An American Yankee in Prince Charlie's Court

By David Kessler

In This Installment: Being "Away" (or Innocence Abroad).  Plans for Inverness.  Finding my hostel.  The Home of Highland Music.  Expatriots in training.  Blue Moon at the Bardic Circle.  More musical bars.  A nationalist serenade.  A Jacobite debate.  Independence Day Travel.  An American Yankee in Prince Charlie's Court.  Ambassador Kessler debates policy.  Calling it a night.  Leaving.

There is a certain feeling I get at the outset of a trip.  The planning and research is basically done and I feel the empty time stretching out in front of me as surely as I see the miles I’ll cover laid out on my map.  At that moment, what I expect from the trip is less important than the idea that anything could, that something will, and that it will happen out there.

As a good trip progresses and begins to take shape, this feeling changes.  That cache of pure time slowly turns into miles actually traveled, places actually seen, and things actually done.  At some point I suddenly notice that end of the trip is close and then the feeling of being away becomes tinged with the knowledge that I will soon return to a place where I am a citizen.

I don't mean this as a slight to my home, but much of the sense of adventure and the joy I get from a trip is tied up in the idea of being in somewhat new or alien surroundings.  When it hits me that I'll soon leave that state of intrepid grace, and return to the land of bills, phone calls, and doorbells, I feel a loss and a sense of urgency; Loss of the innocent sense that the little world of my current adventure will continue forever (my version of "going native"), and the urgency of my knee-jerk reaction to this loss, which is a desire to re-submerge myself in the bliss of good adventure.

As you may suspect, I hate unpacking.

The approaching end of my Summer 2000 trip to the Scottish Highlands and Islands hit me the day before I would leave them for a flight to London, an overnight in a Youth Hostel, and a morning flight home to Boston.  I had planned to end my trip with 4 days in Inverness, but the Isle of Lewis had been so much fun that I had extended my time there and now had only about 24 hours in Inverness, which added to the sense of trip-ending urgency I felt.

While still on Lewis I collected some recommendations for what to do in Inverness from a woman who would only talk when the band was playing.  We were at a ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee", it’s a music and dance party), and whenever the band took a break, a 12 year old on accordion, and an 11 year old on a guitar that was as big as he was would get up and play.  Then she would say, "Oh, I have to stop talking to you while my son plays now." It was their first time playing outside their school to an audience not composed of their classmates and they were obviously a little nervous, but they did well.  The idea of life going on around them as they played seemed particularly new and distressing to them, but everyone did stop to applaud whenever they finished a song and they slowly gained confidence.  I imagine by this time they’re old hands at it.

I had wanted to see Inverness for a long time.  It’s mentioned in the opening line of a song I heard in high school and one day while singing it, it struck me that the word was the name of a real place where I could go – I had never really thought about it before that moment.  "G-d Lives on Terra" begins with its singer flying off out of Inverness, and I designed my trip's itinerary to leave Scotland from the airport just outside of that same city.

Getting to Inverness turned out to be easy, thanks to Scott & Eileen.  I had met these two researchers while on Lewis, and when I turned up on the same ferry, they offered to drop me off in Inverness on their way back to Aberdeen University.  They were the second pair from Aberdeen I had met on my trip, and the second also to offer me hospitality, so I have a very friendly opinion toward that city now, and toward all its inhabitants - an opinion I hope to test with a visit before too many years pass.

They dropped me off near the centre of Inverness and I walked off to find my  It was the afternoon of July 3rd and as I walked I faced the fact that I had only 24 hours left in Scotland.  That feeling was amplified by my suddenly being in the first truly urban looking city I had seen since catching the bus north from Glasgow, a couple weeks earlier.  After a trip of smooth bus, boat, bicycle, and B&B connections, I suddenly had no luck simply walking to a hostel that I was told was just off the High Street.  I found half a dozen hostels where I had not reserved space and a tourist information worker without a clue, before I finally found "my" hostel.  I dropped my things, laid out all the clothes that I had foolishly tried to dry while in the Hebrides (nothing dries in the Hebrides – even their fire is fuelled by pieces of bog), and headed out to find Balnain House.

The woman back at the ceilidh had recommended 2 places for traditional music in Inverness and Balnain House – who's full name continues, "The Home of Highland Music" - was the best of these.  It's a combination music school, small concert hall, pub, and museum of Scottish music, and if you're like me, it’s not to be missed.  For a reasonable admission fee I was free to roam through its rooms and listening stations, enjoying different styles of Highland music, reading about different periods in its development, and even trying out its characteristic instruments.  There was an electronic bagpipe chanter ingeniously designed so that any idiot could play it successfully without wrestling with an air bag or overpowering the rest of the building with the usual squawks of the beginner.  There was no rosin on the fiddle bow, but the whistles, bodhrans (drums), and clarsachs (harps) were fun to try.

