In the heart of downtown Aberdeen, the tea room is the Tastie Tattie Shop. Today’s menu features tatties and chili, and the girl I give my order to is wearing a stud in her nose. Aberdeen, the Granite City, looks built to last, but the modern world, disposable like plastic milk cartons, squeezes between cracks in the granite. Across from the cathedral the Upperkrust Katerer has a shocking-pink valence over the store front. At “Marks & Sparks” around the corner, platform shoes and leopard-skin short shorts are on display in the window.
The waitress, a chatterbox, grew up in the Granite City, on Castle Street near the printmaking museum. But her role models are English rock stars, and she thinks of herself as English. The Royals, who walk in beauty, make her heart beat faster. Nearer to home, however, “Scotland is boring.” Like living in a covered wagon, she says. She herself lives in the present. I mention the Scottish Nationalist Party, whose slogan is “Independence Now,” and her eyes glaze. “Give me a break!” she says, rolling them comically. Maybe, I think, things happen when they should have or won’t happen at all. Scotland should have got its freedom when the Highlands rose in the Forty-Five, but the clans went down to defeat at Culloden. Two hundred and fifty-six years later, few remember the past or regret it.
But handwringing isn’t going to change history, and you could make out a case that Scotland is better off, like Wales, even Ireland, united with once-terrible England. Maybe Balkanization is our time’s greater peril. The girl in the tea room, evacuated to nothing, seems dreadful, however. Something must be done!
Edwin Muir, Scotland’s best-known modern poet, has a poem about this girl and others like her, who don’t know where they come from or where they’re going, but “are content/ With their poor frozen life and shallow banishment.” In the Scotland they live in, Wallace and Bruce guard a painted field. Another famous duo, Burns and Scott, are “sham bards of a sham nation.” Fighting words, Muir’s still flutter the dovecotes in Scotland. I know better than to quarrel with rhetoric, and will say only that Burns is bigger than an aphorism. But since Muir said his say, many years ago now, the sham is worse than it was.
My wife looks bemused as I turn up the stereo, listening to “Flower of Scotland.” “We can still rise,” I tell her, “and be the nation again.” “Terrible things happened in Ireland too,” she tells me. But Scotland needs national status to recover its lost sense of self. Ireland, full of self esteem, needs it less.
Three hundred years ago, the English, pioneering the friendly takeover, turned Scotland into North Britain, a province known for whiskey and the comic Scots who drink it. Celtic and inferior, they didn’t mind “the poorest and most simple fare,” clinging “in the strangest manner to the habits and homes of their fathers.” The Lowlander who said this served the Duke of Sutherland, Scotland’s richest landlord, an Englishman who never traveled beyond the Tweed. Both the landlord and his factor, out to make money, had their eye on the Highlands. Neither paid much heed to the Highlander. He was Jock, a Celtic Old Black Joe, almost subhuman like the shaggy cattle who slept in the byre beside him.
The English have always been good at cultural trashing, banning Chinese from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, except as houseboys, or the dark-skinned friends of T.E. Lawrence from the clubs in Pall Mall and Cairo’s Anglo hotels. “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief.” Supercilious but good humored, the English joke about the kilt, the kirk, neeps and midges, parsimonious Scots. They are the sunny seductive Greeks, intruders on our ancient Tyrian home, at the end of Arnold’s “Scholar Gipsy.” If the sense of self counts for anything, fly their greetings, fly their speech and smiles!
Such a misalliance! Fewer live in the whole of Scotland than in London alone, but it isn’t the numbers; it’s the posturing, uniquely English, that overawes the puir Scot. What is he to make of them, dressing for dinner in the tropics or building mock-Tudor houses in upcountry Burma? My black friend Cedric, taught by an English schoolmistress in equatorial Africa, remembers reciting “O, to be in England/ Now that April’s there.” As he watched the movie Zulu, a tale of us against them, he wondered why he cheered for the redcoats.
