My Highlands Journal, October 2013
There is something about being Scottish that claims you. It calls your name across an ocean of years until you hear it above the noise of all the other nationalities that went into making you a fourth generation American currently living somewhere in the midwest. By “you,” I mean “me,” but it is understood that most of us with ancestors from Scotland inhabit a Celtic cosmos.
My longing to return to the land my Grandfathers Ross and Gillespie called home (even though neither were born there) was filled, however temporarily, with a trip to the Black Isle in the fall of 2013, a season I’d not seen before in the Highlands.
I went alone except for my camera and Hester, Jezebel and Ophelia (my lenses) who are great companions. They were eager to see this place my heart had been beating about before we even landed in Edinburgh. I was taking pictures before I’d even left US shores, and so my Scottish journal officially began in Newark.
I was looking out the window from my seat over the airplane wing. The lights of Manhattan were raked by lift-off, the colors so incredible I grabbed my camera from under the seat and started snapping even as my seatmates rolled their eyes at me. I could read their thought-clouds loud and clear: oh brother, here we go, a greenhorn over the pond.
Actually, this was not my first trip to Scotland and I travel abroad often enough to have mastered the transatlantic without even checking a bag. My seat was paid for with frequent flier miles, and the only tattoo I’m likely to ever get is a passport stamp with the destination left open. But I digress.
When we finally landed in Edinburgh, I forgot to be tired. I was back “home” in one of the places in the world that my soul knows.
One George Street, Cromarty October 21st
Lachy the fishmonger stops every Tuesday morning to see to all the fresh seafood needs Judy could possibly have at the house on George Street, Cromarty.
My hosts on the Black Isle are Peter and Judy Harvey. I’ve known Peter since 1999 thanks to an on-line geneology search that put me in contact with this retired barrister who had a cottage in Cromarty to let. We didn’t meet in person until June 2010, but have stayed in close touch.
I now think of the Harveys as my “muttuls” (that’s Cromarty fisher dialect for “dear ones or family”). They met me in Inverness. Our smiles were too big to use our mouths for words.
“Let’s get you home,” Judy said, which pleased me no end. We headed straight north over the bridge across the Moray Firth then northeasterly to the very tip of the Eilean Dubh (the Black Isle) where the ancient fishing village of Cromarty stands like a time capsule to the late 18th century. That’s because the inland railroad was completed about that time and the shipping business dried up for this little village at the end tip of the peninsula where the Cromarty Firth and Moray Firth are sieved between the huge rock precipices known as the Cromarty Sutors.
My ancestors Ross, Munro and Mustard are from Cromarty. They would have known the Harvey’s 200-plus year old house on George Street where I’d be staying.
After a restorative cup of tea, I declined a nap and was ready to stretch my legs and my point my lenses around “toon”.
Catching Gold October 21st
I walked down to the wharf right at the crespuscular moment of dayset and serendipity found me a willing subject to pose with the golden sky. His name was Gareth and he was an engineer for the BBC with the enviable task of monitoring and maintaining its broadcast towers in the remotest parts of the United Kingdom. It was his first visit to Cromarty and he pronounced it lovely, even if it lacked an abundance of hungry fish.
If the Highlands had biceps, they would be the Cromarty Sutors. Tall, dark and rugged, the Sutors guard the entrance to the Firth and protect this wee fishing village from being ravished by the North Sea.
Naturally, we need to know if they’re from a good family, so we Google them:
“The Sutors stand guard over the firth, and many stories have been told about them. Sutor is the Scots word for shoemaker, and one story tells of two giant shoemakers, the Sutors, who used the two cliffs as their workbenches, and tossed their tools to and fro between one another?” http://www.secretscotland.org.uk/index.php/Secrets/SutorsOfCromarty
These two massive rock precipices muscle up the land where the deep harbor waters of the Cromarty Firth narrow to meet the Moray Firth as it opens into the North Sea. It’s a job that deserves a better metaphor than sutors but they’ve been doing their thing very effectively for eons so who am I to say?
Inside the bay, the quiet is surreal. I sleep in very late the next morning. From a lambswool slumber, I finally awoke at the insistence of the seagulls.
The South Sutor Gets All the Attention October 22nd
…so I make him wait there in the background while I concentrate on clothespins.
Naturally, you’re expected to photograph the two-shot of the Sutors, but I resisted this until I found a way to do it with some originality.
