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Have you ever wanted to read someone else's diary? A friend's private impressions, musings, or confessions? Scotland—and Cape Wrath, particularly—made such an impact on me, I'd like to share some of the observations and impressions I recorded during my September 2010 trip.
3 September 2010
Well, I thought I knew this town. After a series of flights from Salt Lake City to Houston and from Houston to Paris, I landed here in Edinburgh around 11:30 am.
I took a bus from the airport, and I thought I was coming in from the east, but actually the bus approached from the west. The castle took me by surprise.
This is my third time to Edinburgh, and my visit supports or reinforces the old adage about third times. Of all my visits, this one, so far—you have to remember, I’ve only been here a day—has been the best. It’s all in the weather. The sun basted everything. Perfect temperatures. Short-sleeve shirt weather. And it’s supposed to remain through the weekend.
A couple of times since I booked the airfare, I wondered if I should be doing this. The doubts are gone, now. I’ve been walking Edinburgh’s streets for the past six or seven hours, and I’m more conscientious, more deliberate, and a little more outgoing. Perhaps my mind has been awakened by new things—and some old, familiar favorites. I am away from my routine, that productive and efficient numbness. If I were to stay in Edinburgh, would my mind eventually distill all the energy out of all this exciting novelty? Perhaps there’s a lesson here on being satisfied in your own surroundings and finding ways to make your life interesting and meaningful.
I returned to a few of the places I’d seen last time: the Royal Mile, the Bar Roma restaurant, TGI Friday’s, Princes Street Gardens. I walked past the Northern Lighthouse Board offices, but I didn’t stop. Lorna Hunter and her husband are on holiday until Tuesday. I will probably stop by toward the end of my journey.
While at the Royal Mile, I stood near a web cam that Ken Passarella had found, and I phoned him. So, thanks to technology, Ken and others could speak to me while they’re watching me on the web cam. It was kinda fun.
I feel like I’m supposed to be here. The days ahead are filled with more travel and more friends. So I must take advantage of them.
I’ve had very little sleep, and I’m fading fast. Need to call Jen, if only to say “I love you” and “Goodnight.”
4 September 2010
…So I’m in a pub on Grassmarket called The Last Drop. Centuries ago, in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, they held public executions. So “The Last Drop” is only appropriate. The logo has an image of a hangman’s gallows.
Interesting, then, that a Grassmarket pub in my novel is named “The Maiden” the term of endearment for a guillotine used in Edinburgh’s public executions.
So I’m in here taking notes. Get the fine points of a Grassmarket pub into the book.
The Last Drop is a little smaller than I imagined The Maiden. The wood throughout is dark, and the rafters are covered with American dollar bills, British pound notes, Euros—virtually every country that spends money is represented here, glued to the wood, end to end like poorly milled toilet paper. These are mostly around the bar. The bar area glows with an ocher tint of hanging yellow lights. Every table has a burning candle with melted wax covering the long necks of liquor bottles, as if, by some sedimentary process that took much longer than a few nights. A variety of pictures—paintings and line drawings—depicting bygone Edinburgh hang like mute observers, fixed to the wall, watching, but withholding judgment on the music video, laughter and raucous talking. It all mixes into a din with occasional bursts of laughter, mostly from a group of women.
Beer and ale taps line the bar, gleaming chrome with steel handles. The benches have worn upholstery with a brown line across the top where, over time, shoulders and arms have taken their toll. There’s a brick arch that you pass beneath to move into another area of the pub. This place probably sits perhaps 60 people, max. More cackling from the women. You would have to raise your voice to be heard by someone sitting across the table from you. The men’s restroom is labeled GENTS…
…I spent a few hours at Edinburgh Castle. The place brims with Scottish history, along with some tremendous artifacts. After spending so much time there and looking at so much of Scotland’s military history, I’m tempted to try distilling Scotland’s national personality. Perhaps a better term for someone in my line of work is “branding.” What is the single most salient thing about Scots?
My error here is that Scots cannot be defined by their military history alone. Scots—and most other nationalities—are much more complex, much more diverse than that. So perhaps we need to go deeper to find that glowing nugget that truly defines a Scot. I won’t attempt it here. I just think the culture—with all its tradition, music, and color,—rocks, big time.
5 September 2010
…I just got off the train from Edinburgh about two hours ago, and I’m sitting in the restaurant of the Red Cliffe Hotel. I’m staying at the Ardconnel Guest House, but John & Elizabeth, who run the place, suggested I come here for dinner. After a roaring night at The Last Drop, I needed some quiet time. The Red Cliffe Hotel restaurant is Scotland on a low simmer. Very peaceful. Very relaxing.
I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Cloudless skies followed us throughout the train ride up from Edinburgh through the Highlands. For nearly four hours I saw a continuous mural of farmland, rolling hills, and wall-thick pine trees. Occasionally, patches of heather would move past my view like a wind-driven purple mist. The Highlands are like Huntsville or Morgan County, only without all the development.
6 September 2010
Unfortunately, today I gave Calum Macaulay the scare of his life.
I rented a small car this morning, and at that moment, my vacation turned from a pleasant tour of the Highlands to a journey spiked with danger: an American driving a British car on the streets of a Scottish town on a Monday morning.
I made it to Calum’s B&B, but I took a wrong turn, then got lost and had to find my way back to the correct street where Calum was waiting. It was a baptism by fire. But I hadn’t felt so alive in weeks. And I figured my way around—on the left side of the road, mind you.
I was doing fine, well into the Highlands. But about 14 miles from Durness, we were on a single-track road. A car was coming our way, and instead of pulling over to the left, as I should have, I pulled to the right, as my American instinct took over, right in line with the oncoming car.