Everyone knows the Scot who salutes the Union Jack, clipping his vowels and going on about the Queen Mum. You meet him in Scott’s novels, a Northerner by blood but Southern by choice. In Redgauntlet there are two of him, the hero and his friend, trading polite evasions. David Daiches knew young men in his boyhood who talked the way they do, trying to make themselves English. Like Scott, their nationality tugged them both ways. “It’s a queer thing,” says one of his characters, remembering the exploits of Rob Roy and William Wallace, “but I think the Hieland blude o’ me warms at thae daft tales.” He knew better but couldn’t help it.
At last, however, Scott threw in with the Ascendancy class. Making his fortune, he sanitized the Highlander, once a bugaboo to Englishmen and tamer Scots of the Lowlands. When the English after Culloden proscribed the claymore, kilt, and bagpipes, he engineered their comeback, turning them into stage properties first. For King George’s visit to Scotland in 1822, he designed a royal tartan. The king of course was German but Scott dressed him like a Highland chief, complete with eagle’s feather. His fictions à l’Écosse are like the European vogue of Chinese.
But when he renders the speech of the people, Scott’s prose comes alive. The priggish hero in Rob Roy does his best to kill it. Scandalized by talk of the King over the Water, he “comprehended” that the words “boded a general national convulsion,” so kept his head down, satisfied with “regretting the promiscuous scene of confusion and distress likely to arise from any general exertion in favour of the exiled royal family.” Professors of English mistake this for writing. What’s all the fuss about, Rob wants to know: “Let it come, man—let it come. . .ye never saw dull weather clear without a shower; and if the world is turned upside down, why, honest men have the better chance to cut bread.”
Such sap as runs in the novels is owing to this common touch. No low or comic writing in the 19th century is better. I don’t know any as good. What might Scott have written, had he not immersed himself in the warm bath of Great Britain?
For the history of the Highlands after the Act of Union (1707), what matters is the bottom line. You could make more from wool, later from mutton, than from working a farm. There are other ways to look at this. Maybe the farm deserved protecting for the sake of the virtues it nourished. The English ruled in Scotland, however. Sheep bringing in more money than people, the Clearances followed, and that was that.
At the time of the royal visit to Scotland, the glens were already emptying out. First the local landlord evicted his tenants to make room for sheep, then went the same way himself, replaced by Lowlanders and English. Highlanders, relocated to the barren sea-coast, were told they might fish for a living. Slums like Glasgow’s swallowed up many. Others left for the New World, some wanting to go, more of them forced to, and in Edinburgh’s National Gallery a powerful painting by William McTaggart shows the Immigrant Ship standing out to sea. In the sky above the masts, a rainbow hints at better days. On shore, however, left behind to die, are the old folks.
Stay-at-homes eked out a living as shepherds, or they reinvented themselves, becoming ghillies like Queen Victoria’s favorite retainer. Cunning in the ways of roe deer and salmon, they helped English sportsmen turn the Highlands into a game park. Others took the king’s shilling and won an empire for England. In Beulay west of Inverness, a monument to the Lovat Scouts honors the men of that outfit who died in the Boer War, a naked imperialist land grab. I am moved but distressed that many bear the same name as I do.
Today the Highlands are haunted. The clan system disappeared with the people, a casualty of England’s need to break the land to its will. Most of the men and women whose crofts were burned over them never saw their own hills again. Cha till mi tuille is the Gaelic of the pibroch that sang their departure, “We Shall Return No More.” The word for this is genocide. It happened, says Prebble, the historian of the Clearances, “within the span of one man’s youth and middle age.”
The Clearances are hard to swallow but the wearing down of national pride is worse. It began in the early years of the 17th century when James VI of Scotland came to the English throne, succeeding the first Elizabeth. If a Scots writer wanted to be anybody after the court moved south, he dropped the authentic speech of the people, once spoken by king and commoner alike, preferring polite Southern English. The poet William Drummond, born in Scotland, sounds the same as his English friend Ben Jonson. That was how he wanted it.
