The Allure of Scotland
(October 13, 1997)
I read and enjoyed Linda Madl’s A Whisper of Violets so much so that I interviewed her for Issue #26 of Laurie’s News & Views. I especially enjoyed the secondary characters and the love scenes she had written, not only for them, but for the main characters as well. During our discussion, I discovered the sequel to that book is set in Scotland. I asked her to talk about the allure of Scotland for her, both as an author and a reader.
Her very personal and wonderful response follows:
The first time I met a real Scotsman in a kilt I was as unimpressed as I’d expected to be. He was a handsome young man with a fair complexion, ruddy cheeks, snapping black eyes, and a bold manner. But it takes more than a confident grin and a pair of shapely knees to win me over. Men in skirts held no special appeal to me as I set out on my first trip to Scotland.
The young Scotsman, his companion, my girlfriend, and myself were traveling on the night train north across the UK. The windows beyond our compartment were black, rendering the countryside impossible to discern and eliminating it as a topic of respectable conversation. While he and his trouser- wearing companion were off-duty members of the famous Black Watch regiment, my friend and I were American coeds enrolled in classes at the University of Exeter. Edinburgh was our weekend destination. The capital of the north was home for the two young soldiers.
No doubt the Scotch whisky the Scotsman was drinking had a lot to do with his bawdy, flirtatious demeanor. If the whisky had not emboldened the kilt-wearing young man, then the joy of being on his way home must have. He kept dancing across our train compartment, the roomy kind you see in classic European movies, threatening — as he performed his fancy foot work — to prove that what they say about undergarments for a kilt is true. There are none.
I was very young — young enough to be embarrassed by this threat of exposure and all its titillating possibilities. My pretty petite, bright-eyed, companion, Franny, appeared intrigued. Obviously abashed, the kilted Scotsman’s companion frowned. From moment to moment he pleaded with his drunken friend to sit down and behave. Under the circumstances it was impossible to make lucid conversation or to become acquainted in any reasonable way.
This was an unfortunate introduction to Scotland. While it was interesting — meeting two homesick young Scots — it was hardly a promising beginning to our trip. Yet, as I look back on the odd meeting now, it was endearing. The Scotsman meant no harm. Having come to love Scotland as I eventually was to do, I eventually viewed the awkward encounter with more affection and insight than I did at the time. The next morning as our train continued to trundle along on its northward course, Franny and I opened the shades of our compartment — our Black Watch friends had departed during the night to seek a more receptive audience — to look out on the rolling hills of the Scottish lowlands.
Open-mouthed, I stared at the heather covered moors. I realized for the first time how that months in England’s tidy patchwork of meadows and paddocks had left me longing for the real open country of my U.S. heartland. I almost felt at home in the wide-open spaces. With a curiously pleasant surprise I recalled that my great-grandmother’s maiden name had been McFarland. For the first time I began to think Scotland might have something truly different and charming to offer.
Later that morning when Franny and I emerged from the train station right off Princes Street, the morning sunlight felt good on our faces. We sniffed the cool fresh air which was laden with the fumes of rush-hour traffic. We admired the golden light falling on Edinburgh Castle which loomed over the city, solid and immovable as if it had grown stone by stone from its granite seat. For the next two days we toured the castle where we shed tears over the little cemetery for canine mascots, tramped up and down the Royal Mile peering in the lovely shop windows, wandered through John Knox’s abode, and tread reverently between the ancient pillars of St. Giles Cathedral. Through it all I was vaguely aware of a growing sense that I moved among things wilder and rooted deeper than anything in the south. Things stronger and more vital, less tamed, but still civilized in a very directed and practical way. I felt as though I moved through a timeless city, a timeless land.
Once again I saw a Scotsman wearing a kilt. He came striding purposefully along Princes Street as oblivious of two gawking coeds as he was of the rest of the crowd. This time I stared rather appreciatively.
His progress was easy to follow. He was a big man, towering over the others on the street. His hair was fair, his shoulders broad, and his limbs long. I thought him quite a handsome older man – remember, I was very young – probably in his late thirties to early forties. I drew in a deep, shaky breath and continued to eye him as he strode along.
He wore the traditional pleated kilt with a sporran, a well-cut coat of fine green wool, and a white shirt with lace-trimmed ruffles at his throat. Lace or no, this man banished any thoughts of gender-related mockery of Scotland’s ancient costume. Each step he took displayed strength and determination. Every move revealed an individual who knew where he was going and what he wanted to accomplished. No skirt or ruffle could diminish his vigor and confidence. No man in jeans could walk with the same hint of unselfconscious assurance and swagger. As I stood on the street watching the tall Scotsman pass, I knew no sane soul who would dare to hint within this man’s hearing that he was anything less than a male fully in charge of his destiny. My historical – and feminine instincts – told me that I was at last glimpsing a real kilt-wearing Scotsman. And I was impressed. I was hooked.