Mostly, I was feeling the pressure to do so before Thursday evening when I was invited to the Cromarty Camera Club for an evening of wine and paralytic intimidation.
Eventually, Hester choose a view from the end of Shore Street that takes the lovely walking path and sheep meadow into consideration.
Actually, this trip to Eilean Dubh was by invitation of the Black Isle Writer’s Group to give a workshop on ghostwriting. I have my “agent” Judy Harvey to thank for that…that woman has missed her calling. She is a publicist at heart with a heart of gold. What a combination!
“I dinna ker ‘ow ‘ard ye try, ye kanna burn a cow” October 22nd
I met with 20 writers whose experience ranged from beginner to much-published author. One exercise we did required an on-the-spot reflection or short story that could be read aloud in a minute or less.
The brevity was supposed to ensure time for everybody to participate in sharing what they’d written. Well, everyone’s story went a wee bit long, but in truth, they didn’t go nearly long enough. Everyone wrote so incredibly well…I didn’t want it to end. One woman’s brogue was so strong I couldn’t quite understand her, but when the others laughed, I laughed, too, so no one was the wiser (I hope). She seemed pleased with herself, so I praised her genuinely if generically.
The Black Isle Writers are an incredibly talented group. Every one of them demonstrated such a unique sense of “voice” and creativity. If I lived here, I would set up coffees every single morning and teas every afternoon to get to know them better and share ideas and thoughts.
The roses bloom late into the fall and the grass on the village green remains verdant until winter finally wins out over the long autumn on the Black Isle.
One of my favorite stories was one Peter told me over dinner… about how to speed up the decomposition of a late cow. In the local dialect, they’re known as “heilin’ coos.”
Why he needed to do so was also a good story from his WWII days, which makes me wonder why Peter doesn’t join the Writer’s Group himself…he’s a wonderful Seanachie.
Everyone’s contribution to the Writer’s Workshop was utterly original and worthy. I wish I could share them all with you, but “Ah wudna ken artil start…” (I wouldn’t know where to start.)
Damackie at Dayset October 24th
After the writing workshop, Peter, Judy and I were invited to tea by a “damackie” named Euphemia who lived in Fortrose near Avoch (pronounced AKKKKK with something wet happening in the back of your throat between the W and the rolling K). “Effie” spoke Gaelic until she was five, and was still fluent.
On the Isle of Lewis, off the western coast of Scotland, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to English 92 years ago where she was born in Breacleit. Her cousins came to visit from the mainland during the high holidays, bringing along a new language, so I imagine she learned Christmas words in English first.
Effie grew up in a crofter’s cottage with her parents and seven sisters. Her grandparents lived nearby. She speaks with a sharp clip of “eh” opening, intersecting and closing her sentences.
Effie and her Aga
Lace curtains edge the wavy glass windows of the formal sitting room where we drank our tea in proper china cups. It grew dark as we talked on and on about her childhood spent playing on the Callanish Stones, sweating the apples at this time of year so they could be wrapped in newspaper and stored under the hay for the winter.
There was lots of hard work to be done, even for the children, but breaks would be taken for oatcakes spread with crowdie.
In case you were wondering, this is Effie’s recipe for crowdie:
After churning, you separate the butter from milk with paddles,eh, then you take what curds are left in the whey and work them by hand with some butter and seasoning as you like, eh saltern and peppern probly, into a spread.
It’s good on bread or oatcakes or biscuits as you please.
There’s a Word for Grass Growing Where It Can’t October 25th
…no doubt, in Gaelic.
How could there not be considering there is even a word for “a fish that has been bitten and sucked by another,” which is “bleyan.”
A Ferry Tale October 25th
It’s hard to describe the feeling I get here… knowing this is where some of my ancestors boarded a ship and left Scotland for North America five generations ago.
I know their names and a few of their stories. Some of them lived on Kirk Street (now Church Street) and others were out at Meikle Farness, a small cluster of crofter cottages where Davidston is today.
Of course, lots of them didn’t leave. Their descendants share these names and look familiar to me (I don’t even care if it’s only my imagination).
Wrapped in Cromarty Arms: Bingo Night at the Pub October 25th
On Wednesday night, Judy introduced me as a prodigal “Ross” to the Bingo crowd at the local pub, the Cromarty Arms. “Now yer among yer’oon,” said Nora, smiling big at me. Virtually everyone there had cards and blotters.
