Hospitality on Skye

Monday, July 24, 2017


As noted in the last two blog posts, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell often found poor food and accommodations on their travels around the Inner Hebrides. But they were pleased with their reception at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. The present castle, seen in the photo above, has surely been enlarged since then, but it still must have been impressive. More importantly for Dr. Johnson, it was a comfortable and elegant place to stay while waiting for the weather to become more favorable.

At Dunvegan, Johnson and Boswell were wined and dined and entertained. The host engaged them in intelligent discussion, the hostess was extremely gracious, and Dr. Johnson was reminded of the refinement he felt he had mostly left behind in London. As he put it:

At Dunvegan I had tasted lotus, and was in danger of forgetting that I was ever to depart, till Mr. Boswell sagely reproached me with my sluggishness and softness. I had no very forcible defence to make; and we agreed to pursue our journey.

Roland, Donald, and I also felt the hospitality on Skye. We had been received with equal hospitality on Mull, but it is always pleasant to be treated as an honored guest.

Fernlea Bed and Breakfast is on the main road, not too far from the Skye Bridge. It was a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the island. After our white-knuckle drive from the ferry, we tried to find a tourist information center and were unsuccessful. So even though it was way too early to check in, we headed to Fernlea to see if they would have any suggestions for spending the day.

At first Iris seemed a little flustered to have us arrive early, but she soon got into her helpful mode and made some suggestions. By the time we returned from Armadale Castle, the rooms were ready and we moved right in. Iris and John were always eager to give us information and advice and to make reservations at nearby restaurants. And the breakfasts were excellent. That’s Fernlea in the second photo.


But one of the most interesting things about Skye is the (true) legend of Flora MacDonald. Tune in next week to learn about her.

Over the Sea to Skye

Monday, July 17, 2017

 
Donald, Roland, and I shared another experience with Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell when we spent the night at Glenelg on the way to the Isle of Skye.

Glenelg is just down the road from the closest point between the mainland and Skye. That’s probably why Johnson and Boswell close it. I chose it because it because I wanted to take the historic turn-table ferry that crossed there.

The eighteenth-century scholars had a dangerous trip to Glenelg. According to Dr. Johnson:

We left Auknasheals and the Macreas in the afternoon, and in the evening came to Ratiken, a high hill on which a road is cut, but so steep and narrow, that it is very difficult. There is now a design of making another way round the bottom. Upon one of the precipices, my horse, weary with the sharpness of the rise, staggered a little, and I called in haste to the highlander to hold him. This was the only moment of my journey, in which I thought myself endangered.

I can’t remember whether we went “another way round the bottom,” but it wasn’t this part of the journey that concerned us most. I’ll get to the part that did in a minute.

Unfortunately, Glenelg is small, and there is only one inn. When Johnson and Boswell arrived, they found that the inn served whiskey but no food, and the beds were occupied. Eventually they found some hay and settled down for the night, but they were not happy.

There is still only one inn, although it is a more modern one. The Glenelg Inn served food, but I found it bland and wasn’t happy with either dinner or breakfast. The TV didn’t work, people gathered and talked on the patio outside our room after we wanted to go to bed, and there was no good place to set up my laptop. But our room did have a nice sitting area where Roland enjoyed reading.


My disappointment with the inn was a minor problem compared with what was to come. Getting from the inn to the ferry was bad enough, but after we left the ferry we had about five miles of the most harrowing mountainous driving you can imagine. Like Dr. Johnson, we felt ourselves endangered. I’m not sure if the photo at the head of this post is the landing we left from or the one we arrived at, but you can see what the terrain was like.

Still, we made it safely through. And we, like Johnson and Boswell, found hospitality on Skye. That’s the subject of the next post.


Dr. Samuel Johnson's Tour of the Hebrides

Monday, July 10, 2017


In 1773 Dr. Samuel Johnson decided to take a research tour of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. He was accompanied by James Boswell, and they both wrote journals. Although separated by many years, our paths crossed theirs at several points during our Scotland trip. We did not visit places in the same order, so these next few posts will follow our itinerary rather than theirs.

