Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hillora Lang - The Journey of My Lifetime: England, Ireland, and Scotland

[Click the link: "Read More" to continue reading about Hillora's Wentworth trip]

It was a rather complex set of influences which led to my experiences abroad, on the first time that I have traveled overseas. Having been severely limited in my social and experiential life by the developmental disability Asperger Syndrome, I had never considered that I might be able to travel to the places I dreamed of seeing since I was a child. In the spring of 2012 I changed my program at UNCW to a double-major in Creative Writing and English, and learned about the Wentworth Fellowship, which enabled English majors and minors to travel abroad on a research trip. Suddenly, I felt that it was time to confront my limitations and see if I could overcome them once again, as I have done many times already; simply by starting college, finishing two two-year degrees, transferring to UNCW, and achieving academic success beyond anything I had imagined myself capable of, I had proved that I could do just about anything I set my mind to.


I applied for the Wentworth Fellowship, and was thrilled when my plan to go to Scotland to research the locales in which so many famous writers had lived, traveled, and been influenced by was approved for funding by the Wentworth Committee. I was still quite nervous about traveling so far alone, despite extensive planning. So when I discovered that there was an anthropology course on Ancient Britain and Ireland being offered for the spring semester—which would complete another requirement towards my degree—I knew that it would be the perfect complement to my Wentworth journey. The two-week anthropology class trip would take me to the UK with my class, allowing me to become used to traveling in a strange place while in the company of people I was familiar with. Then I would continue on to Scotland alone, but with the experience of two airplane flights, three airports, several hotels, and being driven around England and Ireland on the wrong side of the road while observing and learning the rules of the road in the UK.
All of my planning really worked well. If any difficulties were encountered during the first two weeks of the trip I had the advice and input of the others in my group to see me through. Everything seemed quite easy when there were tour guides and drivers to make the arrangements and see us to where we needed to be. It did feel a little constrained during this first stage of my journey, having to function as a group and not having the freedom to do things at my own pace, but it all went quite easily overall. For the most part, however, this early stage of the trip prepared me for what was to come, and by the time I reached Scotland, I was ready and eager to strike out on my own.

Rather than selecting one author, school, or movement to focus on during my exploration of Scotland from a literary perspective, I choose to look at the influences which affected so many writers throughout Scotland’s history. Many authors, poets, and literati have written about and been influenced by the culture, people, and landscapes of Scotland through the centuries. From ancient Romans to Renaissance Britons to modern Scotsmen and women, there is an extensive history of literary efforts relating to Scotland. Children’s author JM Barrie was renowned for his Peter Pan books; Robert Burns is one of the most famous and prolific of Scots poets; the mainstream fiction of Iain Banks and the science fiction of his alter ego Iain M. Banks were in the news recently following the author’s death. Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Anne Bannerman, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Grant, Constance Gordon-Cumming, Kenneth Grahame, Nigel Tranter, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacDonald, James Herriot, Grace Elliott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others were native Scots writers, or traveled in Scotland and were inspired by her landscape, history, and people.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his adventure fiction about characters typical of his time and place. The young Scots boy who was swept up in the activities of seafarers and pirates, whose mother remained behind in a waterfront town inspired by those common in the Scotland of Stevenson’s time, could have been any boy raised in that country, with his yearning for something exciting in his life, for a way out of poverty, for a life which would allow him to care for his widowed mother; all of these influences would have been common to any number of Scottish boys in the 1700s.
Robert Burns, hardworking farmer and poet, wrote about the people and things which he saw around him:

My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O,
And carefully he bred me, in decency and order, O,
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing, O,
For without an honest, manly heart no man was worth regarding, O…
From “My Father Was a Farmer” 1782
Renowned for using the vernacular of the native Lowland Scots speaker, Burns became the mouthpiece of his people, speaking for the common Scotsman and woman in a way which sang in their hearts. But the whole of Scotland was fodder for his inspiration, not just the people:
Edina! Scotland’s darling seat!
All hail the palaces and tow’rs…
From marking wildly-scattered flow’rs,
As on the banks of Ayr I strayed,
And singing, lone, the ling’ring hours,
I sheltered in thy honour’d shade…
From “An Address to Edinburgh” 1786

The historic ruins of palace and tower, abbey and cairn and stone circle, filled the landscape of Burns’ poetry with their stony strength; the plethora of wildflowers which decorated the byways and fields throughout the year added color to his word-paintings; the extensive and essential waterways—rivers, burns, lochs, still pools—flowed through the places he wrote about and lived in. One cannot separate the landscape from the people, or the poet from the landscape.
Dorothy Dunnett is one of many authors who drew upon the history and historical figures of Scotland to write their novels. In Dunnett’s case these novels are classified as Fiction; among those by other authors, Scottish by birth and otherwise, are novels classified as Historical Fiction, Romance, Young Adult, Speculative, and many more. Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, from the Lymond Chronicles series, combines true history (if such a thing exists) with fictionalized characters, telling a tale of intrigue, invasion, and the fight for freedom in 1547 Lowland and mid-Highlands Scotland:

In the Castle of Midculter, close to the River Clyde in the southwest lowlands of Scotland, the Dowager Lady Culter had reared three children of whom the youngest, Eloise, died at school in her teens. The two boys remaining were brought up variously in France and Scotland: she had taught them Latin, French, philosophy and rhetoric, hunting, hawking, riding and archery, and the art of killing neatly with the sword. When her husband died, violently, in the field the elder boy Richard became third Baron Culter, and Francis his brother received the heir’s title of Master of Culter as well as taking name from his own lands of Lymond.

