Thursday, March 31, 2011

Looking out on the Forth...and into the future

I am sitting at the dining room table now, awaiting a package that will allow me to get started on six commissions I have for custom sterling silver jewellery.  It is a grey and misty day.  I can’t see the opposite shore across the Forth.  It is as if we are the edge of the world.  I love it.

It is chilly today, too.  I am wrapped up in my favourite Scottish wool shawl – black, decorated with coffee-coloured designs of celtic knotwork.  It keeps me warm and cosy.  I have my iTunes playing Capercaillie.  For those of you not familiar, I highly recommend you give them a listen.  Capercaillie is a group of Scottish musicians with vocals by the incomparable Karen Matheson.  One reviewer said, One of the most beautiful voices in traditional Scottish song, if not the best, surely belongs to Karen Matheson. Whether singing in Gaelic or English her velvet tones lend an ethereal quality and atmosphere to Scottish love ballads and haunting Highland tunes.  I am listening to their CD “Beautiful Wasteland.”  I never tire of hearing it.  I just wish I could understand the lyrics of those songs sung in Scottish Gaelic.  On my list of things to accomplish – learn Scottish Gaelic.

I have another goal – a musical one.  Anyone who knows me would be more than welcome to groan at that statement.  I am not known for my musicality – other than my passion for listening to beautiful music.  I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  I am thankful that when Caroline was tiny either her lack of knowledge or unconditional love for me kept her from putting her hands over her ears when I attempted a bedtime lullaby.  No, my goal has nothing to do with singing.  Instead, it is something I think I could do quite well.  I always tap out rhythms when music is playing and I love the sound of the bodhran - the handheld celtic drum played with a wooden tipper.  So, at some point, when I can afford it, I am going to buy a bodhran.  As our goal is to move north at some point, I would love to be able to go to a ceilidh and play along.  I have visions of Chris and me spending our golden years in the familiar and friendly setting of an inn or pub somewhere in the Highlands, me and my bodhran playing along and ending our evening with a dram of single malt whisky to send us home and off to bed.

I have been very lucky – in my lifetime I have somehow been blessed in realising my goals.  Not that I haven’t had sadness and tragedy.  I have had those as well.  But I hope my dreams of life in the northwest  is one we can realise.  My heart aches to be up north – where the mountains rise from the water and the land is dotted with sheep and ancient stones.  To that end, I’ve made some enquiries about housing up north.  A recent diagnosis of severe arthritis in my knees means I will be eligible for an allowance.  If I can get that, and make a small success of my jewellery business, we can do it.  We don’t need much – just a little, cosy place.  All we require is a little home with two bedrooms so that our children and grandchildren can visit and that can serve as a place of creativity when we are alone.  We can make it happen...we will make it happen.

The mist is beginning to lift and I see the high pointed hill that crowns the opposite shore.  Because I am the optimist I am, I shall believe that the mist rising as I wrote of realising my goals is a sign.  I will believe that soon the view shall be of a northern sea loch and not the Forth.  I shall believe and realise that dream and we will live out our lives in the unequalled beauty of Scotland’s northwest.

Now, I wonder when my package will arrive...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Loving Where I Am

I have realised that if I only write after we have been out and about, the blogs would be very few and far between - for now.  Our greatest wish is to move north - up to the part of Scotland's highlands that boast more sheep than people, more hills than houses.  We will be going up in the autumn for a visit.  Tax refunds and an annuity will help finance the trip.  Chris needs to get some new shots of the area for his website and we need to refresh ourselves once more in the land that speaks to our souls.

When we returned to Scotland in November, our first excursion, indeed planned and booked before we even landed in the UK, was to Glencoe.  Our trip to that haunting place included a drive along Loch Lubnaig in Stirlingshire.  We have always traveled to Glencoe along this route, with a stop along the way at Balquhidder.  Balquhidder is a tiny village and boasts an ancient kirk (church) where one can view the final resting place of Rob Roy MacGregor.  It has always been a special place for me - not just because Rob Roy was a hero of Scotland, but because I am blessed to be a MacGregor on my father's side. Another attraction in Balquhidder is The Wee Mindin' Shop.  It is a sweet little gift shop owned by a husband and wife who have always been friendly and welcoming.  On this particular trip, we stopped at the shop to pick up some whisky fudge (so delicious).  We were both amazed and touched that the owner remembered us.  He had remembered that, on our last visit, we told him we were going back to the States.  On this occasion, we told him we were back for good and that we couldn't stay away.  "Scotland has a way of getting into your soul," he said.  We nodded.

But I digress.  Before Balquhidder, the route takes us along the loch - a beautiful small loch with trees that go right down to the shore.  It isn't a rare sight to see cows grazing at the water's edge.  It is a peaceful place and on calm days the mirror-like waters reflect the pine-covered hills that surround the loch.  We parked the car and I slowly walked down to the shore.  I reached down into the clear water and scooped a handful and splashed my face with it.  I felt as if I were "baptising" myself - refreshing my soul with the pure water of Lubnaig.  The water mixed with tears.

As we drove on, the hills became higher, some of them snow-capped.  The familiar sights were so welcoming and, instead of feeling as if we were back, there was a part of us that felt we had never been away.  The road is so familiar, I sometimes think we could drive it with our eyes closed.  We continued on our well-loved route and soon came to Tyndrum, location of the famous Green Wellie.  Touristy?  Yes, but great fun and it boasts one of the most comprehensive selections of whisky.  We stopped and bought my granddaughter a stuffed highland cow, beers for my son-in-law, chocolates for my step-grandson, and fudge for my daughter.  From there, Glencoe beckoned and we drove along the road that would bring us first to Rannoch Moor.