Those early travelers crossed the Isle of Mull on their way from the Isle of Coll to the Isle of Iona. We did not visit Coll (although the ferry stopped there on our way to and from Tiree), but we did spend four nights on Mull and took a day trip to Iona while we were there.

Johnson and Boswell landed at Tobermory. We landed at Craignure and drove to Tobermory, which you can see in the photo. I’m sure it was not as colorful in 1773, although Dr. Johnson described it as having a very commercial appearance because of all the boats in the harbor.

Travelling around Mull in the 1770s was hard going. As Dr. Johnson described the trip across Mull on their way to Iona:

Having not any experience of a journey in Mull, we had no doubt of reaching the sea by day-light, and therefore had not left Dr. Maclean’s very early. We travelled diligently enough, but found the country, for road there was none, very difficult to pass. We were always struggling with some obstruction or other, and our vexation was not balanced by any gratification of the eye or mind. We were now long enough acquainted with hills and heath to have lost the emotion that they once raised, whether pleasing or painful, and had our mind employed only on our own fatigue.

It’s still hard going. There are roads now, but they are mostly single tracks winding through the mountains, with passing places for oncoming vehicles. My brother Gordon was leaving a day earlier than the rest of us and wanted a cheaper room, so he booked a hotel in Tobermory. I booked rooms at a “nearby” castle for Donald, Roland, and me. It was only four miles from Tobermory, but the first time we drove it in the fog, and it took us 40 minutes. We got that below 30 minutes by the time we left.

Traversing the best roads on Mull (a combination of dual lane and single track), it took us about two hours to make the 58 miles from Tobermory to the Iona ferry.

Iona is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. Johnson and Boswell were disappointed with the state of the ruins at the site. By the time we got there, the nunnery was still in ruins but restoration work had been done on the abbey. Here is a picture as the abbey looked to us.


As mentioned above, Gordon left us after three nights on Mull. Donald travelled on with Roland and me, staying one more night on Mull before heading to Glenelg and from there to Skye.

I’ll pick up the saga next week as I talk about the experiences we shared with the two scholars at Glenelg on our way to Skye.


Sir Walter Scott: Friend or Foe?

Monday, July 3, 2017


The lighthouse museum at Hynish includes a short biography of Sir Walter Scott. As a Commissioner of Northern Lights, Scott had visited the site of the future Skerryvore Lighthouse many years before it was built. Here is how he described it in his diary.

Having crept upon deck about four in the morning, I find we are beating to windward off the Isle of Tyree, with the determination, on the part of Mr. Stevenson, that his constituents should visit a reef of rocks called Skerry Vhor, where he thought it would be essential to have a Lighthouse. Loud remonstrances on the part of the Commissioners, who, one and all, declare they will subscribe to his opinion, whatever it may be, rather than continue the infernal buffeting. Quiet perseverance on the part of Mr. S., and great kicking, bouncing, and squabbling upon that of the yacht, who seems to like the idea of Skerry Vhor as little as the Commissioners. At length by dint of exertion, come in sight of this long ridge of rocks (chiefly under water) on which the tide breaks in a most tremendous style.*

My brother Gordon and I were standing on the pier at Hynish (shown in the photo) when Gordon told me more about Sir Walter Scott’s history. I had to laugh because it sounded just like Mark Twain’s history. And that’s funny because Twain was Scott’s nemesis. The two men would not have known each other (Scott died three years before Twain was born), but Twain hated Scott with a passion. In Chapter 46 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain blames Scott for giving people romantic notions that kept them living in the past.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinessses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual who ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South, they flourish pretty forcefully still.

And yet, the two men seemed to have the same faults and the same moral code. Both were easy prey for swindlers, or at least for people promoting bad business deals; each ended up bankrupt because of it; and each vowed to pay every last one of his debts—and did.

So maybe Twain should have respected Scott rather than despising him.

__________

*  Quoted from Chapter 3 of Outer Isles by A. Goodrich-Freer (1902), as reprinted at http://www.electricscotland.com/history/outer/chapter03.htm.

