T H E C A L E D O N I A P A P E R S
In the summer of 2004, Dr. Petruso led a small but intrepid cohort of Honors student misfits and a hyperactive geologist colleague on a study abroad program in Scotland, which is a quaintly picturesque nation near the Arctic Circle off the coast of "Europe." In order to protect identities, names have been excised from the following journal entries (here presented for posterity's sake), except in the case of persons who probably deserve to be incriminated.
Thursday, July 1, 2004: Acclimating to the Antipodes
19 Across: Wise chap I ignored is a flyer in the main (4)
I'm not bad at crossword puzzles (I've even composed one), including cryptics. Pretty good, actually. Not very speedy, but accurate and consistent. I can usually polish off the New York Times Saturday puzzle in 45 minutes (30 if I'm firing on all cylinders), the big Sunday puzzle in 2 hours. Always in pen, of course (pencil is for weenies). But the London Times is not for the faint of heart. This particular puzzle (no. 22705, July 1, 2004) comes at the end of two long days, and I am By God not in a mood to be trifled with. Let us review our progress thus far in the UTA Scotland program.
For the record, I am an early riser. Have been for years. Stress, maybe, or time of life, or both. I have long enjoyed rising before dawn, walking, catching the first hour of Morning Edition at 5 am, and am usually in my office by 6:30. This morning I awoke at 4:00 am, startled out of a dream, to see an odd glow diffusing through the curtains of my dorm room. The Mothership? A forest fire? No. It was the sun. There was enough ambient light out there to perform brain surgery.
The summer sun doesn't actually set here--it sort of ricochets off the Hebrides and climbs back up into the sky, only to be blocked by scudding clouds as soon as it's time to go out and do stuff. When I complained to the (very courteous) residence hall warden about their sunlight schedule here, she gave me some scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo about solstices and azimuths and latitude which I'm sure she is required by the University of Edinburgh to say. I thanked her politely, but I was having none of it.
This place is positively antipodean.
Yesterday (which my colleague Andrew Quicksall, a geologist, cleverly chose for a Bataan-like forced march to the peak of Arthur's Seat, the top of the neck of an ancient volcano which is the highest point in Edinburgh) the weather oscillated between raining and pouring. We reached the summit after two hours, only to rest in Beaufort-8 winds and temps in the upper 40s.
We goofed around for 45 minutes on the summit, giddy with the exhilaration mountaineers feel when they succeed in conquering a peak. But the clearer heads among our group (i.e., yours truly) were able to fight off the inebriating effects of oxygen deprivation at this elevation, and suggested that we descend before hypothermia set in. Amazingly, we lost no students on the rain-slick descent. It's enough to drive a sane man to drink.
So Drew and I ensconced our students safely back at Pollock Halls, and set off for Ensign Ewart's (an 18th-century watering hole on the Royal Mile just below the Castle) for a "wee dram" to restore full circulation to our extremities. I asked the bartender to recommend an island single malt. He poured me three fingers of Lagavulin. Smoky is a euphemistic term for its bouquet. To my palate, it tasted like distilled peat.
And sports (or, as they say in the UK, "sport")? Don't get me started. Two of the last four nights have seen every pub in Scotland chockablock with guys who call themselves football fans, watching the Euro Cup 2004 quarter- and semifinals. Or perhaps I should say "football" fans, since the players here wear shorts and no helmets. How tough do you need to be to play a type of football where tackling isn't even allowed? Not to mention the fact that the referees wear hats and ties. (Memo to self: Check web for date of beginning of Cowboys pre-season).
So I returned to my crossword, cursing Charles Dickens for the many cutesy allusions he provides for British crossword puzzle designers. Tomorrow I'll buy the Scotsman instead of the London Times. What with the not-so-subtle rivalry between the Scots and the English, maybe there will be fewer Dickens-oriented clues. I can work it tomorrow night. With my sunglasses on.
Saturday, July 3, 2004: Our journey into Deep Time
2 Down: Last-ditch effort to raise defence to lawsuit (9,6)
I sighed in disgust and tore off my sunglasses, acknowledging that my completing a cryptic crossword in the Scotsman would be as likely as getting some movement out of the University of Edinburgh staff on the sunlight scheduling issue. These Brit cruciverbalists are really beginning to get on my nerves.
And although they would seem to be under no obligation to do so, the Scots use the quaint misspellings of common words so beloved by the English, which follow no known pattern of orthography (e.g., defence, colour, economise). So I said the hell with it and returned to reading my novel.