While not exclusively an Scottish author’s prerogative to adapt, adopt, and make use of true historical facts and figures to create works of fiction, it seems especially poignant to read such works knowing that the authors have walked on the land, breathed the air, and felt the Highland rain on their faces, as I myself have now done. There is an unbreakable connection between the history, heritage, landscape, and environment of the country, and the writers it has produced throughout the centuries.

To have walked upon the land, touched the stones of ruined towers, dipped my hand into the cold clear flow of the rivers, and to be able to connect these things with writers who have gone before me, was an amazing gift.


My trip through Scotland began on the west coast, in Ayrshire. In keeping with my plan for getting the most out of this trip, covering all of my areas of interest, staying as long as I possibly could, and seeing everything possible because I didn’t know if I would ever get back there again, I had prepared an extensive itinerary. I planned to stay no more than two days in any one area, so as to see as much as I could of the country I had always felt an affinity for. I had three major areas of concentration as far as what I wanted to see: sites with a literary connection, where an author had lived, written, or travelled; archaeological sites from the Neolithic, Stone Age, and Bronze Age; and sites with a genealogical connection, where an ancestor had been born, died, visited, or lived. In addition to these three, I also wanted to see native wildlife wherever possible.

From Ayrshire on the west coast, my itinerary took me through the Inner Hebrides Islands of Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula, Islay, and back to the mainland at Oban; then on to the Isle of Mull, Coll, and then to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. Into the Lower Highlands for the first time I drove from Kilchoan to Mallaig, and on to the Isle of Skye. From Skye I continued on to the Outer Hebrides—or the Western Isles—of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Berneray, Harris, and Lewis, and back to northwest Scotland at Ullapool. From there my journey took me through the Highlands of Easter Ross, Wester Ross, past Inverness, and through the Cairngorms National Park. I spent a day exploring the east coast from Dundee in the south to Aberdeen in the north, then headed west again to Loch Tay, Loch Lomond, Argyll and Bute, before flying home from Glasgow.

There were many sites of archaeological significance which I visited during my time in Scotland. Stone circles abound throughout the islands and mainland; although smaller in scale than Stonehenge—which I visited with my class in England—they were very impressive when considering the enormous physical effort it took to construct them as well as the depth of spiritual belief which the builders must have possessed. Machrie Moor stone circle was the first one I visited, on the Isle of Arran, and as a part of an extensive ritual landscape which comprised multiple stone circles, avenues, and burial cairns, it was quite impressive. Knowing that my ancestors had come from the islands, and may well have been among those who built or visited the landscape, it brought tears to my eyes when I was able to place my hands on the sunwarmed face of the very stones which my forebears may have put in place 5000 years ago.

On the Isle of Lewis I crossed the moor to walk among the stone circles of Callanish III and Callanish II, then drove to the visitor center at Callanish I. While C. III and C. II were impressive, C. I was stunning its complexity and the extent of its construction; I’m glad that I saw it last, so that it didn’t subtract from the impact of C. III and C. II. Callanish I was even more impressive than Stonehenge in my eyes, with dolmen-lined double avenues leading away from the central circle in the four directions of the compass, and an exposed burial cairn within the center circle.

Also on the Isle of Lewis I went to Dun Carloway Broch, a round tower-like structure of dry-stone construction, one of the best-preserved brochs in lower Scotland. While portions of the walls had fallen over the last 2000 years, enough remains that I could climb the stairs between the walls a fair distance, duck inside the small storage rooms, and envision what life must have been like for the ancient inhabitants.

There were many other sites along my path; while many were on my itinerary I also found many signposted as I was driving which were welcome surprises. Pictographic stones which bore extensive carvings, burial cairns, ancient roundhouses, Pictish carved stones, a Viking mill reconstruction, a Blackhouse village, and many other sites from the Stone Age, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and up through the first millennium all lay along my route and it was thrilling to be able to be a part of the landscape which my ancestors lived in. It is very impressive to realize that in Scotland the past lives alongside the present, is cherished, recognized, and taught as a valued part of the history and environment.

Animals are everywhere in Scotland, whether pets, domesticated farm animals, or wildlife. I fell in love with the shaggy Highland cows, and saw many of them throughout the islands. 