Robert Lewis Stevenson: Breaking with Tradition

Monday, June 26, 2017


The photo shows the signal tower at Hynish on the Isle of Tiree. In the 1800s, it was the only way to communicate with the keepers at the offshore Skerryvore lighthouse. But these blog posts are supposed to be about literary connections, and where is the literary connection here?

The lighthouse was designed and built by Alan Stevenson, who was the uncle of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s father and grandfather were also lighthouse engineers, and he originally planned to follow them into the business. But he wanted to write for a living, and the law was an easier fallback if he couldn’t make it as an author. So he qualified in law rather than in engineering.

Stevenson was always proud of his heritage, however. This quote is printed in the exhibit at Hynish:

Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.

He also paid special tribute to Skerryvore (or Skerry Vhor), calling it “the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights.”

When Robert Lewis Stevenson changed course and broke with tradition, he may have deprived the world of another great lighthouse engineer. We’ll never know. Still, the world is happy with his choice.

Sometimes writers have to break with tradition.

Reading Fuels Imagination

Monday, June 19, 2017


Roland and I just returned from a literary vacation to Scotland. Well, it wasn’t really a literary vacation, but it did have some literary connections, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks.

The main motive behind the trip was to meet up with my brothers on the Isle of Tiree and have a sort of family reunion there. When I was ten years old, Daddy took a sabbatical, packed up the family, and moved to Edinburgh for the school year. Over the Christmas holidays, he took an assignment preaching at the Church of Scotland parish churches on the Isle of Tiree. We have all visited Edinburgh since then, but none of us had been back to Tiree.

Tiree is one of the more remote islands in the Inner Hebrides. It took a four-hour ferry ride to get there, all the roads are one-track with passing places, and we saw more sheep than people. Still, my brothers and I had a good time reviving old memories.

The cottage where we stayed before had been torn down and replaced with a more modern residence, but we booked the cottage across the street to the west.

Balephetrish Bay was across the street to the north, and I spent many hours there fifty plus years ago. I must have recently read Little Women, because back then the bay was a department store where Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Marsh did their Christmas shopping. The photo above was taken when the tide was coming in, so it is harder to see how easily I could go from one stand of rock to another while “shopping.” But with the tide out, my imagination had free rein.

The other book I associate with Tiree is Princess Prunella by Katharine L. Oldmeadow. Miss Johnson, who was Deaconess for the Tiree parish, gave it to me for Christmas, and I still have the now well-read copy. Unfortunately, it and the rest of Katherine Oldmeadow’s books are out of print. I have managed to find and read a couple of her others and they aren’t as good as Princess Prunella. Even so, it’s too bad that they aren’t readily available.

That December on Tiree I had no TV and few playmates, but I kept myself entertained. Whether it’s a hard copy or an electronic version, there is nothing like a good book to spark a child’s imagination.

Next week I’ll tell you about Tiree’s connection with Robert Lewis Stevenson.

First Lines: Telling the Whole Story

Monday, June 12, 2017


It’s time to give the plot away. Well, not completely. But some effective first lines do summarize the story.

Here is the opening paragraph from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And what is the story about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.

Or consider this paragraph that opens the story proper in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.*

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Can you guess what this story is about? A girl runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Telling the whole story can work for nonfiction as well. Here is the first paragraph of The Glass Castle, which is a memoir written by Jeannette Walls.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Here, you need only the first sentence to get the heart of the story. Jeannette grew up rooting through Dumpsters for her meals. She rose above that lifestyle, but her parents still embraced it.

So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to know exactly what happened.

As with other types of openings, however, this one also has its pitfalls. You may even recognize them since they are similar to the ones for foreshadowing. The opening may give away too much, or it may make promises that it doesn’t keep. I think it is also the hardest type of opening to write.

There are other types of opening lines besides the ones discussed in this series, but these are the five that, as a reader, I have found to be the most effective. Now it’s your turn to find the one that works best for your story.

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*    Technically, this isn’t the beginning of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the quote begins the actual story.