundred years after Brodie’s death.

The cutest story of all was that of Greyfriars Bobby, who lived from 1855 to 1872. He was a terrier and owned by a man named John Gray. When Bobby was only two, Gray died of tuberculosis and was buried in Greyfriars Cemetery. For fourteen years, Bobby would spend the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. He became the pet of the neighborhood. The owner of Greyfriars Pub would look out for him and feed him, and so did everyone else for that matter. The lord provost of Edinburgh paid for his license and gave him a collar, which can still be seen in the Museum of Edinburgh.

Soon after Bobby’s death, a woman by the name of Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned a statue of Bobby to be erected, and he is forever remembered. A book was written about him, and there is even a Disney movie titled, of course, “Greyfriars Bobby”.

I spent some time in Edinburgh wandering around looking for Bobby’s statue whenever I thought of it. Looking for it led us into Greyfriars cemetery for an enjoyable post-dinner walk one evening. I read later that J.K. Rowling received inspiration for some of the names in this cemetery for the Harry Potter series: Potter, McGonagall, Riddell, and others. Many are located along Flodden Wall, which I did happen to take a picture of. I wasn’t looking for gravestones that evening.

Bobby is also immortalized at the entrance of the cemetery, which you can see in the top picture of this blog.

If you are in Edinburgh and find Bobby’s statue, please don’t rub his nose. It won’t really bring you good luck and the locals don’t like how the finish on his nose has worn down. They are still pretty proud of their little dog.

Next time – Moving on to the Scottish Highlands

Europe · UK · Uncategorized

A Visit to Edinburgh, Scotland – Europe Travels August 2022

Victoria Street, Edinburgh

Flying from Dublin to Edinburgh was a little bit of an adventure. After we passed security, it seemed like we walked for miles and miles and then descended down to the bowels of the airport. We soon discovered the reason for this: we had to walk onto the tarmac to board our little airplane. It has been years since since we’ve gotten on an airplane any other way but a jet bridge. Although we traveled with carry on luggage, our suitcases were too heavy, so we had to check them. I think that if you had nothing in your suitcase, it still would be too heavy to carry on Aer Lingus. Remember the summer of ’22, when airlines were losing suitcases everywhere? We watched with some relief as they put our suitcases on the airplane. This picture was taken from our shuttle bus window, so you may see some raindrops and window glare.

At first glance from our city bus window on the ride from the airport, I knew I was going to enjoy exploring Edinburgh. The city has many buildings that are over 500 years old. Still others date back to the 1800’s. Monuments and statues are sprinkled everywhere, and Edinburgh Castle looks down on the city from above. I couldn’t wait to get out and see it all.

Looking up at Edinburgh Castle from Victoria Street
“Old Town” of Edinburgh

In the background of the picture above, the tall grey buildings were tenement buildings when first built. The arched steeple peeking over everything on the back left is the cathedral of St. Giles, on the Royal Mile. We had a tiny studio apartment in a very tall building that looked similar to the one in the front. There were three ways to get into it: from the front of the building off the street, from St. James Close at the top of the Royal Mile, and from Lady Stair’s Close.

Inside St. James Close

The Royal Mile starts at the bluff of Edinburgh Castle. It is the location of the ancient and medieval city of Edinburgh, and as the city grew, it stretched down along a sloping ridge. A close, by definition, is a Scot’s term for “alleyway”, and quite a few lead to picturesque lanes, pretty courtyards, and little pubs or cafes as St James Close does in the picture above. There are many closes leading off the Royal Mile, and as we walked, we peeked into some of them.

Many of the closes had informational plaques. This is Anchor Close, named after Anchor Tavern which was formerly here. The close dates from 1521. Also noted: Smellie’s Printing House which printed Robert Burns’ works and the 1st edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the parents of Sir Walter Scott resided here until 1771. Edinburgh is full of interesting history like that.

Some closes had beautiful entryways:

In 1861, a seven story tenement building in Paisley Close collapsed and 35 people were killed. It was a huge scandal at the time. One little boy, Joseph McIvor, was heard under the debris: “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!” Now he looks over Paisley Close for the ages.

This water cistern dates to the late 1700’s. The city was having issues in that era delivering enough water to the populace. The water cisterns in the city were only turned on for three hours, starting at midnight, to limit demand. People who could afford it hired caddies to fetch their water so they wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and stand in line!