I feel terribly about this. I think my thoughtless reaction sent Calum’s heartbeat into overdrive...I apologized profusely. When we return home, I think he will drive.
…Calum and I had dinner at the Smoo Cave Hotel. Earlier, I had phoned David Hird, the Cape Wrath minibus driver, and he met us there. A wonderful man, very obliging. During a controversy that is too circuitous to explain here, David helped Calum and me get proper lodging for the three nights we will be here.
He took us to a pub, and we met two men from the Northern Lighthouse Board who will be working at Cape Wrath tomorrow. I also met John Morrison, the same ferryman Jenifer and I saw 15 years ago. I recognized him immediately.
We are dealing with near-galeforce wind. It was so strong that they couldn’t cross the Kyle of Durness at all today. Let’s hope it settles down tomorrow. David said, “I hope you deal well with disappointment.” We’ll see. We are to be at the ferry landing at 9:30 am.
8 September 2010
It’s 7 am, and outside sheep are walking past my window, bleating occasionally. The sound they make sounds like an expression of guttural disgust, as if something in their mouths tastes terrible. I keep listening for the wind. I’ve heard a few buffeting gusts. The wind, whether or not I hear it, is out there. Since I arrived on Monday, it’s not stopped…
…“Are you ready, Ted?”
When you write about big things—births, marriages, graduations, deaths—sometimes you hesitate before putting your pen to paper. You want your first words to capture the essence of your feelings. Above all, you don’t want to put down the wrong words, something trite or over the top. So you snare yourself in thought for a while until the appropriate flavors mix themselves in your head. You remember, as you consider combinations, that it’s better to understate it than to overstate it.
Calum Macaulay and I drove to the ferry landing and found David Hird and John Morrison waiting in David’s car. The wind had died noticeably from the day before. But John was waiting for the tide to go out so he could use one boat get his ferry boat, which was moored 50 yards or so offshore.
When the water was low enough, things happened very quickly. John got his boat. The NLB guys loaded their gear on board, and John began his first crossing.
Calum and I joined the second crossing. Then we, along with the four NLB guys rode in David’s minibus toward Cape Wrath. I kept thinking about how fun it was to be in the place my imagination has toyed with for years. Countless hours have gone into the scene where Mary Craig and the lighthouse authority engineer travel to Cape Wrath; or the scene where Mary, Jimmy Maxwell, Evan Robbins, and Andrea Sinclair meet up with Roger Munro in the dead of night while returning from Cape Wrath. So while we’re driving, I’m thinking, “This is where it all happened,” as if I were a tourist at Gettysburg.
Most of the drive to the lighthouse is mundane, except for some dips and turns. Rolling hills surround the road, but the hills are covered in streaks of stunted green, red, and yellow grass. No trees, scrub oak. Just short grass, covering the landscape like peach fuzz.
Still, I kept looking and watching. I could tell we were approaching the lighthouse because the sea was gradually taking over my view.
Then David, without turning back, shouted, “Are you ready, Ted?”
About three seconds later the gleaming white tower rose from behind a hill, and instantly the rest of the station appeared. It was like a homecoming, like when I saw our home as we approached it the night I returned from my mission. I knew this place, but I’d never been there, so the reality of it raises the voltage of your feelings for the place. No longer are the images coming at you from photographs or videos. Everything is tangible. There are smells. A few things are different than how you imagined them. But that’s okay.
I didn’t want to seem like a kid in a toy store. Soon after we stopped, I helped the NLB guys unload their gear. I never took off and ran around the station like I was Julie Andrews in the Austrian Alps. I helped these guys get settled. I walked around with Calum as he went down memory lane…
…Pawel Wieczorek, one of the NLB guys, took me on a tour of the area. We began east of the lighthouse, a few hundred yards away from the tower. Cape Wrath sits on a headland, with sheer cliffs to the east, north, and west. In my writing, I had focused on the cliffs to the west. That’s where Peter Erskine died. But the cliffs to the east are equally, if not more, stunning.
I followed Pawel to a point that silenced me. I just stood there taking it all in. The cliffs were spectacular…
Pawel then led me to the west side. We headed down a steep incline toward the cliffs. I was a little leery at first, but I noticed a small path had been beaten there. Hundreds of people had already gone this way, and Pawel didn’t seem careless about his pace. It was relatively slow going.
But what view! Again, a camera cannot contain all there is to see at one time. We went down a few switchbacks and came to a point where, above me, Peter Erskine fell to his death. The cove there is much more narrow than I had thought. We continued across a narrow path to a huge rock that became narrow at its top, nearly a hundred feet or so above the water. This rock formed the western side of the cove. You had plenty of space to walk across the top safely. But a few feet either side of you were sheer cliffs. This is the rock where the Coastguard Auxiliary men scramble across in chapter two to rescue the fishermen whose trawler has run aground.
To the west we found sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks. They would howl at one another, a ghostly high-pitched wail that echoed off the surrounding rocks like the place was a cathedral. Kind of eerie.
Pawel and I returned to the light station, and George Dingwall was preparing lunch.
“Would you like some soup?” George asked. How could I refuse?
Pawel set the table. George and Pawel brought out the food, and the four NLB guys, Calum, and I sat down for a meal…
…So here I was, once again, living a dream: At Cape Wrath on a perfectly beautiful day sitting down to dinner—lunch—with four guys from the Northern Lighthouse Board.
These gentlemen were not only fun to talk with, they were, above all, genuine, and along with that, gracious. I was their guest, and they treated me with every degree of kindness. I wanted to do the dishes but George wouldn’t let me, citing that I hadn’t passed the Health & Safety exam for such work. I think he simply wouldn’t let a guest do any work at all. That’s the way they are here.
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