Returning to the hostel, I met some Americans staying in the beds around mine and the 3 of us went out to a nearby pub.  They were both high school teachers – 1 from Texas, 1 from San Francisco – and they provided my ears with the first American accents I had heard for 2 weeks.  Over pints of Caffrey’s, we talked about America: politics, public transportation, education, and more.  It seemed strange to discuss these things as easily as we did, sitting so far from the country we were dissecting, all of us having been abroad for a time.  We were very free with our praise and condemnation, and more ready to propose some new analysis for any aspect of American life and culture than I think usual.  A small piece of this may have been the drinks, and a small piece may have been the exuberance that 17 hours of sunlight each day can bring (the Highlands are so very far north, making it’s summer days so very long).  The rest, I believe, simply came from being abroad, and I have since wondered if it may have been a glimpse into the heart and mind of the expatriot.

A few hours and a small Indian dinner later, I returned to Balnain House.  I had found it that afternoon with the help of a local who seemed the perfect person to ask (she had a violin case over her shoulder, and was, in fact, just returning from her lesson there), and she had mentioned that its weekly "session" of live, join-in-if-you-know-it music would be held that evening.

The session was underway when I arrived, so I ordered a hot chocolate from the bar (I could still feel the Caffrey's from the afternoon) and sat down at a small table along the wall.  There were about a dozen people there, spread out at one end of the small, basement pub (what a museum!), with 2 or 3 of them the obvious leaders.  This core started most of the songs, and were the only ones playing instruments – guitars and whistles.  The rest of us sang or kept time by slapping the tables.

Knowing some choice Eric Bogle songs goes a very long way in Scotland, but I was surprised by how many of the other songs I knew that evening.  When I didn't know words, I often knew the tune, or was able to harmonize around whatever was happening.  A woman at the next table heard me and asked if I were a singer and wanted to start a song or take a solo.  There was myself, 4 Swedes, and 7 or 8 Scots there, and I had no idea what I could offer that either group would know, or that I could sing solo with any appropriateness for the setting.  I said no, but the answer wasn’t allowed to stand too long.  One of the guys leading it all starting singing Blue Moon ("I saw you standing alone...") and no one was picking up the harmony.  That song really demands harmony, so when I sang "blue, blue, blue, blue moon" over the melody line, they heard me and decided that the next selection was mine.

I agreed this time, telling them that after Blue Moon I wasn't worried about having to choose a Scottish song.  I borrowed a guitar and sang Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound, which is a song about rambling that I'd been thinking about that day as the end of my trip began to sink in.  To my delight and surprise, most of the room joined in on the refrains and nodded approvingly - making me feel a little less like an 11 year old on stage for the first time.

The session ended around 11:30 and I had no desire to end my last night in Scotland before it was at least technically morning.   I headed back across the river on one of the springy, pedestrian suspension bridges and made for the centre of town.  After finding the other place recommended by the lady back on Lewis – and finding it full of people shouting over Beatles covers – I wandered toward the High Street and into a smaller pub with a smaller band.

Inside The Gellions I found the Swedes who had been at the Balnain House session and we all laughed at meeting again.  We talked for a while and then I drifted further inside the pub to find a good spot for listening to the 2-man band that was playing.

Near me, a group of 20-something Scots were belting out accompaniment to the songs being played.  They sang with a vigor that I hadn’t heard since a college basketball game in 1991:  At the game, the announcer asked the crowd for a show of support for our troops in the middle east, who would soon be fighting the Persian Gulf War.  The arena erupted with a chant of "U-S-A!" that had more energy than every Rocky Horror Picture Show audience combined.  These 3 young Scots weren't involved in any war that I knew of, but when the band played songs with a nationalistic air to them (basically every Scottish song not about people dying for love) you could hear their pride as a palpable force powering their voices.

One of them saw me looking and turned to sing toward me.  He stretched out his arms by his sides and clenched his fists with an expression both angry and beatific, as he made his fiercely nationalistic serenade of independence to me.  Then they all faced in to form a tight circle, put their arms around each other’s shoulders, and swayed side to side as they sang the refrain "...and sent them homeward, tae think again".  They loved the song Flower of Scotland above all others, and outdid themselves for it.  For the rest of the night, just singing the first line of this song was usually enough to get someone going.

A week and a half earlier I had visited the West Highland Museum in Fort William.  What had struck me most about the excellent Jacobite exhibit there was how very much alive the stories, myths, and sentiments of the mid-18th century rising against the English are.  Artistic and poetic tropes that were developed to be able to show secret loyalty to the Scottish Prince Charles Stuart are proudly showcased at the Museum.  There are paintings that look abstract, until you raise a glass (in toast) and see the image of the painting transformed by the curve of your glass into a portrait of "Bonnie Prince Charlie".  Then there were the cards describing how the objects in the cases were only recently family heirlooms and personal touchstones to history.  One such card that I recall read roughly this way: "This jeweled shoe-buckle, once belonging to Prince Charles Edward Stuart, was given by the Prince to his favorite fiddler, who then gave it as a prize to champion fiddler M____, whose grandson donated it to this museum in 1996."