But I must say that I was in a somewhat better humour (if you'll pardon the Briticized spelling). Although completely surrounded by gray and silver storm clouds all day, we succeeded in staying dry from 9 am to 4:30 pm today. We visited Tantallon Castle on the coast near the English border.
What a great ruin--on a promontory high above the sea, water on three sides and a moat on the landward side. It was constructed in the mid-14th century, contemporary with Robert the Bruce, who, as I explained to our students, continued the populist peasant revolt begun in the 1290s against the crown by William of Wallace. Americans know this story from the recent blockbuster movie by Mel Gibson entitled "The Passion of the Christ." William, who was incriminated by a small but ruthless Jewish rabble, became locked in a death struggle with Edward I ("Longhshanks") of Judaea. I learned on a really cool website that the real crux of the problem was that William had scoffed at Edward's decree outlawing Scottish middle names like "of" and "the." In the end, lots of English horses were impaled on huge pointed logs, and the Scots wore sort of proto-tartans which were not very brightly colored, and so forth. These are the fine historical points of the story that I wanted to make sure our students understood.
Anyway, from Tantallon Castle, we got a great view of Bass Rock, which is a "geological formation" that looks for all the world like an island, sitting a few miles off the coast in the North Sea. It is absolutely blanketed with gannets, which are enormous white diving sea birds. There are so many of them covering the top of the "geological formation" that at any given moment, hundreds of them are in the air, circling to try to find a place to land and pooping on the gannets that have already landed.
Then we proceeded on to our main destination for the day: Siccar Point. Drew spoke in reverent, hushed tones about the place, assuring us that it is the most sacred "geological formation" in the history of the discipline of geology. I found his characterization of it rather suspect, inasmuch as Siccar Point does not exist on any of the dozens of maps of Scotland we have at our disposal, including the unbelievably detailed British Ordnance Maps. But I could tell that we were nearing a sacred spot when our coach (i.e., bus) driver, Frank, dropped us at one of those picturesque spots you see featured on Scottish postcards, namely a turnip processing plant in the middle of an old abandoned quarry. We hiked up a meadow filled with cowflops--but, mysteriously, no cows--and then we walked down a nearly plumb grassy cliff face to the significant "geological formation" below. I am still not sure how we accomplished this, knowing what I know about gravity and the laws of physics and all. But fortunately nobody died on the descent.
Siccar Point is the spot where James Hutton, one of the brightest bulbs of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Enlightenment, had two spectacular "Aha!" moments, as a result of his careful empirical observations of the rocks on the beach and his formidable powers of ratiocination. They were: (1) that the earth is far older than any of his natural historian colleagues at the time could ever imagine; and (2) that he had made the correct decision to visit this beach by boat. Drew is not possessed of Hutton-level wattage, however, hence our death-defying descent. After his lecture we goofed around for half an hour taking a bunch of pictures of one another on the beach, and then we had to climb the slippery cliff face. Once again, we miraculously lost nobody, although by the time I reached the top, my knees felt like Jello.
We had planned to press on to Woden Law and Dere Street, to see what Monty Python used to refer to as "the bleedin' Roman ruins," but because we had spent so much time getting a late lunch at a cozy diner just off the A1 Motorway (I had the cheese-and-chutney sandwich, which wasn't too bad), it was nearly 4:30, and it was beginning to rain. I had to make the command decision that we punt those two important archaeological sites. The students were quite inconsolable. With tears streaming down their faces, we reluctantly headed back toward Edinburgh along a one-and-a-half lane country road. Soon everyone was asleep except for Frank and me, and the rain was getting heavier. I decided to do a little anthropological fieldwork. I went up to the jump seat and engaged him in conversation, while he struggled valiantly to keep the coach from hydroplaning off the asphalt. I enjoyed talking with him immensely. Frank is a real pistol.
| I asked him what his favorite whisky was. Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie among the single malts, he replied, and Bell's among the blends. I asked him about the peaty varieties. He told me that he avoided them pretty much, since they were so pungent. Then one day his brother-in-law told him to cut them with two parts water. Now he really enjoys them. This is counter to everything I had ever heard and read about single malts, which the experts tell you should be sipped neat; but I figure that since Frank is an authentic, actual Scotsman, he must know his stuff.
