An Innocent in Scotland: More Curious Rambles and Singular Encountersby David McFadden
In 1995, David W. McFadden published An Innocent in Ireland: Curious Rambles and Singular Encounters, a quirky and affectionate account of his travels around Ireland. In undertaking the trip, he chose as his guide H. V. Morton, the prolific travel writer of the 1920s and 1930s, whose In Search of Ireland (part of Morton’s famous In Search/i>/i>
In 1995, David W. McFadden published An Innocent in Ireland: Curious Rambles and Singular Encounters, a quirky and affectionate account of his travels around Ireland. In undertaking the trip, he chose as his guide H. V. Morton, the prolific travel writer of the 1920s and 1930s, whose In Search of Ireland (part of Morton’s famous In Search of... series) had been familiar to him since childhood.
Now, setting out to explore Scotland, his family’s ancestral home, McFadden plans to use the same technique: to follow Morton’s route around the country, observing how things have changed and in what ways they remain the same. As in An Innocent in Ireland, however, his own inquiring mind and engaging personality take over, and Morton appears less and less as McFadden becomes increasingly absorbed by the landscape – and particularly by the people.
Starting in the Lowlands, he travels through Burns country (examining verses that Burns is alleged to have inscribed on a Dumfries window with his diamond ring) and up the east coast to the Highlands. There he lingers by Loch Ness (spotting nothing but tourists), before heading over to the west coast and falling in love with it – particularly with the islands of Mull and Iona. Through the entire trip, McFadden charts an erratic course, led only by H. V. Morton and his own acute eye and very lively curiosity. As he does so, he records his extremely personal impressions, which are wry, amused – and often more astute than he lets on.
The reader won’t find many of the traditional Scottish tourist sites in this account. Rather, as in An Innocent in Ireland, McFadden loves a good chat, and he wisely lets the many characters he meets speak for themselves. He gives generous attention to a variety of talkative barmen, hoteliers, shopkeepers, as well as to passersby that he encounters in the course of his travels. Their conversations, ranging from the instructive or humorous to the eccentric and even surreal, give a thoroughly entertaining view of a Scotland the guidebooks never reveal.
Still quirky, affectionate, always ready to be intrigued or amused, David McFadden makes an ideal companion for any armchair traveller.
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Read an Excerpt
Port Glasgow Greenock Gurock Largs Kilwinning Irvine
Wednesday, May 29. In his book, Six Action Shoes, excerpted in today's Glasgow Herald, pop philosopher Edward de Bono claims grey sneakers should be worn for investigation and the collection of information. Fortunately, I happen to be wearing grey sneakers. Along the south shore of the Firth of Clyde, the leaves are out but they haven't reached the dark rich green of summer; everything looks freshly washed. Across the grey waters, strangely shaped and perilous rock formations, some capped with stately homes, appear on the north shore. My long-dead travel guide, H. V. Morton, refers to these as "romantic rocks." In a rest stop a funny little lorry has MCCLENAGHAN OF SLAMANNAN, PHONE 851060 painted on its door. As the driver gets out to relieve himself he glances my way. The look on his face says check me out all you want, my conscience is clear. So is mine, but I'm a bit confused: it's my first day in Scotland, I've just now left the airport in my little rental car, and I'm still not sure if it would be best to follow Morton's clockwise route, the one he took in his book In Search of Scotland (1929), or the counterclockwise route he took in his book In Scotland Again (1933). But an ominously cold wind blowing along the firth makes me realize with a shiver it might be best to linger in the southern part of the country for a few more days before heading north. I'll follow the counterclockwise route for now, butnot slavishly. After all, I'm a big boy, and I don't really need Morton, although he is a fascinating character, a pioneer automotive tourist whose numerous books, stacked as they were with clichéd sentimentalities and ethnic generalities, were great crowd-pleasers in their day. I'd like my book to be at least a bit more sophisticated, and I'm definitely not going to tour any bagpipe factories.
On display in a little parkette surrounded by a steel fence sits an old paddleboat steamer known as The Comet. It probably served its time ferrying people across the Firth of Clyde. It may be the very boat Morton hired for a little cruise up the Clyde to Glasgow. He could have stood on those decks.