After a while they were all English under the plaid, like Smollett and Hume, 18th-century Scotsmen but you wouldn’t know it. “Adopt the English idiom and pronunciation,” said Smollett. That made sense to Hume, who thought Scotland’s native tongue “a very corrupt dialect” of English. This chauvinism-in-reverse came at a price. I tried Humphry Clinker again a year ago, and have always meant to finish Hume’s History of Great Britain, Whenever I crack it, though, columns of dust rise from its pages and I find myself sneezing non-stop.
A pedigreed Scot, John Buchan is much livelier, but Englishness trumps Scottishness in his adventure novels, like Mr. Standfast (1919). The English ascendancy has been doing a number on West Scotland, hard on the people who live there. Hannay the hero knows what’s going on, so does the author. Citing a parallel case, his footnote refers us to the Duke of Sutherland, who expelled his crofters and took their land for sheep runs. Like the hero who speaks for him, Buchan deplores this. A pity about the crofters, etc. But progress requires that we “break down a multitude of molehills.”
When progress was only a cloud in the sky, Rob Roy MacGregor rallied his clan against it. In the old Hollywood movie Errol Flynn plays the hero, and the happy ending has him making a friend of King George. This scenario, though good for laughs, is almost believable. The gap between classes in prelapsarian Scotland, though wide, was only a matter of money. The king on his throne in Edinburgh had a lot of it, the commoner who cheered him only a little. But the king, lifting up the commoner, could bridge the gap if he chose.
In the Highlands, however, the commoner or crofter was already joined by blood to his clan chief. No patent of nobility grander than that. Money couldn’t augment it, nor a lack of money make it less. The poorest clansman spoke his name like a talisman, sometimes with his last breath. “Though poor, I am noble,” he said. “Thank God I am a MacLean.”
Modern Scots would rather be rich, and who will blame them? But a tide of vulgarity washes over Scotland today. “By appointment to H.R.H.,” a personal piper performs for Queen Elizabeth II. At my hotel in Edinburgh, a piper in full fig stands in the doorway, piping in a contingent of Japanese tourists. Expecting a sound and light show, they aren’t disappointed. The manager, English with that trademark complexion, pink shading to florid, ushers them into the lobby.
Edinburgh, first stop on the tourist trail, is popular for its pastness, the castle on its ramparts “beetling over” the Old Town, at the other end of the Royal Mile Holyrood House, once home to Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, now to Queen Elizabth II when she comes north for a visit. The Burberry tartan has a building to itself on Princes Street, and clan scarves and badges rake in a lot of money. You can buy your own quaitch or drinking vessel, with your clan crest embossed on the side. Mine has a motto in Gaelic, the national language, long since driven out of the schools. If your drinking partner means to stick you with his dirk, the glass bottom of the quaitch lets you see what he’s up to.
Precautions like this aren’t needed in modern Scotland, where the past is largely cosmetic. The young crowding Edinburgh’s streets are innocent of history, and if they knew about it would reject it. Given what they are, they’d be right to. Some of them, color blind, dye their hair purple. That sounds a little Blimpish, and I mustn’t blur the point. It isn’t that the present is so much worse than the past. But the past, unlike the present, had edges.
Tourist-trap Scotland, including greater Edinburgh and running north to Perth, west to Stirling, is Disney Land over the water. At Stirling William Wallace beat the English of Edward Longshanks, and nearby is Bannockburn, no ground on earth more hallowed. In June 1314 Bruce, routing an English army there, sent it homeward “tae think again.” Suburban-style housing sprawls over the battlefield, nothing wrong with that: people must live. But the Wallace Monument, knocking its head against heaven, is Victorian chest-thumping. Doing both at once isn’t easy, but have a look and see if it doesn’t.
