Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Wee Visit to Scotland

I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland on the wrong train which I was luckily not kicked off of and which to me exemplified the non-wisdom of a privatized train industry in the UK. If there was one national train company that coordinated everything and which all the trains belonged to then you wouldn’t have two trains going to the same place 5 minutes apart and owned by two completely different companies. Also they probably wouldn’t be so bloody expensive. Anyway, I digress.

My first official stop was at the UK Biochar Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh’s south campus. Andrew Cross, one of the main soil science researchers there, had very kindly and promptly responded to my emails about wanting to check out this world-renowned research center. I received a fairly thorough tour of their newly-built dedicated facility, comprehensive descriptions of the various ongoing projects, and introductions to the team members who were available. I felt acutely out of my league and a bit self-conscious talking to these folks who have an international reputation as one of the leading places for cutting-edge biochar projects, but all of the researchers except one were graciously willing to give me a bit of their time to talk about their work, my travel fellowship, and future projects I intend to undertake on surface mined lands in Appalachia. This one exceptional fellow constituted the only time so far on this trip when I have felt about 2 inches tall when leaving a room; he basically said that if I wasn’t going to pursue a PhD with him or spend at least 6 months working with one of his project partners then it wasn’t worth his time to talk to me or share contacts. I suppose a humbling experience can be good at times, but I’d like to think that I’ll never let prestige go to my head (assuming I eventually execute some successful projects) and cause me to have a rude attitude toward inexperienced young people who have an interest in my field of work.

The next day was spent on a bit of a non-project trip to the area of Glamis, about 12 miles northwest of Dundee. This is the place that my mother’s side of the family is supposedly descended from, and I felt like Ith or 9th earl in the family of the Earls of Strathmore, which were semi-royalty that had lived in Glamis Estate and Castle since the late 1200s. Only the first son receives inheritance and becomes the next earl, so the story goes that he left in a rebellious rage and falsified records in Virginia to show that he had been born there so that he could fight for the American army. The Lyon family in Kentucky has been mostly poor subsistence farmers and manual laborers until the most recent generation, while the Lyon family (now Bowes-Lyon due to some political bargaining in the 1790s) in Scotland continues to occupy this massive castle and 40 acre estate. should at least see this place that has become enshrined in Lyon family mythology. According to our records, our furthest back traceable ancestor is William Lyon, who came over from Scotland to fight in the American revolutionary war and was awarded a tract of land in Johnson County, Kentucky for his service. He was the third son of the 8

It was a strange experience to ride through the ornate gate and half-mile driveway to the castle where I ended up paying full price for the inside tour after unsuccessfully trying to bargain on account of being a distant cousin. I’m not really a fan of royalty and the obvious superiority and class divisions inherent in such a system, but I tried to suspend that for a bit to take in this place that may well have been my ancestral home. It’s difficult to describe the odd feeling I harbored as we walked through opulent halls filled with classical portraits of the former earls, gigantic fireplaces, ridiculously ornate beds, and the one section of the castle that dated back to the 1300s and which was quite spooky (all stone walls, floor, and ceiling, heads of various animals all over the place, pieces of weapons and suits of armor here and there). Apparently this was the castle where Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was set. After the tour I tried to find William Lyon on the family tree displays in the main area, but apparently they don’t pay too much mind to the non-inheriting members of the family. After strolling the gardens and forest area around the castle, I undertook a harrowing journey of confusing buses and a late train to get back to Edinburgh.

The fellow at Tower Colliery in Wales had mentioned that there were quite a few former mining towns close to Edinburgh, so Thursday I set out to find them and hopefully have some random interesting occurrences. That morning I came across the Scottish Mining Museum in Newtongrange on the internet which seemed like as good a place to start as any. I wandered around the free bits of it for awhile before going into the gift shop area and striking up conversation with a fellow who had worked 37 years in the pits and now served as a tour guide for the underground mine part of the museum. It was more of the same unfortunately; Maggie Thatcher shut the pits down with no plan for the future, the old culture of these mining towns is gone, and now the former miner’s cottages have become commuter houses for outsiders who work in Edinburgh and don’t want to pay high rent in the city. He did suggest an interesting pub that I might meet some good people at and also a nearby town that was worth visiting.

The Dean Tavern was the only example I’ve come across of a community benefit pub, i.e. the profits are all returned to benefit the local community. Apparently this is a Swedish concept known as “Gothenburg” and the Tavern dates back to the late 1800s when it was started as a miner’s tavern by the resident coal company but then gifted to the community by the early 1900s. It was a bit too early in the day to find old miners to get stories from, so I chatted with the bartenders for a bit about the history of the place and the current situation of the town.

