Assessments have had us holed up in the library at the University of West Scotland over the past few weeks. We are here working on graduate degrees, remember? The library at UWS is quite modern and books can be retrieved from libraries throughout Scotland. Sitting before me as I type this is a stack of books written by Graham Greene, Robert Louis Stevenson, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, George Elliot, and H.G. Wells. And that’s just for today’s reading.
There’s a lot more to Scotland than Burns.
After one particularly difficult week, I invited Ellen to take day trip with me. I did not tell her where we were going, but I had researched the area for two nights, trying to decide whether the trip would be worth the investment of time and money. I wasn’t sure, even after my research. You know how these travel journeys can be often built up to be far grander online than in person. I didn’t want to Ellen to be disappointed.
Should I wear athletic shoes? she asked me.
Most definitely, I replied.
One of the things I appreciate most about Scotland is how they’ve built this country for travel. There are sidewalks in nearly every neighborhood, and where there aren’t sidewalks there are walking paths. A person can get to most any place in the country by train, bus, bike or ferry. Or by walking. There literally isn’t a place I’ve wanted to go to that I couldn’t get to. The trains run on time give or take 3 minutes. I am not as familiar with the bus schedules but when I’ve needed to take a bus it’s been relatively easy. The longest I’ve waited on a train is 40 minutes and that was my own fault for missing the earlier ferry. I wish airplane travel was as easy as train travel.
I knew our adventure would require walking but Google maps had assured me it was only going to be a two-mile walk from the train station to our destination. Google maps is far more unreliable than the trains. More than once on this adventure Google Maps has had me walking over hell and half of Scotland to get to a destination.
Admittedly sometimes it’s because I get distracted along the way.
They don’t call it an adventure for nothing, you know. One must build distraction into a travel journey if one is to experience any moments of serendipity. For us that moment came at the delightful Harry Potter shop in the village. The family that owns the business is from Germany. They’ve lived in Scotland for about a decade or so. A lot of the locals in Scotland have emigrated from elsewhere. It is really an international county, like a bigger New York City that way. It’s mostly in the rural areas that one finds the Scots who have lived here for generations.
Of course, stop by any graveyard and one can find those who’ve been in Scotland for centuries. People in Scotland live in homes older than America. I read a post recently about how Nashville has torn down so many of its Music City landmarks in order to build new bars or new entertainment venues to hold more of the tourists flying in and out of town.
One can walk through any town in Scotland and find buildings that have been here since the 1500s or prior.
History is part of the Scots daily lives. They sit among the gravestones eating their meat pies or Subway sandwiches. They walk among stone circles texting from their iPhones. They have integrated their history with their future, finding ways to hang on to the past while living in the present in ways we can’t even imagine in a country that is newer than the building that houses the Apple shop.
I come from an Appalachian people that didn’t drive because they weren’t literate enough to read road signs. I come from a people who feared flying, some who fear it still. A DNA study of my people reveals a big red blob centralized in East Tennessee. My people emigrated from Scotland, Ireland and England, but once they emigrated, they stayed put until the lawman ran one or two of them out of the state.
I love my people and the lives they lead. They are a good-hearted bunch who love fiercely and believe in redemption as a way of life. They aren’t perfect but I wouldn’t want them to be. I can’t find common ground with perfect people. I’ve always been drawn to people who grow through the rough and tumble adventures. One thing I appreciate most about the Scots is their social ways. These are a people for whom clan means something. I’ve yet to take a train ride that was quiet. This is the talkingist group of people I’ve ever been around and for me that’s saying something. They have stories upon stories upon stories. And if they aren’t telling one, they are creating one.
But we had walked nearly four miles and I still hadn’t told Ellen why I had brought her to this town, on this adventure. I had to finally break down and ask somebody for directions.
Follow the canal, she said. It’ll take you right to them.
Glad I asked, I told Ellen, because that’s not the way I thought it would be.
Not according to my Google maps.
There was probably a much easier way to get to where we were headed but Google wasn’t the best way to discover that. When in doubt, always ask a local. Scots must assume the world is lost without them around to point the rest of us in the right direction. As they say around these parts, “It’s no bother.” They are always delighted to give directions.
After another 30 minutes of walking we rounded a corner.
See that over there? I pointed. That’s where we are headed.
This is where I wanted to bring you. To see The Kelpies. I just wasn’t sure if they would be remarkable as I had read about, I said.
Ellen stood on the bridge, agog, eyes welling with tears. Oh. My. Gawd.
Right? I said. It’s remarkable.
How does someone sit down and imagine this and then create it? she asked.
I don’t know, I replied. I can’t even fathom the creativity that goes into constructing something so grand.
We sat among The Kelpies for the next couple of hours, talking with others who had come from throughout Scotland and England to marvel over the creative work of Andy Scot, who designed these magnificent Clydesdale horse heads.
I hadn’t told the family back home about the adventure to see The Kelpies either. So they were quite delighted and wowed when I sent them this photo of me.
Someone shrunk our mom! Daughter Shelby replied.
Everyone in our family knows we can rely on Shelby to come up with the movie line for every moment. She’s funny and bright like that.
In a couple of days, daughter Konnie and friend Tammy will join me in Scotland. You can be sure this will be one of the trips we make.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of The Murder Gene: A True Crime Story, available for purchase now.