At Scone Palace outside Perth, Scotland crowned its kings for centuries, some seated on the Stone of Scone. Shakespeare’s Macbeth goes to Scone “to be invested,” but Edward I carried off the stone, and in the 16th century Knox’s rabble destroyed the palace. Victorians rebuilt it for the Earls of Mansfield, whose seat this is today. Unlike Lord George Murray, a neighbor to the north and Prince Charlie’s lieutenant general, they served the Hanoverians, brought in to run England when the Stuarts lost the throne. Queen Elizabeth II descends from these German princelings.
Murray, loyal to the Stuarts, forfeited the family seat at Blair Atholl. The Mansfields, loyal to their bread, hung on to Scone. Over the years they filled it with bric-a-brac and animal heads, bits of armor, silk on the walls, and period pieces cordoned off in public rooms, like the writing table made for Marie Antoinette. Tour buses in summer decant foreign visitors at the entrance stairs, so many visitors that you have to wait your turn behind ropes. Guides attached to the palace move the crowd along briskly, though. You can hear them fluting before you set your foot on the stairs. “Mind the ropes!” Unlike Tony Blair’s, their accent isn’t homogenized but harks back to Oxbridge when it favored the “superfluous u.”
Americans in the gift shop, everybody’s destination at the end of the tour, say “superfloo-us,” however. Most are weary from threading the maze, spruced up with photos of the earl’s family playing tennis or patting a prize Angus bull. In 1745 the Young Pretender slept at Scone, and not far off in a country churchyard is the grave of Rob Roy MacGregor. If you are looking for it, you have to look sharp. No road signs direct the tourist to this tucked-away place, and not a dime has gone to its upkeep. The English, wary of Rob Roy, tried to root out his name, forbidding Scots to use it. But the inscription on the stone reads: “MacGregor Despite Them.”
En route to Fraserburgh—nothing to write home about but piety mandates a drive through—I stop in Newburgh on the coast north of Aberdeen. The heart of this community is the Free Church, whose parishioners are known as Wee Frees. In the 19th century they split off from the Established Church of Scotland. Like establishments everywhere, it tugged its forelock to the Ascendancy class, assuming that churches can do that. Ministers, knowing who footed their bills, preached the gospel of progress. Honor to churchgoers in Newburgh for refusing to worship false gods.
But Newburgh, while saving its soul, has lost the physical world, without which the soul is a specter. If you arrive in town on a Sunday, as I did, eyes you don’t see look you over from the windows of gray skimpy houses, their stucco coating like a rash. Sundays are for prayer, but I don’t know what the people are doing, only that the narrow streets are empty. Any minute now, air raid sirens will sound the all clear. Until then, no one in Newburgh kicks up his heels.
Like the girl in the tea room, this evacuated place asks a question that had better be answered. Failing an answer, the last angry man in Scotland can shut out the lights when he leaves. Politicians and such, their ilk always knowing what is to be done, have the answer. Less assured, I am old King Lear, waving my arms in a vacuum. “I will do such things,” I tell them. “What they are, yet I know not.”
But I know what I’d do, if the option were mine. I would fall in with my clan on Culloden’s field, throw down my musket, and go forward with the claymore alone. This time, since I am writing the script, the outcome will be different. See them standing tall in Scotland, even the girl in the tea room. See the Sassenach take to his heels, and the Cross of St. Andrew fly once more over Edinburgh Castle.
But all that is finished. In the melee at Prestonpans when Jacobite fortunes crested, I hope against hope, while aware that Bonnie Prince Charlie won’t come back again. Goodbye to the King Over the Water. Let the dead bury their dead.
Being sanguine, however, like Celts except on their melancholy side, I can hardly let this ending stand. Casting about for a better one, I hit on the words of Arbroath’s famous Declaration. In the spring of 1320, nobles loyal to King Robert the Bruce met at Arbroath Abbey on the North Sea to speak for themselves and for Scotland. Centuries before America’s Declaration of Independence, they appealed to an abstraction, fortified with flesh and blood. What is liberty, I ask myself, if not a grand abstraction? It must be realized with the blood of martyrs, however. The Bruce’s men understood this. “For as long as one hundred of us shall remain alive,” they said, “we shall never in any wise consent to submit to the rule of the English; for it is not for glory we fight, for riches, or for honors, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life.”