Our conversation ranged far and wide. He told me that he doesn't often drink whiskies since they are so expensive, around 20 quid (almost $40) for a 0.7-litre bottle of a decent blend. I told him that in Arlington I can buy a 1.75-liter bottle of Dewar's for about $35. Frank went apoplectic at hearing this: the coach nearly careened off the wet road into a ditch. But, professional that he is, he expertly brought it back under control. When his pulse rate had stabilized, he told me--his spittle hitting the inside of the windshield in exasperation--that between three-fourths and seven-eighths of the price of a bottle of whisky in Scotland consists of tax. On hearing my story about how inexpensive whisky is in the States, he resolved to write his congressman, or whatever the heck they call their representatives in this kind of archaic government. You know, where one guy takes a book to a lectern and says something, dripping sarcasm, and lots of other guys intone nasally, "Hear! Hear!," and then he sits down on a green leather couch, then a guy from a different party gets up, takes a book to the lectern and sneers, "The right honourable gentleman is certifiably insane," or some such, and lots of other guys shout "Hear! Hear!", then the whole process starts over again.
My advice would be that the Brits start watching C-SPAN and take a lesson. They would see how a real government functions, one in which politicians address one another with mutual respect and decorum.
Anyway, I figured I had done my hands-across-the-ocean part for today, and felt pretty good about really connecting with a host country national.
I then asked Frank about the scandal of the new Scottish parliament building, which is three years behind schedule and £430 million over budget. And in the Scotsman today I read that as soon as the building opens, Scots will be charged £3.50 per person to tour it, even though their taxes--like, for instance, on whisky--have already paid for it. Frank had some strong feelings about that little screwup, too, let me tell you, but I will save them for another entry.
I'll sign off with a direct quote from BBC Radio Scotland, which I heard in the weather forecast for tomorrow: "Clear periods will develop, and sunny spells are expected to break out."
Thursday, July 8, 2004: Comparative TV, &c.
One of the things that reinforces a sense of remoteness in Scotland is the satellite TV antennas fixed to the houses. They all point straight ahead, absolutely horizontal, if not a degree or two below the southern horizon, in order to capture signals from satellites hovering in geosynchronous orbit above the Equator. One must not conclude from this, however, that this technological razzle-dazzle exists in service of quality programing. No.
In MacCallum's, the oldest pub in Inverness, while sampling a local Highland single malt or two, Drew, Dave and I were subjected to an exquisitely abysmal reality-TV show called "Bad Lads Army." It told the heartrending story of a dozen or so absolute losers in their late teens and early 20s who were paid to endure the humiliation of bootcamp in the British Army. We laughed and we cried as we followed these yobs through their interviews (reeling off long lists of drugs they had abused) and flaunting their black Goth rock band T-shirts and lipstuds, all the while being subjected to terminally unpleasant, obscenity-spewing drill sergeants as well as doctors who administered the cough test.
It was so dreadful, so coarse, so gobsmackingly (as we say in Britain) devoid of redeeming value that even Drew--who over the years has developed a very high tolerance for bad TV--was getting restless.
It became clear to all of us after watching about fifteen minutes of this dreck that American TV has nothing on the Brits, and that we ourselves were participating in the humiliation dynamic.
Saturday, July 10, 2004: No taxation without representation
So I'm loitering around the lobby of our youth hostel in Kyleakin on the magnificent Isle of Skye. It's 11:45 pm (almost dusk), and I'm waiting to get access to a terminal to email my current wife. I'm reading the flyers plastered all over the lobby walls, including ads for other Scottish youth hostels and environmentalist calls to action--no to electric power pylons, etc.--when I begin to read a turgid-looking bilious flyer (red on yellow, evoking the Scottish flag), and I am quickly absorbed in it. "ROYAL CHARTERS: YOUR RIGHT TO BE TOLL-FREE FOREVER!", it screams. There follows a decree quoted in Latin followed by a translation:
"May all people present and future know that I have quitclaimed all my burghers of Inverness at all times from tolls and from all customary dues throughout my whole land; wherefore I strictly prohibit anyone from exacting from them a toll on their lord's cattle, or any other customary dues, on pain of my full penalty."
The royal decree dates from AD 1180. The flyer reminds readers that there has never been a revocation of the King's decree, either by subsequent kings or by Parliament.
The target of this spunky little screed is a bridge we can see from our hostel, linking Skye with the mainland. We will go over it tomorrow. It was built a few years ago with private funds, and its financer has levied a toll to pay for its construction. The inhabitants of Skye are in high dudgeon about this, boy howdy. This desktop-published flyer is for all intents and purposes a broadside, a 21st-century version of what in eras past would have sought to instigate a popular revolt.
To drive over the bridge in a car costs £4.20 (about $8). Our small bus will pay £41.20 tomorrow. The picture of a medieval highwayman shouting "Stand and deliver!" comes to mind.
