All I heard for the first minutes were cameras clicking. They photographed chimney pots, flower boxes, roundabouts, and any building with a crack in its walls. They photographed McDonald's and the nasty little pub. Life was a grand and glorious adventure.
We stopped off at the Church of the Holy Rude (yes, I know, but someone should have thought of it anyway) which sent them into further giggling fits. They spotted a great hill view in a parking lot and we took our first official group photo. And arrived at the castle promptly at 9, to discover it opened at 9:30. A sympathetic guard handed me a tourist map. "Beheading stone's that way," he said, tracing the route with his finger, then pointing down the road.
The students, winded from their uphill mile hike, perked right up. Off we went, gaily seeking the execution site of yore. Around the corner we met Alfred the basset hound, who was only too happy to greet us in the King's Name. The professor in me was tempted to explain the historic Alfred who might have actually had something to do with beheadings in Stirling, but they were having too much fun and the wee duggie was just too cute.
What must have been the last thistle blooming in Scotland adorned the hill--along with pizza boxes and empty cider bottles. Welcome to Stirling. Once everyone had the thistle safely stowed in their electronic memories, we headed up to the stone, a rather flat affair encased in graffiti.
One student asked, "Was anyone who was somebody executed here?" Regrettably, the communist Scot side of me flared momentarily. "Well, I'm sure their families thought so." Oh well. "No, William Wallace wasn't done here." The cameras stopped. It seemed like a good time to go back to the castle.
In the Great Hall, I chanced on Sarah and Rachel waiting to take each others' photos on the wooden thrones under the Lion Rampant. The lady just before us had an American accent--and a tiara! Her best friend had sent it with her for her trip to Scotland from Atlanta, to mark her fiftieth birthday. She loaned it to us and we each had our photos done as Queen for a Minute.
It was also at Stirling that I snapped one of my favorite pics: five tourists standing in the middle of a medieval castle courtyard steeped in history, talking on cell phones. Live in the bloody moment, why don't you??!! You can tell your friends about it later! Doubts about my Facebook dependencies began to niggle and wriggle in the back of my brain.
One other thing about Stirling Castle: it's always something between amusing and odd that the statue of Robert the Bruce turns permanently away from the Wallace Monument a few hills over, as if Bruce knows he has eternity to ponder how things might have been different.
Amber, doing what she does best: exploring a new situation
Don't know who this guy is, but the sculptor did capture him in an unfortunate moment.... what's that saying, that you'll do something really stupid when the most people are watching? Hmmph.
With this massacre, all bets were off about cultural rules; you might as well carve up a baby for Christmas dinner. Explaining it to my students, I suggested that the Mullins came to church with the Bledsoes, and when the service was over, killed all the Bledsoes. It was the beginning of the breaking of a way of life. The Highland clan days were numbered--from 1692 to 1815, if you want to be precise.
So, partly because of the geography--valleys shadowed by mountain peaks that block the sun--and partly, perhaps, because of the horror perpetrated there, Glencoe is always dark and gloomy. Scottish weather is not known for the same hospitality as its people, but our drive into Glencoe was nothing short of glorious. Every single blade of grass stood out in the bright sunshine. The fall colors --October Blue sky, October Red grass--were brilliant. Cameras whirred and it took us an hour to drive five miles, as we pulled over for photos in every layby. Colin, a 65-year resident of Scotland, kept saying "I've never seen it like this. It's never like this."
But it was for the students, and they relished every moment of it. It wasn't until tomorrow, when the clouds descended, that they would understand how special God's smile on them was, but that day was nothing short of perfect.
Until, of course, we arrived at the hostel for the evening. We had booked a bunkhouse, and discovered it had unsealed windows that allowed birds to do unspeakable things to the pillows. From the glorious munros to the mundane mattresses--hey ho, the traveling life. I left my sorority girls staring numbly at the primitive bunks in the cinderblock room, and closed the door.
Five minutes later I went in to check on them, worried there might be tears. The door opened onto a carnival of color: towels hanging from rails, snapshots tucked into wall crevices, a radio playing, Nutella being passed round with shortbread for dipping, ladies in slippers briskly making up beds and singing along to an Ipod-esque thing on the windowsill. Women are born with coping genes. We are unstoppable.
They looked up, and smiled. "Everything okay in your room, Dr. Welch?" they asked. "Need anything?"
"Just a dose of humility," I muttered, slinking away to find one of my wine bottles.
After a scintillating lecture on Scots literature from Colin, they opted for pub supper rather than hamely faire, so we loaded into the van and drove to the Clachanhead, a backpackers' pub that sported a brass plaque: No Hawkers or Campbells allowed. The fact that they got it meant they'd been paying attention to my lecture on the Massacre. The fact that they didn't laugh paid tribute to their maturity and cultural awareness. Amber eyed the plaque, hands on hips: "Okay, it's meant to be funny, but it's still, like, mean, isn't it?"
I was beginning to really enjoy this group.
Fish and chips, steak and ale pie, and sticky toffee pudding were not only consumed, but photographed at just about every bite. The students moaned, squealed, exclaimed--and discovered that 18 was the legal drinking age in Scotland. Next, they discovered pear cider, and Mary Katherine's eyes rolled back in her head. Life as we knew it had just shifted into high gear.
Back to the bunkhouse we went, where I made my own discovery: several of the students, coming from Northern Virginia, had never seen a sky full of stars!. With no light pollution to speak of, I led those willing back outside and pointed out the constellations I learned as a young girl. Cassiopia. The Big Dipper (which they could just about find). Cygnus.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we saw a shooting star?" Rachel sighed, and one shot across the sky in a brilliant arc. The five of us outside stared, afraid to move. But we'd all seen it.
There wasn't anything that could get better about this day. We went to our bunks, thanking God for life and love and sticky toffee pudding.