A red sandstone ruin, the abbey in its founding remembered the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, childhood friend of Scotland’s king, William the Lion. In the rib-vaulted sacristy the monks kept a relic of St. Columba, borne before the army when Scots went into battle. Light blazing from the great rose window, Arbroath’s Round O, served as a beacon for ships out at sea. The lower half of this window is still visible above the rounded arch of the doorway, but the stained glass disappeared a long time ago. Likely, it showed the Last Judgment or the Wheel of Fortune. Both were popular in churches like this one, and both honored a God who worked in mysterious ways. “On whom it will, it will,” He said. “On whom it will not, so.”
Since the time of the Arbroath Declaration, Scotland’s fortunes have fallen, then at the nadir begun to pick up. “We can still rise and be the nation again?” No chest thumping from me, not as I take thought. A few things I can say for sure, though. The Wheel continues to turn, God’s last word has yet to be spoken, and the past remains alive in the present.
Some I know, progressives who have our well-being at heart, suppose the path of things always runs upward. This makes it easier to dispense with the past, at least gratuitous, at worst pernicious. Belittling the past, “dead white European males,” all that, they think its out-of-date ideas must contaminate the present. That is why revolutionaries generally summon us to violence. Send the past to the stake, they say. Consume it to nothing. I am a revolutionary too, though not a violent one, and in my more hopeful reading, the past empowers the present, relating to it like a giant with a dwarf on its shoulders. North of the Great Glen, the good old way persists fitfully. I don’t speak of ancient loyalties, to throne, church, or clan, but of the character of the good man that gave them all substance. Maybe, filling different molds, it will beget the next revolution in Scotland.
The last one, led by Knox, was moral, and its results are still with us. When fire damaged my grandfather’s factory on Union Square in Manhattan, a man from the insurance company came by with a proposition. Winking, he said he would build up the damage report, and they could split the settlement between them. Grandfather threw him through the plate glass door of his office. That was how you dealt with a claims adjuster.
But something more is wanted to complement the moral bias that goes with being a Scot. You won’t find it in Newburgh. Inland from the coast, though, “the air smells wooingly,” and grace that comes unbidden dowers the great houses, Craithes and Corgarff, Cawdor and Blair Atholl. Doing my duty and pleasing myself, I pay a visit to one of them, west of Aberdeen.
Castle Fraser, while faithful to old conventions the tower house had to follow, honors the native genius of its local masons, and corbelling, turrets, dormers, gables, and chimneystacks make a once-and-for-all composition. Frasers “of Inverallochy,” the North Sea hamlet they came from, lived in the castle and kept the good old way. Of course they were Jacobites. William, out in the Fifteen, died falling from a precipice while escaping the English. His nephew Charles, laird in the Forty-Five, died fighting at Culloden. Or rather, wounded on the field, he was pistoled to death at the order of Butcher Cumberland. “Shoot that insolent scoundrel,” said the Duke, and they did.
Not satisfied with winning the day, the victors wanted a Carthaginian peace, and made sure they got it. All trace of the old cause and its supporters is gone from Castle Fraser, leaving tourists with the feeling that history began about 1800. Most houses on the Castle Tour promote this idea. Thoroughly Victorianized on the inside, they sink the past in clutter, a modern version of sowing the ground with salt.
At Haddo House, home of the Gordons, the genius of the place is or was Palladian. Covenanters burnt down the original house but William Adam, the father of Robert, rebuilt it, honoring that symmetry the 18th century rejoiced in. Curving flights of stairs, left and right, sweep upward to the first-floor balcony, and until the late 19th century that was how you entered. Elegance makes a political statement, however, and a new facade replicates and fudges the old one. Portraits of men wearing redcoats crowd the walls. The men are handsome in the corpulent style, and their complexions match the clothes they are wearing. Tour guides point out the bed Queen Victoria slept in.