That day, that instant, I succumbed to Scotland’s magic. In the years since everything I’ve learned and every kilt-wearing man I’ve watched has supported that impression made on Princes Street. A true Scotsman walks and talks like he’s king-of-his-fate. It’s the national character – if there is such a thing.
No wonder the Scots have been a thorn in the side of Britain over the centuries. Their traditions, customs and values are at odds with the British sense of orderliness and conformity.
Early in their history the Scots allowed women to retain their maiden names and to control their dowries after marriage. Their annals are full of the tradition of feminine leadership from Mary, Queen of Scots to Flora MacDonald. They believed every worthy young man – not just the sons of aristocrats – should have the opportunity for an education. The upshot is an educational system that over the centuries has yielded world-class names in the fields of medicine, engineering, geology, and economics.
Need I mention the contribution of golf? A game that pits a man against himself as well as against his competitors. Though after viewing a number of local Scots golf courses, I suspect that the native game is a bit rougher than most Yanks are accustomed to playing.
I was fascinated as I read about the Lords of the Isles, the rulers of the western islands – Skye, Mull, and others. These seafaring men formed a council with a charter which allowed for the election or removal of a leader. They did not necessarily subscribe to the notion of the divine rule of kings. Their leaders were elected and were held accountable by the men they led. If necessary, such a leader could be ousted. But with a characteristic practical impatience of Scotsmen, the unsatisfactory leader was often just murdered.
The Scots lived a harsh life in a harsh, beautiful land of sweeping vistas, of seas, lochs, cliffs, and glens. But as pragmatic as their environment required them to be, they never lost their connection with the mystic. Need I mention the Loch Ness Monster?
On my second trip to Scotland, many years after the first, I visited Loch Ness with my family. Nessie made no appearance for us, but standing there on the shores of Loch Ness, I shivered – not because of the chill breeze tugging at my windbreaker, but because of the soft lapping of the murky water and the mist shrouding the hilltops despite the sun in the sky. I was easy prey for the legend of the monster. For there is something about the wilds of the Scotland that makes one ready to believe in the visible and invisible.
We’d actually begun our trip to Scotland in a small village just outside Edinburgh, a village called Rosslin – more famous now because of a sheep named Dolly. Our hotel was a quaint square stone structure in the obscure suburb surrounded by rolling farm fields, a small rocky glen, and a neat little chapel with a cemetery up the road.
The locals told us the little church enjoyed some notoriety because Ben Johnson had visited there a century or so before us. It was also known for some famous stone carving of vines gracefully spiraling around the inside columns. So one evening we attempted to visit the chapel. When we arrived, we found it closed for repairs, according to the sign on the door. Disappointed but in the hopes of finding another entrance we walked around the stone church which appeared sturdy enough to hold off an army. It was locked up tight.
Darkness gathered as we strolled back down the narrow lane toward our hotel. The moon rode up high in the sky and a nearly luminescent mist settled into the glen off to one side of the road. From its depths echoed the eerie music of unseen running water and the uncanny hoot of an owl.
As delightful as the scene was, we three – my husband, my daughter, and myself – drew closer together, linking arms like Dorothy of Oz and her friends. Aloud we commented on the beauty of the stars and moon in the sky and the mist in the glen. Inwardly, each of us denied our primitive instinct to run from things that howl at the sky and go bump in the night. Yet, our steps quickened. It was no mystery to us why Scotland is a land of kelpies, brownies, ghosties, and witches. Finally the warm yellow lights of the hotel appeared ahead, and we all sighed, relieved by the most welcome of sights
Spellbound as I am by Scotland I could go and on and on about the imposing castles and the mysterious black dog we met on the beach at Nairn. Scottish legends are full of black dogs. But suffice it to say that I look forward to another trip to Scotland one day.
Only last night as I was watching a television program about the mystery of the Holy Grail, I was about to dose off as I heard the narrator repeating a legend that says the Grail is sealed in the vaults below Rosslin Chapel. Sleep vanished. I bolted upright in my chair and groaned in my disappointment. And the chapel had been closed when we were there. Now I know we must go back and soon.
Who can resist a timeless land of proud, kilt-wearing men and ancient medieval mysteries just waiting to be discovered and savored.
Need I mention that on this visit I’m thinking of buying a kilt for my husband?
- Sweet Dreams – 1989
- Speak of Love – 1990
- Bayou Rose – 1991
- A Tender Magic – 1993
- Home for Christmas from anthology Holiday Inn ’96 – 1996
- Cupid’s Kiss from anthology Heaven in His Touch ’96 – 1996
- A Whisper of Violets – 1997
- Savory Comforts from anthology The Way to a Man’s Heart – 1997