When I asked if Greenock was pronounced Green-ock or Grinn-ick, a woman running a tea wagon off the main road said, "It's pronounced Green-ick." I laughed. "That's all right," she said. "I mean a lot of people say Green-ock. But this is Port Glasgow. Greenock's the next town." Her name was the name of the month that was ending, and she presented me with a steaming bowl of Arbroath stovies. I put a plastic forkful in my mouth and looked thoughtful.
"Weel, is it the ingredients ye'd like to know?" May points to my little paper bowl. "It's jis' potatoes and beef corned beef. What does yez call it over there, hash?"
"We call it something else, I don't know what. Let's see now, this is Arbroath stovies, and Arbroath's a town, right?"
"Yup, up in the east coast. Right, Alec?" Alec, who has joined us, confirms the statement.
"And this is the way they make them up there?"
"Yup. And here they make 'em with yer sliced sausagesthat's yer sausage meat, potatoes, and onion. But that there is made with corned beef, potatoes, and onion."
"I see. And what do you call the ones made with sausages?"
"Jis' stovies. The meat's different, that's the only thing that's different."
"Put a drop of salt on 'em," said Alec. "Salt, man, salt. Put salt on 'em."
"What else? Pepper maybe?"
"Aye, put the pepper and salt on 'em."
"Aye, pepper and salt on yer stovies," said May. "How long have you got?"
"Oh, my! And where are ye stayin'?" She was wearing a full apron with vertical red and white stripes. She had a gold chain around her neck with a clown on it.
"I'm not staying anywhere yet. I just got here."
"Weel fer God's sakes! Yer not stayin' anywheres then. You should go up the north it's loovly up there, or the east. Isn't it, Alec?"
"Aye," said Alec. "It's a lovely country, Scotland."
"Och, it's loovly up north or the east. He's jis' travelling around staying at bed-and-breakfasts. He jis' got here yisterday."
"Oh Good Lord, jis' today."
When I finished my Arbroath stories, May looked pleased. "How was it?" she said.
"It was exactly what I needed for the hole in me tummy." She laughed. "I've only been in Scotland two hours and already I've bought a cap" I tipped it at her "and have eaten an entire bowlful of Arbroath stovies. And now I'd like a Bovril as well." Bovril was new to me. It was a hot drink that looked like coffee but smelled and tasted like roast beef in a cup. "Do people put milk in Bovril?"
"Noo," May replied in a tone of great solemnity. "Noo. Did people ever put milk in Bovril, Alec?"
"Noo," said Alec, in a similar tone.
"Some people maybe used to?" said May.
"Never, noo, never," said Alec.
"Do people put sugar in the Bovril?" I wanted to start out on a proper footing, clear on the basics. Imagine if, at a fashionable resort somewhere, the smart set caught me putting sugar in my Bovril. I'd be disgraced and humiliated.
"Noo, noo, noo," said May. "Jis' the salt and the pepper."
"Jis' the pepper and the salt," added Alec. "It gives you a wee fire. You feel the heat goin' into yer body with the pepper."
Greenock, a tough industrial town, is famed for its boxers, mostly flyweight and bantamweight, for the ships it used to build before Japan took over the shipbuilding industry, and for the terrible bombing it took from the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1941, shortly after the Germans found out that all those British warships were being made along the Firth of Clyde: the Greenock Blitz is what it's known as locally. On May 6 of that year, shortly after midnight, a squadron of fifty German planes scattered bombs haphazardly around the town, hitting mostly residential areas, including a direct hit on a tenement building. The next night, after midnight, a much larger squadron of almost three hundred planes appeared, dropping heavy high explosives, incendiary bombs, and parachute land mines, which caused widespread damage to the distillery, both sugar refineries, both churches, and the power station. The entire town was left in flames, with 280 people killed. Some were machine-gunned by German planes as they ran for safety.
One woman returned to her house after the raid and found all the windows smashed, the roof demolished, but her canary still chirping merrily away in its cage and not one of a dozen eggs sitting in a carton on the kitchen table broken. She hunted high and low for the butter, however. A week or so later she found it in the bottom of a vase of tulips.