I am deeply impressed by the notion that these people can invoke a written decree that is 824 years old. I chat with the manager of the hostel (a native of Skye) about this. She predicts that Parliament will quash the toll--at least for Inverness residents and persons who can demonstrate family ties to Inverness--when it takes the matter up later this year.
Sunday, July 11, 2004: Climbing Ben Nevis, or thinking about it
At the impressive Dun Telve broch--one of those peculiar Iron Age stone-built houses that look like little nuke cooling towers--following my flashingly brilliant lecture on the Celts (total degenerates, but they made nice jewelry), we headed for Fort William, the town from which one scales Ben Nevis, the highest peak in all Britain, at 4406 ft. We got there too late to scale it, so most of us just went into town for a pint and some haggis.
Our hostel is right at the base of the trail that more or less leads to the summit of Ben Nevis, and many of the guys staying here have come to conquer it. There is a palpable swagger among the hostel guests, all of whom wear various pieces of climbing gear, suggesting that they are targeting the steep north face rather than the trail. The lobby of the hostel is festooned with all manner of mountaineering information (weather reports peeled off the web every 6 hours, maps, trail routes, etc.). After returning from dinner, some of us walked across the burn (a picturesque little brook) at the base of the trail, only to see a dozen or so Scots, members of a hillwalking club, who had just descended the mountain. They were sweaty and puckish, and you could practically smell the testosterone emanating from them. They were sucking down Tennents tallboys and giving one another noogies as they relived their adventures on the mountain. One particularly stylish fellow pulled a magnum of champagne from his rucksack.
Drew, who fancies himself something of an outdoorsman, surveyed the scene, inhaled deeply, spread his arms, nodded almost imperceptibly, and whispered, "These are my people." Then, as the clouds rolled over the peak high above us, he, Dave and I spent over an hour wandering around in the burn, banging cobbles against one another in pathetic attempts to fashion paleolithic-type handaxes. We reluctantly concluded at the end of our efforts that, had we lived in the Stone Age, we would have quickly starved to death.
Exhausted (and chastened by the inescapable realization that we were techodoofuses), we repaired to our bunkroom for a few well-deserved glasses of Glenmorangie before turning in.
Saturday, July 17, 2004: A little tension
The trip to the north went very well, overall. The students are apparently exhausted, both intellectually and physically, to judge by the amount of sleep they need. It was rare toward the end of our 9-day trip to see any heads poking above the seats when one looked to the rear of the bus. Most of them found a way to get supine on the double seats, and missed no opportunity to do so. It seems doubtful that their memory of this trip will consist of sweeping through a spectacular and ever-changing landscape en route to significant archaeological sites and "geological formations." More likely, they will remember only being herded off the bus in a very groggy state for atomized site visits which were punctuated by long stretches of slumber. Indeed, sleeping seems to be their favorite extracurricular activity. By far.
Last night was almost balmy. Drew and I sat outside on the McIntyre pub terrace (in the dining facility of the university dorm complex) for dinner, and we reviewed the progress of the program. As we exited through the pub gameroom, we espied an unused snooker table, and Drew challenged me to a game of 9-ball. It was a classic clash of styles: think Botvinnik vs. Alekhine, Spassky vs. Fischer--a thoughtful, experienced, conservative approach on the one hand (me) and a brash, aggessive, take-no-prisoners approach on the other (Drew). Invevitably, although he was winning on points, Drew scratched three times, the third time fatally, on the 8-ball. There followed a measured yet frank disagreement about the terms of the challenge. I recalled to him that we had played for a £100 wager; he insisted it was only $100. We are still in negotiation as to how to put this unpleasant business behind us. For my part it is (of course) not the money that matters. No. I feel obliged to make this event a teachable moment for young Drew, to assist in development of his character (he will thank me for it later in life). Among the lessons: Choose your opponents carefully; slow and steady wins the race; always make good on your debts; etc. He is not yet coming around. There was a palpable iciness at breakfast this morning and for most of the day.
The McIntyre Centre has a convenience store on its ground floor. It sells mostly the usual student stuff (junk food, soft drinks, newspapers, U of Edinburgh T-shirts, school supplies, toiletries). But unlike such shops on American campuses, this one also sells cigarettes, beer, wine and hard liquor. And there is a sign on the front door: "Sale of Red Bull may be restricted at the discretion of the staff due to the fact that this contains a high level of caffeine."
Antipodean indeed. You couldn't make this stuff up.
Return to Petruso homepage