Throughout Scotland there are many animal and bird reserves and rescues, where one can visit and see seals, otters, deer, birds, and many other animals. One of the experiences which I had really looked forward to—and enjoyed the most—was taking a seal-boat tour of the loch from Armadale Castle. I was the only one in the boat, and the boatman took me around the rocky outcroppings to see the seals from quite close, about twenty feet away, while taking pictures of them by the hundreds. Unfortunately, my visit was just before birthing-season—three weeks in June each year when the pups are born—but it was clear to see that many of the females were quite pregnant and would whelp any day.

I saw the pheasant above while driving away from a castle ruin; I turned around and went back to park beside the road and jump out with camera in hand. I got as close as I thought I could without frightening it away, and it proceeded to walk right up and past about two feet away from where I was standing on the side of the road. It was one of many gifts which my time in Scotland brought me, and one which I will always cherish.

There was also a peacock who I fed bits of oatcake to at Edzell Castle, a herd of Sika deer who grabbed the paper bag of feed from my hands at the Scottish Deer Centre near Dundee, a black-and-white seabird called an Oystercatcher who talked to me for hours where I camped for the night on the shore of the Kintyre Peninsula at Skipness, and the curly-horned sheep which my landlady in Dufftown took me to see on the way to a Thursday-evening ceilidh in Dufftown.

And the sheep! Yes, there were sheep—everywhere! Sometimes they were fenced in pastures, but as often as not they roamed freely along the roads, across the grounds of ruined castles, around archaeological sites, throughout the villages—truly free-range sheep! Driving could be difficult when there were sheep and their lambs darting across the road with little warning, but I never saw one that had been struck by a car. When camping at night in several different places I had sheep milling around my car. And it was necessary to watch carefully each footstep lest one landed in a big puddle of fresh manure.

I had grown up knowing that my paternal grandmother’s family had come from Greenock, Scotland to Ontario, Canada in the 1800s; while doing further genealogical research on an online site I discovered that more of my father’s family had come from England, while my mother’s family—which I thought were English—had come from Scotland and Ireland. While planning my journey I found the castles and ruins in each place I planned to visit, and checked the families who inhabited them against the genealogy website to see if I had a relation among those who lived in a particular castle or manor. In this way I discovered that my mother’s father’s family had extensive branches weaving throughout the noble and royal houses of Scotland, and was able to plan my sightseeing to take in many of the places where they had lived and died.

It was an amazing experience to be able to walk in the footsteps of my forebears, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, great-aunts and great-uncles, and distant cousins many times removed. I visited the ruins of a castle on a tiny island in the middle of loch where the Lords of the Isles held court centuries ago, where my many-times-great-grandparents had lived and died, given birth and raised their children, picked flowers to decorate their halls and practiced swordplay and eaten meals prepared from the produce of their lands. I visited castle ruins where my third cousin sixteen times removed, Mary I, Queen of Scots, had visited on her royal progresses around the countryside. And I took a very long walk over the side of Tigh Righ Beag mountain one day on the Isle of Arran to find the King’s Cave, where Robert the Bruce, my 18th  great-grandfather, had hidden while waiting to return to the fight for Scotland’s throne. I touched a rock where Robert the Bruce may very well have sat in the dampness of the cave, and walked across the stony floor of the cave where he would have lain wrapped in his woolen plaid as he slept through the long nights.

An enormous challenge for me has always been interacting with strangers, but it was one I was determined to overcome on this trip. I was going to a new place, where no one knew who I was or what had defined my life to this point, and I decided to act like the person I wanted to be. This proved to be easier than I expected, as everyone I met was so friendly and kind.

I was often amazed by how accepting people were of this stranger in their midst, and of how ignorant she was of things which were second nature to the Scottish people. I was always welcomed warmly into any situation and found it quite easy to speak with people, which is highly unusual for me. Alternatively, if I didn’t feel like interacting directly with anyone, I never felt pressured and was free to be by myself and undisturbed. And I was never at a loss for a topic of conversation, as everyone I spoke with was interested in my reasons for being in Scotland, and in what I was seeing, doing, and planned to do.

My journey through England, Ireland, and Scotland, my journey through college and the University of North Carolina, and my journey through my life, have been amazing gifts which I never would have envisioned as being given to me—or, indeed, have envisioned my being worthy of them. Yet some cosmic accident decided that I should have these gifts, with the help and support of the Wentworth Fellowship and the amazing people who have touched my life. . My sincere thanks go to Mr. Green, who finances this excellent program, as well as all of the amazing professors in the English Department who guide students on their explorations of the world. Not only have I accumulated knowledge, experiences, and memories to cherish, I have also discovered an enormous well of inspiration for my own writing projects, a well into which I will dip my bucket many times throughout the years to come.


1 comment:

  1. I was looking for Study Immigration Consultants in Chandigarh and now I am here. Although it is less relevant, but I really enjoyed reading about this natural and beautiful place.