The bagpiper was making beautiful music all day long
Canongate Tolbooth, which was outside the town walls in 1591.

Bookending the Royal Mile at the bottom is Holyrood Palace, the currrent residence of the British crown.

A quaint looking street, full of character, history and tourist shops that stretches for about a mile, gets more than its share of visitors. Early August is high tourist season; by late afternoon the streets were packed. Cal and I are early risers and had no problem being on the Royal Mile just when the shop owners were beginning to pull their postcard racks out onto the street. All across Europe, we reaped the benefits of being out early. I like uncovering the history of a place, and there’s no better time for that than being out before everyone else is.

A turn off the Royal Mile leads to Victoria Street, pictured at the top of this blog. This beautiful view was at the end of the street, right under the castle.

Gothic St. Giles Cathedral is the parish church of the Church of Scotland on the Royal Mile and was founded in the 12th century. The Scottish reformer John Knox is buried here. When Queen Elizabeth recently passed, her coffin was taken from her castle in Balmoral to Holyrood. From there it passed up the Royal Mile to St. Giles to lie in state for four days.

Above the entryway at St. Giles
John Knox

There is a chapel in St. Giles for the Scottish Order of the Thistle. It is the highest honor in Scotland and those recognized for contributing to public life become knights or ladies. In the chapel, the knights’ stalls for the honorees were based on those in Windsor Castle. Some of the animals appear in the knights’ coat of arms.

Also in St. Giles was an enormous plaque memorializing Robert Louis Stevenson. He was born and raised in Edinburgh, but is buried in Samoa. He was always in very poor health, which is probably why he is shown reclining under a blanket.

Which brings me to the Scottish Writer’s Museum. It is located in Lady Stair’s Close, right behind our apartment. After a couple of days in Edinburgh, I could no longer just walk by, and had to pay a visit to this extremely interesting museum.

Lady Stair, by the way, is not the name of the stairs going up to the close. Rather, it is the name of the fairytale-looking townhouse that was built in 1622 and now houses the museum. It was purchased about a hundred years later by Elizabeth Dundas, Lady Stair, the widow of the 1st Earl of Stair. It had been her grandparents’ house.

The Scottish Writer’s Museum, Lady Stair’s Close

A floor was dedicated to each of these three authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. A narrow curving stair took me to each level. I’d love to tell you details that I learned about each one, but that would take another blog page. Maybe you’ll just need to visit the museum yourself. It was interesting just to look inside at the architecture of Lady Stair’s house.

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is considered to be part of “Old Town”. Needing to expand a growing city, New Town was built during the Georgian Era, the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s.

A view of Edinburgh’s New Town from Edinburgh Castle

Sir Walter Scott’s monument, in New Town, was one of the first things to catch my eye on the day we arrived. It is the second largest monument built in the world honoring a writer. There is a larger-than-life-size statue of Scott inside which is dwarfed by the larger structure.

Why are so many of Edinburgh’s buildings and monuments dark-looking? This goes back to the days when buildings were heated and lighted by fire, and the smoke from coal and peat fires hung over the city. The smoke permeated everything, and gave the city the name of “Auld Reekie” (Old Smokey).

The front of our AirBnb building faced New Town, and down the hill from it was a floral clock built in 1901. This year, the clock was dedicated to the Queen’s 70th Jubilee.

For our last day in Edinburgh, I looked forward to taking a walk I had heard about into the the pretty village of Dean. In the 19th century there were water mills on the river, and the workers lived and worked here. It is now tucked into the neighborhoods northwest of New Town. However, I needed to see a doctor about some minor lingering Covid issues I was having. Reluctantly I booked the appointment for the day of our walk. By happy coincidence, the doctor’s office was right at the top of Dean! We were still able to go.

“Your GP” is the doctor’s office I visited. It has to be the prettiest one I have ever been to.
The view across the river from the doctors office
The tall buildings housed the mill workers and are now apartments

After leaving Dean village we were treated to a long woodsy walk along the Leith river. If we had turned left instead of right over the river from the doctor’s office, we could have walked even further. There are great walking paths here and it is a relaxing break from being in the city.