One church had all its windows blown out except for its World War I "Victory" window, which was an excellent omen. Numerous horrendous photos of the damage were featured in a little book called The Greenock Blitz, put out by the Inverclyde Public Libraries in 1991. "I was terrified but I had to be brave in front of the children," said one woman. "My husband was permanently on nights at the torpedo factory so it was just a case of doing the best I could. The raid went on for some time. I sang songs to the children and read story books just to keep their minds off it." Survivors later seemed amazed at how cheerful people had been even at the height of the bombing. Tea was served in the shelter and there was a communal singsong.
Damage to the shipyards was minimal: one incendiary bomb had burned a lifeboat in one of the destroyers. Another destroyer was knocked off its berth, but with no damage worth mentioning. This was because the positioning of the anti-aircraft emplacements was fairly shrewd as far as protecting the shipyards was concerned, but not so shrewd as far as protecting the town was concerned. The pilots couldn't get close to the shipyards, and they couldn't return home with a full load of bombs, so they dropped them on the town.
The new shopping mall in Greenock features a large painting of the town as it would have appeared before the war if viewed from the window in front of which the painting was conveniently hanging. A red-eyed old fellow was standing there looking at the painting and comparing it with the current view.
"That brings back memories, does it?"
"Och, aye, it does," he said.
He said in the early seventeenth century Greenock was nothing but a row of fishing huts, but three hundred years later it had grown to be the world's biggest shipbuilding area.
Newark Castle sits on the south shore of the Firth of Clyde next to Ferguson Ship Builders Ltd. Something strange was being built inside the latter, as I could see by peeking through a crack in the door. It wasn't a ship, but what it was would require a wiser fellow than I to say. (Editor's note: oil rig perhaps) The castle was once the greatest fortress for miles around, but it has been reduced to being the limp centrepiece of Inverclyde Newark Castle Park, which in spite of its small size boasts a Woodland Walk, a Fishing Jetty, a Riverside Walkway, a Boat Compound, a Picnic Site, a Car Park, and of course Newark Castle. Over the fifteenth-century gatehouse of the latter is carved: THE BLESSINGS OF GOD BE HEREIN. The castle has been badly wrecked but it's still solid an intricate pattern of great blocks of stone, mortared so nicely into place five centuries ago. It bears the signs of having been a comfortable castle in winter, for the latrines on each floor are adjacent to the fireplaces. The topmost floor and the roof have been smashed away.
Around 1580 Patrick Maxwell built a "Renaissance mansion" between the old tower and the gatehouse, and the mansion became the main part of the castle. His tombstone is on display: I PATRICK MAXWELL BUILDER G'FIST HELO. They're playing tapes of medieval Scottish music, but then the music stops and a canned voice says: "Newark once graced a smiling Clydeside that was ignorant alike of shipbuilding and social deprivation. It may be so again. James IV stayed here in the 1490s." By the nineteenth century it had become "so derelict as to be suitable only for working men's families." Now, that's derelict!
Being the only visitor, I had a guide all to myself, so I pointed to the tombstone and asked her what G'FIST HELO meant.
"I dinna know what that means." She laughed. "That's noo a gravestone, is it?"
"I thought it was, but what would it be?"
"Och, I have jis' started last month," she said.
"In ten years you'll know everything about this castle."
"I learn it all off of the tourists."
This was nothing more than a job for this young woman. She didn't have the virus of history in her bloodstream, nor was she well-informed. Perhaps I became prejudiced against her right off when she wanted to know if I was sixty-five so she could give me a discount. The nerve!
On the motorway there's a deep-green grassy highway median smothered in tulips. No signs say KEEP OFF THE MEDIAN, for people are civilized here and would not drive on the median unless there was absolutely no other way out. Sitting square on the horizon ahead is a range of interestingly shaped pale-blue mountains, probably belonging to Kintyre, Argyll, or the Isles of Bute or Arran.
West of Greenock is Gourock, full of great rows of stately seafront hotels, villas, guest homes. Gourock is the northern terminus of a holiday belt that runs down the shore of the Firth of Clyde to Stranraer, with numerous nostalgic old tourist towns that have been nicely maintained, like Llandudno in Wales, rather than modernized into a digital nightmare like Blackpool in England. Working-class families from Glasgow come to Gourock for the summer break, and take a ferry across the Clyde to Dunoon or down to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
From Gourock one looks north across the firth to the coastal town of Kilcreggan, and west across the firth to a little fiord-like indentation called Holy Loch, which is bordered on the north by the Benmore Forest and on the south by the holiday town of Dunoon and the villages of Sandbank and Ardnadam. To the south one can see the relatively flat Isle of Bute and, behind it, the hills of Kintyre (largest one Cnoc Na Meine at 1,612 feet), and the great pyramid-shaped mountain of Goatfell (2,868 feet) on the Isle of Arran. This is a spectacular and all-inclusive view, wide-angled but highly detailed. It's interesting to have such a view of the fairly large town of Dunoon, in its entirety, and still have room for a great vista of coastal indentations, sky, sea, hills, mountains, surrounding communities, and islands rising up behind islands far off in the distance.