Roslin was the next stop, which I didn’t realize was mainly known for its association with “The Davinci Code.” Honestly I know next to nothing about the book, and apparently I was the first non-local anyone had met that came to the town for a reason other than to see the chapel that’s mentioned in the Davinci Code. I happened past “The Original Rosslyn Hotel” which was across the street from “The Roslin Hotel” and was not a hotel at all but a pub that featured some very colorful local characters. After asking a couple of friendly-looking older gents if they knew of any former miners that hung around there, I was immediately pointed over to a table with a guy that was a bit haggard and shaggy-looking and a couple of somewhat more well-kempt friends. The shaggy haired guy was apparently the one to talk to, but I was advised that the problem wouldn’t be getting him started but rather shutting him up.

Before I knew it these fellers were buying me pints and talking about the good old days of working in the pits, fighting police in the strikes of ’84-’85, random adventures they’d had in times away from the mines, and arguing about pointless things in a particularly abrasive and humorous Scottish fashion. They were all interesting guys in their own right, but the shaggy haired one (affectionately known as “Shuggy”) was a definite standout. We ended up back at Shuggy’s place for some Scotch with coffee and to pass a guitar around and trade songs. Shuggy and one other guy were actually really good musicians, and I got to hear everything from 30s jazz, fingerpicked folk, and a traditional Scottish mining song. I in turn played some old time Appalachian songs (including “Only a Miner”) and they at least acted like they were really into it. I had to take off to get the last bus back to Edinburgh, but that was surely a standout experience on this trip so far. Shuggy even gets his own profile story on the “People” section of this blog, whether he likes it or not! (he wouldn’t tell me his full name because I couldn’t fully convince him that I wasn’t some kind of spy or undercover agent)

I spent a couple of days in Glasgow just to see the place that so many had referred to as the sketchy, run down, industrial side of Scotland, but I found it more endearing than Edinburgh in a lot of ways. There was way less of a touristy international vibe; it was authentic, crazy, gritty, occasionally drunk and scary Scotland at its best (and worst). I won’t go into too much detail of my shenanigans here, but I will mention that I randomly found an authentic ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) with live musicians on the third floor of a beautiful pub in the middle of the city. Ceilidh is the Scottish version of a square dance (or maybe square dance is the Appalachian version of a ceilidh), and there were definitely intoxicated brash young dudes in kilts whirling and twirling with young lasses, as well as older folks and a few random international student types. By the time I got up the nerve to ask somebody to dance they decided to do the Virginia Reel to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy;” not exactly what I was hoping to get out of a Scottish traditional dance experience, but it was a good time anyway.

I finished out my Scotland (and indeed UK) time with a generic day-long guided minibus tour of the highlands. I forgot to bring my camera with me, but if you google image search “Scottish highlands” I’m sure you’ll get plenty. While it was a fairly run of the mill tourist affair, I was glad to at least get a glimpse of this area that I’d always heard of as being the place that so many Appalachians are descended from. I knew very little of the history of the area starting out, but Dave the tour guide kept on with a constant stream of jokes and information that I assume was at least partially factual. I was particularly struck by the whole Jacobite revolution and the following “Clearing of the Highlands,” which is both heartbreaking and also the reason behind much of the Scottish immigration that has largely shaped my home region. I couldn’t help but wonder if possibly some of my ancestors are from this area even though we don’t have official records of it; I kept getting an eerie feeling of familiarity while driving around the Scottish holler backroads in this minivan filled with Indian, Japanese, Dutch, and other assorted tourists. We finished with a tour of the Dewar Scotch Distillery, which was especially interesting on account of the multiple free samples. For the record Dewar’s isn’t very good; I would recommend Laphroig if you can find it.

One week was definitely not enough time to really get to know Scotland. If I didn’t have lots of other places to be (and if it wasn’t so blasted expensive) I would’ve loved to check out some of the isles off the north or west coast, the really mountainous highlands around Aberdeen and Inverness, and also the burgeoning micro-hydro industry in some of these areas. In the end, I’m on a focused travel fellowship, not a vacation, and I was beginning to feel guilty about losing some of that focus by the end of my time in the UK. I’ll spare you the soap-boxy rant on how I feel about the UK’s approach to coalfield transition and community-based efforts to transition to a sustainable energy economy, mostly because I already did it in the last post. I can assure you that the next post about my time in coalfield Spain will be very different and most likely much more interesting.

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