After a lot of good natured ribbing, mostly of the caller—also a Ross—who defended his shiny bald head with “nothing this grrreat shud eever be covered oop”—the game began. Judy and Nora kept an eye on my paper to see if I was keeping up.
I hadn’t played Bingo since pigtails, but how hard could it be? Once I got used to the caller’s cadence and descriptive plays on words, I got the rhythm. I even won ten pounds for a full house, after which Judy and Nora started paying closer attention to their own cards.
My favorite call was (hear the brogue): LEGS: ELEVEN…to which everyone wolf-whistled in unison and the caller replied, “thaunk’yew.” This happened each and every time 11 was called. Other calls were “unlucky for some: 13,” “Kelly’s Eye: 1,” “pair of ducks: 22,” “either way up: 69,” and “Downing Street: number 10.” There must have been a good story for “21: key in the door,” but I never heard it.
The “Croms” (locals who’ve been here for generations) play every Wednesday night at the pub. They fit this in around lots of other things going on nearly every night of the week.
I’ve never seen a closer knit, more socially engaged community. For example, there must have been 30 people at the Cromarty Camera Club meeting the next night in the Village Hall. Any regular who’s missing is explained by someone who knows why, and if no one knows why, then another one puts on his hat and scarf and goes to find out.
They take care of each other here. I wonder how anyone could leave this…either 140 years ago or next Tuesday?
“Slooch Moochd” is Cromarty Fisher Dialect for the “pig alley” that angles through north edge of town and harkens to a time when an alley for pig transport was needed and everyone living there knew what the words meant. “Northern North A” is the dialect unique to this Cromarty.
Ma Thrapple’s Hewt* October 26th
I have just finished writing the last o’me postcards home, all in Cromarty’s “North Northern A” dialect which was last spoken fluently by nonagenarian Bobby Hogg who died in October 2012. The whole toon closed down on the day of his funeral and carried his casket through the streets to the cemetery where they buried more than just a man.
I anticipate the recipients back in the states to comprehend maybe one or two words in each sentence unless they avail themselves of a copy of “Dualchainnt Lasgaeirean Chrombaidh” for translation (I did).
On a lighter note, Peter and Judy hosted a cocktail party in my honor on Friday night. The more Bohemian set of Croms were in attendance and we had the best time.
Theo wrote a play in honor of the occasion and performed it with Jeremy to a delighted and slightly inebriated group of maybe 30 who had dressed appropriately. The Croms were not exactly sure what would be appropriate, dresswise, since their context for American cocktail parties was The Great Gatsby. The phone rang several times throughout the day with inquiries about this, so Judy assured them that cheroots were not in order.
I myself hadn’t really packed for a fancy party, so I fished through Peter’s closet and found a stiff-collared tuxedo shirt he said I could borrow. This is what I mean by “muttals.”
*my throat is cut (in useage, this intensifies the expression “please, for the love of god, I need a cup of tea in the worst way”*)
*for the record, there is no cup of tea in the world that would to fix my head the morning after said cocktail party during which I gaen clean tae the tootrach and am now fyown and skilbygelk.
Here I am in the tux-shirt borrowed from Peter’s closet raising a glass with Jeremy and David… Slàinte
Hif thoo’ll walk wi’me, bring yer brelly October 27th
Most days I’d take at least two walks even if there was a “steeper” (heavy drenching rain) since Peter also loaned me good waterproof boots to wear. Whilst I was ‘avn tea in the afternoon at Lettoch in North Kessock with Richenda and Douglas in their kitchen warmed by an old Aga, the drizzle drained the color out of the sky until it went entirely dark out.
Lettoch is a graciously unfussy old country house of the sort with wee bells above each door from back in the days when there were actually servants to respond. On the wall in the drawing room is a map circa 1748 that shows the house was in existence even back in the days of Culloden . . . if these walls could only talk.
Richenda told me her daughter once tried to recite a poem she’d written in Gaelic back in school, but was struggling with the pronunciation. So Richenda dialed up an acquaintance who was a native speaker originally from Wales. He retorted without an ounce of remorse, “Madam, Gaelic comes from the heart, not from a parrot,” and he refused to help.
While on that topic, dinna worry aboot mye accent…it’ll shorly be extinguished as soon as I git ‘om by my oon dooter Makena with that look a’hers that cud singe yer ai’brows.