By the way, one of the issues I was seeing the doctor about was that I was still occasionally having long coughing bouts. It would happen at the worst times – in a taxi, or on a tour – places where I could not get off into a quiet corner without bothering others. The doctor and I discussed this problem at length and I finally realized it was happening when I was wearing a mask. The mask dried and irritated my still-inflamed passageways. “But why,” she asked, “are you still wearing a mask? You’re no longer positive. You can’t catch it now, because you have natural immunization.” To realize this…happy day! It was the silver lining in the big Covid cloud. From that day, Covid was no longer much of a thought in our minds. We masked only in airports and airplanes, and public transportation where required by law.

Next time – Stories of Edinburgh


The Ancient Tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, Ireland – Europe Travels July 2022

Irish Countryside south of Dublin

Towards the end of our Dublin visit, somewhat recovered from Covid, we took a day trip to the countryside to visit the ancient burial tombs of Knowth and Newgrange, and the Hill of Tara. I first read about Newgrange in a historical fiction novel called “Ireland” by Frank Delaney. It is a 5,200 year old passage tomb built in the Neolithic era by stone age farmers. It sounded very interesting to see, so I booked a day tour when we were still back home. Besides Newgrange, other goodies were sprinkled into the day: the Hill of Tara, and more tombs in a place called Knowth. I was so glad we were at least able to keep this tour scheduled. Coincidentally, we met a woman in the breakfast room at our hotel who was booked on our same tour, because she had read the same book I had!

Once on the bus, our tour guide kept up a constant patter of historical information as we rode, all of which was extremely interesting and most of which I’ve already forgotten. I was so happy just to see the countryside after having been in cities for my entire time in Ireland, and enjoyed gazing out the window as I listened. Our first stop was the Hill of Tara.

The bus let us out, and it was a bit of a hike over to the hill. I was giddy with delight about being out of the city and getting some fresh air. I loved seeing little Saint Patrick’s church and graveyard on our hike. It looked like something out of an Austen or Bronte classic to me. I know…I was in Ireland, not England, but still.

The people in the group had gotten ahead of me as I photographed the church. The higher hill that some of them have already reached in this picture is the Hill of Tara.

This area has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. The earliest peoples built the passage tombs, and the hills here are also burial sites. In the Iron Age, they were still using them. In that era, Tara became the seat of the high kings of Ireland. According to legend, there was a standing stone here called Lia Fáil, Stone of Destiny. It would cry out if touched by a true king, and the stone below is believed to be the one. It has seemed to have lost its magical powers in the modern era.

Later in history, St. Patrick converted pagans to Chrisitanity here. The stone also marks the spot where United Irishmen were attacked and defeated in their camp by British troops in 1798. Four hundred rebels lost their lives that day.

Continuing on in the bus, we learned from our guide that in this area, the Boyne River forms a large protective bend. The ancient peoples lived their lives here in this fertile valley, where food and water were plentiful.

The Battle of the Boyne also happened here in July of 1690. It was a decisive battle between England and Ireland and was the last time two kings were both present on the battlefield: William of Orange and James II. Because of this battle, the ascendency of Anglican Protestantism in Ireland was assured.

For the Knowth and Newgrange tombs, we boarded an ancient school bus and guides were waiting for us at each site. We nabbed a front seat. I entertained myself watching the driver negotiate the narrow road on the left hand side with a right hand steering wheel, and was very glad we had chosen not to rent a car.

Finally we arrived at Knowth, with its many various burial mounds. These are passage tombs, meaning that it is possible to enter the mounds, but the public cannot do so. Knowing nothing about Knowth before this day, I was surprised to see there were so many in various sizes.

At Knowth, this large mound is surrounded by 17 smaller ones. There are two passages inside and it is bordered by 127 kerbstones. In the next picture, I’ve included a picture of our guide to give some perspective on the size of these mounds, and you can see the kerbstones more closely. The stones are covered with megalithic art, and this is a third of all megalithic art known in Europe – all together, 200 stones. The meaning of the shapes on the stones is unknown.

I thought it was interesting that some of the art was done on the backs of stones and was hidden. There are a lot of theories about this. It’s possible that they intended it to stay hidden. Another theory is that they recycled stones and simply used the other side. Makes sense to me!

Later civilizations, not knowing what was underneath the ground, simply built dwelling places and villages on top of the mounds. This picture that I saw in their small museum illustrates this from left to right. Eventually, the smaller mounds were mostly buried.

These ruins in front of the mounds were the foundation of someone’s home in a later era.