We spent 23 months dreaming of this and now it was a reality.  We climbed the hill past the Bridge of Orchy and saw Rannoch Moor spread out before us.  Rannoch Moor is magical - dotted with small lochans, tiny hills of peat and the occasional rowan tree. Road works were in progress, but it didn't detract from the the emotions of our return.  We drove on in silence.  And then the iconic Buchaille Etive Mor rose before us.  We were so close now.  As we passed the great hill, Glencoe appeared before us, her high hills reaching up on either side as we made our way through.  We stopped at a parking area facing the Three Sisters.  We looked up and we cried.  Cried with such great joy that we were back where we wanted to be.  It was if a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders.  We were home, well and truly home.

We spent the night at a B&B in Ballachulish that is owned by some lovely friends. We sat up late chatting and sipping some very fine whisky.  It was so warm and wonderful.

This is how I feel here - warm, welcomed, at home, happy.  The old saying "grow where you are planted" isn't always true.  It depends on where your roots are.  And sometimes your roots aren't where you expect them to be.  For me, the love I feel for living is here.  My roots, though they may date back many generations, are here.

Before we returned, before we knew we were coming back, I would often listen to Dougie Maclean's song "Caledonia" and feel such a longing.

"O but let me tell you that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia you're calling me
And now I'm going home
If I should become a stranger
You know that would make me more than sad
Caledonia's been everything
I've ever had."


Thursday, March 10, 2011

In the beginning....

For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep love affair with the UK.  While I don’t recall what started it, I would imagine it had to do with the books that were read to me as a little girl.  My mother read us “Winnie-the-Pooh”, “Peter Pan,” “A Little Princess” – all set in the UK.   And when I was old enough to read for myself, I devoured “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Older still, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on – as long as it was set in the UK.  Of course, my love for all things British took a huge step forward in 1964 – the day after my 8th birthday, The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Suddenly, London was the centre of the earth (but it always had been for me).  A once-in-a-lifetime trip the UK (and most of western Europe) followed in the summer of 1967.

I was only 11 years old when we came to the UK that summer.  But for some reason, one that I will never understand, I felt at home.  Even at that young age, I had this sense of belonging.  My skin fit me better, I was happier.  The UK was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be, where I had to be in order to find peace.  After that trip, I used to joke that the stork who delivered me must have had very poor eyesight, for surely the tag that gave my destination said “York” not “New York”.  Yes, I know, not a good joke, but I truly always felt that my being American and not British was a huge mistake.

When I entered college at the age of 18, the years had done nothing to dispel my love for the UK.  Quite the contrary.  My love of the UK resulted in my putting together my own major - British literature, history, and theatre, it was grouped together under the title of British Studies.  The best aspect of my major was that it completely justified spending a year studying in the UK.  In the early autumn of 1976, I boarded a flight at Dulles and flew to Heathrow to begin a year of study in Bath.  Bath – that glorious city with its Georgian architecture, houses built of honey-coloured stone, the Abbey with its towers reaching to the sky, and the ancient Roman Baths – that was my home for a year and it was where I felt more alive than I had in a very long time.  My year included trips to the reputed foundations of Camelot, the theatre at Stratford-upon –Avon, an evening dining in a Welsh castle.  It was magical and I ate it up – every drop and every morsel.  At the end of that glorious year, I boarded the plane home again and suffered from acute homesickness for 23 years.

I moved, finally and at last, to the UK in 2000.  I first settled in the West Country in England.  It was lovely and I made many friends and enjoyed evenings in the pub.  But in 2004, I traveled to Scotland.  That was it – that was the moment I truly found my soul’s home.

That first trip to Scotland can only be described as wet.  Not the weather, mind you, but the constant state of my cheeks.  With every turn in the road, a more beautiful landscape was there to be seen.  From the soft, green hills of the south to the barren, starkness o f the north; from the unequalled landscapes of the islands to the charm of the small villages.  I felt a pull on my heart.  My first trip through Rannoch Moor and Glencoe found me sobbing with a sense of relief.  I couldn’t then and can’t now explain it.  But it happens every time.  I wrote this after my first trip to Glencoe:

I beseech you to lay me down among the purple heather
That I might hear the heartbeat of the earth
That I might hear her laugh and sigh and breathe and cry
For if I cannot hear her in this place
Then she must no longer exist.

And so it is that I live in Scotland now.  Not yet settled where I want to be, but here nonetheless.  My husband is equally in love with this country (he is English) and, whenever possible, we rent a car and go out and about to see the places that fill us with so much joy.  Since we returned to Scotland in November 2010, we have had an overnight at Ballchulish, near Glencoe, and a weekend in Grantown-on-Spey.  Both visits were made extra special by spending time with very dear friends.  Glencoe still makes me cry and I look at the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhai), high above and nestled between Beinn Fhada and Gear Aonach, two of the Three Sisters of Glencoe.  It is here that my husband and I would like our ashes scattered.  It is such a strangely mystical place.  It was here that the Glencoe Massacre occurred in 1692, the royalist Campbells slaughtering the proud MacDonalds.  It was little wonder that I experienced incredible chills when a distant cousin informed me that two of my ancestors escaped the slaughter, making their way first to Ireland and then to Boston in the “new world.”

The Cairngorms which lie just to the south of Grantown-on-Spey are lovely hills, rising, one after the other, snow-capped at this time of year.  It is a beautiful part of the country with hidden treasures to be found – from the charming Lochandorb to the Well of Lecht and abandoned Lecht Mine on the nearby Glenlivet Estate.  Softer than the northwest, but more dramatic than the softer south, it is an area we hope to return to again and again.

I shall write from time to time to share my thoughts with you.  To give you a glimpse into this beautiful country.