A friend of mine in the States, of Scottish descent, recently shared with me that he had a significant health scare last month that resulted in unexpected surgery. Fortunately, he is now in the midst of recovery with an excellent prognosis. I know that he is reading this blog, and so I thought I’d share a few of the highlights from time in Edinburgh, in the hopes that it can take him momentarily away from the very important business of recuperation. My friend, this one is for you.
I had the chance to go into the Scottish Highlands yesterday and they were as stunning as promised. The combination of the landscape, the cool air, and the gray skies reminded me of Mendocino County in the fall or spring, though the weather changes much more frequently in Scotland. (“You don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes,” is really true: rain to sun to rain to sun to…) The hills are green and rolling, and there are moments of brilliance in the land that are almost comical because they are so beautiful. I couldn’t get any pictures of this, but there are lambs all over the place; one of my favorite images from Scotland is of them run-hopping across fields. Few things are cuter.
This was a vastly different landscape than the seaside, which was also green and beautiful.
Last night, I tallied up the number of whiskies I’ve tried here. Not counting the sips of those passed to me by others, I’ve sampled 10. It’s plenty. I have a bit more of an understanding of how Scotch is made, and thanks to a distillery tour conducted by a sturdy Scottish woman in a long, green kilt, have even watched it happen. (By the way, no one calls it Scotch, which makes sense; it’s just whisky, spelled without the “e,” which would denote an American beverage.)
Though the fish and chips is delightful in the moment, I’ve found that the food here doesn’t really agree with me; it tends to be heavy, without many vegetables. I have discovered, though, that I have a deep fondness for sandwiches made with cheese and “pickles,” which are not limited to our American version of the word but instead include all sorts of pickled fruits and vegetables. Liberal spreads of homemade chutneys and jams, a sprinkling of salad (also called “leaves”), and a side of crisps make for a yummy lunch.
The music of Scotland continues to be my favorite part of my time here, and I wish I could bottle that up and bring it back to the people I know would also love it. In lieu of that, I can offer a few snippets, from time at a pub called the Brass Monkey and visits to Sandy Bell’s, where the list of whiskies currently stands at a whopping 77.
Last night, the pub swelled with people and sounds. A group of giant Scottish men came in together, from some sort of outdoorsy work, still in thick boots and smelling of sweat. They filled the space to its brim, crowding others to the perimeter. They were like mountains, these men, and I felt very small.
The music continued: guitar, fiddle, accordion. A man masterfully navigated an instrument that looked like five or six harmonicas rolled together. Occasionally, a woman sang, her voice high and light.
Out of nowhere, a rumbling bass began. A balding man with straggles of a comb-over sat on a bar stool a few down from me in a plaid work shirt. I could not see his face, but the musicians quieted, and one turned around and shhed the room – the only time I have seen that happen. When a man near me failed to respond, I reached over and touched his knee, gesturing to the singing man. He took the hint kindly, winking at me and stopping his conversation.
The room sat up to pay attention. As the man sang of grief and loss, a song I did not recognize but which sounded traditional, I noticed that people started looking away. More specifically, they started looking down, tucking into themselves. I wondered what they were thinking; I wondered who they were remembering. I did not have to wonder what they were feeling; my line of sight eventually drew downwards as well, pulling me into my own memories. I thought to myself about the power of music, the way it can draw us together when words cannot capture emotion quite well enough.
When the man in plaid finished singing, the room broke into wild applause, louder than at any other point in the evening, or that I have heard here. And then the music continued again, late into the night, turning joyous once again.
I leave you with a bit of that, with the hopes that these audio files load and that you might hear a bit of what I did, all the music and chatter. The first is from last night, and the picture above is of some of those musicians; the second recording, with that incredible flute, is from the previous evening. Just try to keep your foot from tapping.
And on that note, slàinte, to my recuperating friend, and to each of us. Enjoy.