Further along, in the large Brightonesque town of Largs, we enter an area of deep superficiality, with the locals playing the role of rapacious wolves and the tourists (mostly from the north of England) rolling in on monster buses to be sheared and shorn in vast rows of souvenir shops and tourist casinos. The more well-heeled and energetic will take the little ferry across the Fairlie Roads to Great Cumbrae island, which is encircled by a good coastal road and is twice as expensive as Largs or so the shrewd Largs merchants maintain. There's a golf course and a Buddhist monastery on the island. And there's a Little Cumbrae Island, but nobody goes there except adventurous birdwatchers, who row across the Tan from Great Cumbrae Island to add to their bird lists. In Scotland one doesn't actually have to see a bird to add it to one's list: it's enough to hear it singing its little song. Nighttime bird-watching is said to be big in certain parts of the country.
Although Largs does not have the air of a serious town at all, there was a battle fought here in the thirteenth century a rather slapstick battle but one that marked the end of an era. Alexander III, who had been crowned on the Stone of Scone at age eight, had now reached the age of twenty-two and was beginning to take an interest in continuing his late father's attempts to kick the Norse out of the Western Isles. Accordingly, the peaceful young king sent an emissary to Norway to offer to purchase the Hebrides. Unfortunately for Alexander, King Haakon of Norway had more money than islands and wasn't interested in selling any of the latter. Yet reports had been reaching him that his lieutenants on the various islands were becoming more Gaelic than Norse. Now that it was obvious that Alexander's interest in the islands was increasing, Haakon began to sense trouble. He was also receiving reports that Scottish raiding parties were attacking settlements on Skye with barbaric gusto. The newly demonized Scots were even reputedly running around with Norse babies on the ends of their spears always a good line to use when you want to wage war.
So, in July 1263, King Haakon left Kirkwall in the Orkneys with his fleet and sailed to Skye, where he was met by King Magnus of the Isle of Man and some miscellaneous Celtic and Norse chiefs. The combined fleet entered the Firth of Clyde, but severe storms came up. On the last day of September, Haakon's ship was torn from its moorings and, along with ten provision ships, driven out to sea. All eleven ships eventually were cast ashore at Largs, where they were fired upon by bands of Scottish archers, who had been following their progress. The next day Haakon got his warriors organized and they found themselves facing the entire army of Alexander III, drawn up on the ridge overlooking the sea. Confusion prevailed, the gods guffawed, and the Norwegians waded back to their ships and sailed away.
Yet the battle was decisive. A dispirited Haakon returned to Kirkwall and died that winter. Three years later, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles were relinquished to Scotland for four thousand silver marks. The Norse threat was over, but this did not mean that Scotland was now united, for the clans of the Western Isles were intent on carrying out their bloody dynastic disputes no matter who claimed ultimate power over their homelands.
Poor John Muir, whoever he might be. Up into the hills and winding roads back from the coast is the pretty town of Kilwinning, with newer houses carefully built to blend in nicely with the older ones. Someone has done a superb job of painting in sober yellow block letters two feet high along a tall stone wall at the edge of town: JOHN MUIR IS HAVING AN AFFAIR.
In Irvine, at Mr. and Mrs. Boyd's tourist home, I found a nice large clean room with a wondrous view out over the tidal flats of Irvine Bay and across the sparkling sea to the Isle of Arran and the Kintyre peninsula behind it. The sun was setting behind both, and Goatfell looked splendid in silhouette. The eye ran along the dark-blue horizon with its mysteriously distant peaks and valleys like a hand along a piece of rare silk.
Meet the Author
David W. McFadden has published over twenty books of poetry and prose, including Gypsy Guitar, nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1987 and The Art of Darkness, nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1984. He lives in Toronto.
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