A bunkhouse breakfast, a final round of photos, and we descended from the heights of Glencoe into morning fog. As we drove through the eerie white stuff that turns trees, rocks, even oncoming cars into shapeless shadow monsters, our photojournalist turned to the others: "Guys, we were very, very lucky yesterday."
Across the top of the bottom of the Highlands we drove, stopping in Killen for what turned out to be absolutely the worst coffee ever served in Scotland. Jordan approached me: "Would it be an ugly American thing to do if I asked her to make a fresh pot?" Okay, so maybe I overdid the cautions before we left....
Armed with somewhat better coffee thanks to Jordan, we sped on to the ancient Fortingall Yew Tree, arguably the oldest living thing in Europe (estimated between three and five thousand years). Pontius Pilate may have been born near this site, while his father was Governor of the "rude Albian tribes." The area also sports a Neolithic cairn, so it's been inhabited awhile. Unfortunately, the Yew Tree has fallen victim to souvenir hunters over the years, but you can see the stone stakes marking where its girth once reached 56 feet. The Forestry Commission has pieces of the tree in cloning process, so if the original doesn't survive, its spirit and daughter will live on.
One of the coolest things about Yew trees is their Phoenix-esque propensity to grow a hundred years or so, stagnate, and then, at 500 years, suddenly start to grow again. It's never too late...
Fortingall's church let students begin to understand the terrible toll the Great War and its follow-up took from the Scottish farmlands, as their finest crop marched away. Every town in Scotland, no matter how small, has a war memorial. Even the tiny village of New Gilston (pop 300) where Jack and I started married life had a plaque; most have pillars or stone crosses. Fortingall's is inside the church.
Never missing a chance, I pointed out the strategic connection Dunkeld cathedral played between the McAlpine and Canmore dynasties in Scotland, and its tragedy in the Reformation (when the Other Side took the roof off to ensure its disuse, and burned some of the town.) By then the students knew who Alexander and David were (you can find a list of Kings easily on the Net) so it was starting to come clear to them. But looking at the forest beyond, Jeremy was getting the most from it.
"That's the REAL Birnam Wood?" he asked, awe tinging his voice. "The one Shakespeare...?" Yep.
And our pre-dental student recited the famous Scottish Play passage for the rest of the group, who stood, silent, staring at the trees.
Back into the van and across to settle in the nicest hostel of the trip - Pitlochry Backpackers' hostel, right on the High street. I let them burn themselves out shopping before the next "lecture" of the evening: globalization and cultural tourism marketing.
That night we met at Macdonald's Family Restaurant, one of my favorite stories of Scotland defining itself. When THE McDonald's first came to Scotland, they sued this establishment for using a copyrighted name. Since the Macdonalds, who opened their place in 1959, reasonably felt that their family name should be their own, they went to court, where the judge agreed. There is no McDonald's restaurant in Pitlochry, although you find them many other places.There is, as there has been for more than half a century, a Macdonald's.
Travis, MK and BrieSarah and Rachel
My favorite event was coming up that evening: a visit to Jock and Frances Duncan. Jock is one of the most venerated elder storytellers and ballad singers in Scotland, with good reason. His dry humor and easy manner combines with a way of telling historic stories as though he were talking about family members. He stops in the middle of verses to explain "'Cause, ye ken, she was plain folk an' he was a laird, so they servants in yon castle were ower mean tae her."
I had worried that my students might be too young or too American-underexposed-to-traditional-music to appreciate Jock. Nothing of it; they were entranced. He sang MacPherson's Lament (in honor of Sarah, whose family name traces back to them) and Laird of Drum and told several stories of his days working Clydesdales; Jock was one of the last bothy workers to plow with horses. He finished with the Four Marys. It was riveting.
And while the students got a thrill from Jock, he gave me an unexpected surprise. As a folklorist and a used bookstore owner, imagine the electricity that shot through me when he placed in my hands a 1925 copy of Gavin Greigg's "Last Leaves of Scotland." Colin, sitting across the room, started to hyperventilate. (If you're a folklorist and don't know about this book, look it up. It's incredible.)
Mary Katherine and Sarah with Frances. Sarah is holding an Irn Bru.
Brie photographing the Dunkeld Mercat Cross lions; the cross capella is its top.