This photo gives an aerial view of the mounds:

Finally, our last stop: Newgrange. The ancients had put the white stones all around the burial mounds to prevent erosion. At Knowth, these white stones were left on the ground. At Newgrange, they were put back as they had originally been. This passage tomb is huge.

The fascinating thing about Newgrange is that it is built with a box to let the sun shine through on the exact day of the winter solstice, December 21. On that single day, the sun sends a beam clear through to the center of the tomb. How did they engineer this to have it work so perfectly? In Delany’s book, the design is the work of a single genius in the tribe who was able to direct all of the inhabitants to carry out the plans. Maybe so. The truth has been lost in history.

The light box is just above the entrance. We were able to go in all the way to the center but no pictures were allowed. There were were no lights inside the tomb; it was illuminated only with natural light from the box. In the center, our guide shone her flashlight through to the front to replicate the solstice experience. It was an amazing feeling to be there; even more amazing if you could be here on the solstice.

Most of the bodies in the tombs had been cremated. When Newgrange was exacavated in the ’70’s, the unburnt bones of one man were found in an elaborately carved niche. Aha. Maybe that was the remains of the “genius”!

If you are thinking it would be great to be at Newgrange on the solstice to see this effect for yourself, tickets are extremely limited (and are probably sold out for 2022, although I haven’t checked). You could go through the expense of getting here, and end up with a cloudy day. So, no sun effect for all that effort!

A kerbstone at Newgrange

Next time – Edinburgh, Scotland


Down-and-Out in Ireland – Europe Travels July 2022

“The Salmon of Knowledge” Donegall Quay, Belfast


The big sticking point for a trip to Europe for my husband, Cal, was opening ourselves up to the possibility of contracting Covid. After all, we purchased our RV and truck at the onset of the pandemic so we could travel around in more of a self contained bubble. We’ve been vaccinated twice and boosted twice, though. I was pretty confident, but even after passing the “point of no return” on bookings, he occasionally expressed his concerns.

So, I took care of all questions and doubts for him by getting Covid right off the bat in just our first few days in Belfast.

I should mention that unlike just about everyone else, we masked for most of the trip from Albuquerque to Denver to London Heathrow to Belfast. In Belfast, very few people were wearing them. We masked in bars and restaurants until food and drink arrived, and when the crowd got heavy at the Titanic museum, I masked up.

On the morning of the day we were to transfer to a hotel to join our Ireland tour group, though, I felt the first stirrings of a cold. Cal already had one so I was sure I caught it from him. We masked and met our tour group. It was very small: eight of us, including the guide. They were an interesting and diverse group of people. No one was from the United States.

In a fit of pre-trip hysteria the night before our departure for Ireland, I tossed out of my suitcase many things that I had packed in an effort to lighten the load. One of those things was a thermometer. The night after meeting the group was a very rough one for me and I’m sure I had a temperature but I can’t confirm it. Reluctantly, I confronted our guide in the morning, and she gave us Covid tests. The result: Positive for me, negative for Cal. End of tour. Jailed in the AC Mariott Belfast.

The view outside our window became very familiar: Sinclair Seaman’s Church and the Belfast Harbour Office, with rolling green hills of Northern Ireland behind

I was really too sick to care at that point, and Cal was great at being our “go-fer”. The Mariott was a business hotel, not one I’d choose to stay in normally but perfect for Covid confinement. We’re not sure exactly when he got it, but it was probably a couple of days after I did. We had the “new” BA-4 or BA-5 strain so it was more than just a couple days of sniffles. The worst part of this for us, and particularly me, was hours and hours of unresolvable coughing spells. And although we were negative again within days, it was really about two weeks before we both felt better.

Blissfully unaware of the coming storm, we greatly enjoyed our first couple of days in Belfast. Our AirBnb for those nights was in walking distance to a network of tiny streets full of bars and restaurants. There seemed to be a pub around every corner. Belfast has a lot of alleyways, and every one has at least one pub. Many of them are decorated:

We found the oldest pub, going back to 1630:

the narrowest pub:

and had fish and chips, Irish stew, and pints of Guinness in a pub. The stuff in the little green cup next to the fish is mashed peas. Most fish and chips in Belfast and Dublin were served with peas in some form.

Many pubs have pews outside for gathering. At happy hour, the alley is hopping.

There were larger-than-life murals:

A huge mural near the harbor

The words of Ireland’s great poets are everywhere – in this case, Yeats. Beautiful words, indeed.