Me Own Muttuls October 27th
Peter taught me to make cheese straws from his mother’s recipe. They’re his specialty—much requested for every Harvey party and gathering.
He patiently fielded my questions about what it was like to be at Normandy on D-Day as he kneaded the cracker crumbs and cheese into the flour by hand. He’s full of so many good stories, and like every good seanachie (keeper of the stories), I was happy to sit and listen.
Meanwhile, Judy was lining up all these wonderful people to meet and incredible things to do, which made me feel like a royal with a handler. I can’t find even a rough articulation for my feelings about leaving the Highlands of Scotland and my muttuls in just a few more days. I am coomin’oop with noothun.
For Reals October 27th
This was the only day I had a car (loaned from Peter & Judy). I nearly ran off the road when I saw this in front of me, and not because I was driving from the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road either…it was incredibly, painterly beautiful. This is an actual place, not a photo-shopped dream.
Do the Scots still see how beautiful their homeland is?
A Fancy on a Flattie October 28th
I was walking up George Street in the foggy quiet of early morning…the air smelled of sea and peat smoke. The portal between that world and the next was cued by a wee bell jingling on the door when I walked into the yeast-risen warmth of the Cromarty Bakery. The shelves were banked with breads and rolls and oatcakes. There were savory scotch pies and raisiny rock buns and dainty Empire cakes and neat little jam tarts and and and and and…
It’s entirely acceptable and very polite to talk with your eyes full here. A flattered and accommodating Nora (my Bingo buddy who works here) answered a question I didn’t even think to ask, “how ‘boot after 2200, ye ken come back to see the elves (my term, not hers…she calls them “guys”) when they’re making all this magic?”
Older than Celsius October 27th
On Sunday night, I waited until late, then slipped down the narrow alley between the buildings and knocked on the bakery door. No response. So after a wee while, I just pushed it open and entered the golden glow of the kitchen.
David and Ian were doing their nightly relay between tables, stacking racks, sinks, and ovens.
They seemed only mildly surprised to see me…and didn’t slow their pace one bit.
I played the “Nora said I could” card and they let me have anything my lenses could lick.
I never did to get David to smile. Actually, I did ask him if he’d like to smile for one of the more posed shots they may use for their website, and he said, “I am smiling.”
With a large paddle he pushed pans of dough into the vast, ancient-looking oven, then pulled other trays out and flipped the hot bread onto the table for sorting.
I asked all kinds of questions including the temperature he kept the ovens. He told me in Fahrenheit degrees because he was “too old for Celsius” having grown up before the UK converted to the metric system.
Every night but Saturday, the guys work until 5am getting the baked goods ready for the Cromarty Bakery as well as the one David and his wife own over in Dingwall.
So I got a wee primer on Scottish baking, and we talked about lots of other things.
I figured I’d better go before someone had to start looking at his watch. David took some steak and kidney pies out of the oven and said I should take a few with me. After a very disingenuous effort to decline his offer, I picked one up and stifled a shriek…it was hot as an ingot. I tossed it to my other hand until the epidermis there was also burned off, then back to finish off the subdermal layers of skin remaining the other palm…and so forth.
David’s mouth lifted on one side in a half grin…they’re meant to be eaten, not juggled, gurrrl.
The Clootie Well October 29th
There was just one more thing we would fit in before the trip back down to Edinburgh where we would enjoy a lovely tea at the Caledonian Hotel with Seonaid, another Scottish friend of mine.
According to wikipedia, “In Scotland, near the villages of North Kessock, Munlochy and Tore one mile west of Munlochy on the A832, is a clootie well at an ancient spring dedicated to Saint Curidan (or Curitan), where rags are still hung on the surrounding bushes and trees. Here the well was once thought to have had the power to cure sick children who were left there overnight. Craigie Well at Avoch on the Black Isle has both offerings of coins and clooties. Rags, wool and human hair were also used as charms against sorcery, and as tokens of penance or fulfilment of a vow.”
Well, I wished for things to come true that I wouldn’t have had the nerve to put into an actual prayer. I love the feeling I got that there weren’t really any “rules” when it came to what you were asking of the Clootie Well.
Then I tied my sock around the limb of a tree and my voiceless desire joined a thousand echoes of hope hanging from every bow of every tree.
And when I come back to Eilean Dubh again, it’ll have come true in the most wonderful way.
Maybe it already has.