Haddo House has a painting by Lawrence and Castle Eraser one by Raeburn, its subject also named Charles, a later personage, though, not the young laird who fell at Culloden. No portrait survives to tell what he looked like. If true to type, however, he cut a modest figure and laid up his treasures in heaven. Like his antecedents, different from his successors, he measured his worth not in money but in men. When he called them, they turned out, more than three hundred at Culloden. In time of need, they could call on him too.
But he wasn’t like my rich uncle, the one who gave me a silver christening spoon. The relation between him and me, I blush to say, was pretty much a matter of greed — my parents’. Ten to one, the young laird wasn’t big on liquid assets. Still, he disposed of more than his dependents. The tie that bound them was a blood tie, but it needn’t be that and can hardly be that anymore. All in this little world, on one side a microcosm of ours, acknowledged a mutual dependence, however, and it made them ampler of soul.
That is said too easily by apologists for a class system. Having an axe to grind, they don’t want us to know that money is less important than love. Scots, to tell the truth, never had much of the former, a reason they are apt to pinch pennies. But when they kept the good old way, a man’s essence counted more than his purse.
I mustn’t kid my reader, much less myself. The clan system, valuing the essence of things, no longer exists. I need a surrogate to replace it, an unusually comprehensive one, for the essential thing, though always of the spirit, is sometimes of the flesh. Nationalism won’t do, neither will an access of black bile—kicking an Englishman as some patriotic heavies did, after seeing Braveheart. My surrogate is multifaceted. One facet is manliness, different from brute strength, belonging as it does to man the thinking animal, another the form or style that gives a shape to chaos. Without it, life leaks away.
Signaling one another, Scotland’s great houses are like those well-branched firs and copper beeches you see on the hills as you climb up to the Highlands at Ballater. Scale is part of the Scottish thing, as in our phrase “on the human scale,” and the houses we remember aren’t “built to envious show.” Big they may be, but mustn’t impose. Even Blair Atholl, though spreading itself, seems to grow naturally, the way leaves grow on a tree. The unnatural thing, asking us to clap off our hats, is a 19th-century import.
This alien growth fastens on modern Scotland like a tourniquet, clamping off the life’s blood. E.g. the Scott Monument on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, or those fussy hotels where the waiters wear wing collars. Balmoral ranks high on the list. This summer residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wants to knock your eye out. Clearing the ground of the Gordon tower that stood there from old times, the queen and her consort created a place they could live in. My guidebook says it gave the royal seal of approval to the Highlands.
Corgarff Castle doesn’t make the list. Once home to that Earl of Mar who raised the standard for the Old Pretender, Corgarff is simple. I don’t know of anything harder to be than that. The two cubes of the house, one on top of the other, seem slabs of rock left behind by the glacier. Around it, purple heather glows in season. Best not to give nature the palm, though: this house is man-made, nothing inadvertent about it.
Blair Atholl is grander but doesn’t give you a crick in the neck. Giant rhododendrons, beautifying the nearby kirk of St. Bride’s, some junior son’s sinecure, might have borne witness to the death of Bonnie Dundee. He took a bullet in the pass at Killiekrankie. On the grounds of the great house a European larch, as big around as the gatekeeper’s lodge, put down its roots before Culloden. Scots lost at Culloden, bringing to an end the royal line that began in the time of Robert the Bruce. But the larch is still there, asserting connections.
If I cite the Bruce and others, it isn’t because I read history as romance. My history is a tightly woven skein including heroes, villains, and spear carriers, also ideas, and the ground on which they were tested. Romantic novelists like Scott downplay the middle term, and ideologists, in the saddle today, the first and last. Take out one of these components, however, and the skein unravels.