We took a look at Belfast City Hall.

To the side of it, we found a memorial garden and statue in memory of the lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic.

Which brings me to our visit to the Titanic Museum. We walked by the city harbor on the way to the museum.

Belfast Harbor, with the Titanic Museum behind it

The Titanic was constructed in Belfast, and a great deal of the focus in the museum was on life in Belfast as it was during the construction of it. It utilized the labor of 3,000 workers, and hundreds more stood outside everyday hoping to be picked up for some sort of unskilled labor. In that pre-computer era, each corner of the ship had to be drawn out by hand in a building dedicated solely to providing a workspace for the architects.

This picture gives an idea of the riveters at work on the Titanic. The ship is actually another in the shipyard around the same period.

The Nomadic was Titanic’s tender. A tender is a boat that brings the passengers from the dock and out to the ship. In this picture, the Nomadic is shown behind a old floating dock. The seating area of the boat was divided between first and second class.

The first class seating area in the Nomadic. Passengers heading for the Titanic would have sat here.
A postcard: The Titanic, with passengers aboard, lifting anchor at Cork Harbor on 11 April 1912

I’ve always been interested in Titanic stories, both fiction and non-fiction. So it was exciting to me to stand on the very spot where the Titanic was built. The lines painted on the ground look like playground guides, but no, they actually indicate where various parts of the ship would have been.

There were other Belfast sights that we had planned to see before Covid hit, but last-minute lodgings were in short supply and we were ready to get going. When our quarantine was over, we made our way by train to the hotel in Dublin where our tour ended had we been able to be on it. We had already planned on staying there for some additional days.

Belfast has a gritty feel to it. It’s a port city, the largest in Northern Ireland, and was once home to several large industries. Fellow travelers that we met later in our trip had visited areas in Belfast where “the troubles” happened, and could still feel tension in the air. Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland, by contrast is a prettier (in my view) city with more of a cultural and scholarly history. Looking back on the two cities now, I think of them both as being cloudy and grey. It could’ve been the weather. Or maybe it’s just my Covid perspective.


Once on our feet and ready to take on the city, we visited Trinity College, and viewed the Book of Kells. The book is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament created by monks in 800 AD. It is written on vellum, made from calf-skin, and 150 calves gave their lives so that the book could be written. I took this picture from a postcard. In the museum, only one page is viewed at a time, and the page we saw was a picture of Jesus. This picture is a portrait of Saint John, and gives you an idea of what the other pages may look like. The artistry is breath taking.

Near the Book of Kells is the Long Room in the Old Library on Trinity College. That is an awe-inspiring library of nearly 200,000 of their oldest books, along with the busts of famous writers, scholars, and other men connected to the college.

We paid a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift is buried. You may know him as the author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, but he was also Dean of the Cathedral from 1713 until his death in 1745.

We arrived too early for our Guinness tour, so we strolled around the neighborhood and happened upon an old cemetery, now a park, behind St. Catherine’s. A church has been on this spot since the 12th century, although the current one was built in 1769.

I often wish I could be a time traveler and see a place as it was three hundred years ago. On a nearby sign, I found a picture of St. Catherine’s around the time when it was built. Now that’s what I’d like to see!

The Guinness tour is a walk-through describing their brewing processes. The brewery has been at the same location since Arthur Guinness founded it in 1759, on a 9,000-year lease. The beer is an Irish dry stout, and the recipe is a closely guarded secret. I don’t like the flavor of beer all that much, but I do like Guinness.

Our tour came with a pint of Guinness for each of us. Of course, Guinness is excellent for relieving any remaining Covid congestion anyone may have. We received an excellent view of the city as we sipped on it. The finished beer on the table was from a previous patron, by the way.

By not being able to go on our tour, we missed seeing the perimeter of Ireland north and west. Of course this was so very disappointing. Ireland was never a huge bucket list item for me, though. I don’t know if I will ever be back, but who knows? We were pretty happy that once the tour ending date passed, we had no more overnight tours, and our time was our own.

This blog post may be a bit of a downer, but the rest of our European trip was awesome. This was only the first week or two in a three month adventure, and it became everything we had hoped for after this. Covid is out there! If you are going, stay masked!

An Irish breakfast: soda bread, tomato, sausage, mushrooms, beans, eggs and of course tea

Next time: a little peek at the Irish countryside