History is NOT an academic subject in Scotland.  Discussing or singing about what happened at any given battle – be it 14th, 17th, or 18th century – means discussing the current situation, so the songs in the pub that night started a good historical/political debate near me.  Much of it concerned the Jacobite cause, so I joined in enough to be able to listen.  When one of the debaters asked me what I was doing in Inverness on my country's Independence Day (it was then about midnight), I gave him the answer that I thought of that morning on the ferry when I had asked myself the same question.  I told him that July 4th was, in part, about the fracturing of the English empire – and if I couldn't celebrate that in Scotland (with its new Parliament a year old that month, I added) then something was wrong!  This won me points on all sides, and the debates resumed.

At the centre of the discussions were the strong voice and manner of Trevor, who kept his wits and an even temper the entire evening without a moment's lapse.  He looked to be in his early 40's, and had a solid and stout frame, a short and thick beard following his rounded face, and a strong personality to match his voice.  I recall that he was born and raised near the northern end of Loch Lomond, because one of the fellows there that night treated this fact with a reverence second only to his own birth having been on the Isle of Skye.

From discussing how the Lairds (Scottish Nobility) could have acted as badly as they did at various battles (questions asked with real pain and betrayal in some voices), the debate naturally turned to the present, and Trevor was very interested in getting the American perspective on some international problems.  Does having been represented by me worry any of you who are reading this?  If not, then keep reading about how your impromptu ambassador was asked to weigh in on matters diplomatic and military.

The feeling about the new Scottish Parliament that night in Inverness was completely different from what I had heard earlier in my trip.  In Fort William I was told that, although the new parliament had some minor authority, all significant monetary decisions were still made in England.  They thought the parliament was a good idea, but that it would never be given the kind of power it needed to be effective on its own.  On the Isle of Lewis I was told that its decisions wouldn't bring any real attention to the Islands in my lifetime.  They saw this as being only slightly different from English control, taking the cool view of mainland politics that I imagine Islanders feel the world over.

It may be significant that in all these discussions, the alternative to Scottish control was not seen as British, but as English control.  Beyond that one common view, these men in the Gellions differed from my previous conversations in both analysis and, more strikingly, in passion.  They attacked the topic with a fire that was absent in the other conversations.  Those Fort William people believed the parliament would be ineffective, and ended their analyses there.  In Inverness, they predicted that the resentment that England would feel toward the new parliament would lead to trouble between the 2 countries.  I agreed that some friction would be unavoidable, but my suggestion that this phase would pass once officials on both sides became used to the new situation was dismissed by Trevor.  He believed that as the new parliament began using its power effectively, English resentment would develop beyond a mere phase and into a real social and economic clash.  He theorized that such a clash could develop violent or even military consequences, and asked me if I (meaning America) would support him (Scotland).

I didn’t know just how serious the question was, but it was asked with such honest directness that I decided to answer the same way.  I said that America might be willing to support Scotland economically, but that siding militarily against England would require a dramatically heinous act of English aggression to even be considered.  I also said that the question was ridiculous so long as the Blair-Clinton buddies were in charge.

The Gellions staff decided to enforce the fact that they were closed (and had been for some time), so we continued things outside on their doorstep.  The question of America's support was repeated twice that night, and though I emphasized the help we would give over what we would not, I did not change my answer.

Somewhere around 2am Trevor went home and without him the conversation became far less historical.  There were tunes attempted on a penny whistle by the man from Skye, reactions to the queen's recent visit and her stops to talk with people on the street, opinions of the local police, and a debate on whether hostel beds were more comfortable than the river bank.  When one of the group in serious need of a nicotine fix offered me some hash if I could only find him some tobacco, I decided it was about time to turn in.

I woke at 7am in my hostel bed with the rest of July 4th to face.  I wandered along the river and around the city until it was time for my bus to the airport and my plane to England.  The road to the airport passed by castle Stuart, which brought me back to the previous night's conversations.  The man from Skye had wished aloud that the Lairds of old Scotland were still around so that people could tell them how royally they screwed their own people (pun intended). I told him that it’s just as well they're not around to confuse modern Scotland into the old power structure, and split the parliament's effectiveness between monarchist and anti-monarchist parties.  Besides, I added sarcastically, those fine manors of theirs do make nice youth hostels. He agreed that this was at least partial revenge.

With history and atmosphere running through my brain, and the rolling countryside in front of my eyes, I flew to London and from there made my way to a youth hostel in Earl's Court.  The shift in culture, pace, manners, and vices being offered was so dramatic that I mentally ended the trip.  What adventures I had in my remaining 12 hours only emphasized for me how fundamentally different England and Scotland are from each other.  In retrospect, I realize that the difference was less between countries, and more between big city and small city life, but at the time, every rude Brit I met made me want to rebuild Hadrian’s wall, and reminded me that my Scottish adventures were done.

(NOTE:  For any of you looking to visit Balnain House; I'm sorry to say that it has since closed, apparently for budgetary reasons.)

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