Trees are important for the skein of history, like the avenue of limes leading up to Cawdor Castle. Old as the hills, they only seem to remember Macbeth, thane of this castle in Scotland’s pre-history. Cawdor, without Shakespeare, would be little more than a blip on the screen. There are plenty of castles in Scotland. But with or without Shakespeare, Cawdor would matter, even if no tourist ever knocked on the door. Pains have been taken here, seeing to it that nature doesn’t run wild. Art, collaborating with it, civilizes the countryside and is not a tyranny but a blessing.
Scotland, land of crags and torrents, sometimes gothic in its violence, requires reining in. Formal gardens like Pitmedden’s in Aberdeenshire fulfill this function. From the belvedere at Pitmedden color stuns the eye, thousands of annuals mingling to create a Fauvist painting. The original Fauves were wild beasts, however, not fit for society. Their thing needs refining, and boxwood hedges plus the four sharply demarcated parterres take order with the riot of color. This formal envelope doesn’t banish wildness, though. Vitality is the child of wildness, and the sine qua non of every liveable place. But without a wary eye it turns into destructiveness, and you have to keep shaping it up.
Far away from Cawdor on the other side of Scotland, Urquhart Castle juts into Loch Ness. A romantic ruin, it looks older than it is, but that is largely thanks to Dutch William. Three hundred years ago he blew up this great pile, so Jacobites couldn’t mount their cannon on its walls. Few today know anything about him or them, though all are familiar with Nessie. I enter the loch via a man-made canal, busy with cruise boats and ducks that quack like angry feminists.
Many of the tourists taking the Loch Ness steamer are Scots on holiday. Some, like me, wouldn’t be the worse if they were to shed a few pounds. I say to myself that Scots are big boned, and the extra weight doesn’t show. My fellow tourists appear to think that way too. Coping with the problem, they pop a Coke and munch on corn chips.
Behind us, huge metal doors swing shut like the twin doors of a fridge. Underwater sluices begin pumping in water, raising the boat slowly to the level of Loch Ness. Pine trees, some a hundred feet tall, line the stone walls of the canal. Atop the tallest sits an osprey. This bird of prey, all brute strength without the considering part that gives life its interest, is a killing machine. Black feathers hood its underbelly, flat, not “with good capon lined.” A natural force, devoid of compunction or intelligent purpose, it scans the surface far below. If a fish breaks water, it will drop from its perch like a stone.
At the far end of the loch, the Benedictine abbey isn’t much older than the week before last. Knox never let up in his work of reform, and religious houses in Scotland that follow the old faith are apt to be modern. Buildings that go back a way generally do without roofs or glass in the windows. But even in bits and pieces, they radiate vitality. Dunfermline is one, going on nine hundred years old.
The abbey church is only a day trip from Edinburgh, and as many Scots as tourists come out from the city, wanting to pay their respects to the Bruce. He lies in the east end, much altered from what it was by 19th-century restorers. But markings on the floor trace the plan of the original, and the ancient tower, not giving away anything after many centuries, still hangs in there, thrusting at heaven. Separating the nave from the aisles, cylindrical pillars cut by chevrons and spirals carry a triple row of semicircular arches, one on top of the other. The massive pillars shift a lot of weight but don’t do this ostentatiously, and the rounded arches make the job look easy.
Outside the church the little park breathes peace and quiet, guaranteed by the tower above it. Left over from the warrior world of the Normans, it stands sentinel, protecting its charge. Equidistant from its base and the stile that opens on the park is the ticket-taker’s booth, doubling as a gift shop. T-shirts wrapped in see-through plastic are piled on the shelves. On one, I make out the blue and white flag of the Cross of St. Andrew. Others show the Bruce on his war horse, preparing to smite the Englishman, de Bohun. Bannockburn is about to begin.
“I want one of those,” I tell the ticket-taker. He is red haired, amiable, and big boned like me. Reaching over his head, he hands down a T-shirt. “This XL ought to fit you,” he says, looking at my belly and looking away again. “But if you need an XXL, we’re in trouble.”