Saturday, July 29, 2006

Every Village Has One

Every village has at least one war memorial. Sometimes even where there is no longer a village you find a simple monument to the men who, like Cinncinnatus, dropped their plough and went to war because their country called. Some of the men or their widows who followed their men through the campaigns came home to find they had lost their home to the same landlords who had obliged them to go to war.

The inscription on the Dingwall memorial has had the 's' on "war" carefully added to the original inscription to include another "great war". Perhaps we could forgive their naivete or grieve for their vain hope in 1918 when the world was so much younger, but still each generation seems to have to discover anew the pain and the loss. The village memorials for the most part become just another part of the landscape. Directions may be given by such phrases as "just after the memorial turn left" as easily as use the speed markers "after the big 30 sign, go 200 yards and then turn at the second left". The remote historical marker may be visited by the occasional tourist but few people go by there at all any longer and it is easy to roll the loss of those men and their families into the time of the clearances and push it into a distant, more comfortable past.

Near Spean Bridge we had the sad privilege of visiting a living memorial. In contrast with the ancient, wind swept stone of Culloden surrounded by sheep or carefully carved civic architecture of Dingwall where people come to remember from a safe distance, the commando memorial was still raw with grief. Around the central memorial were smaller sites for individual divisions within the commando organization. I don't know why it is we stopped there that day, but as we walked around I was struck by the unofficial decoration of the memorials: fresh flowers, dog tags and even medals left as markers beside the smiling young faces frozen in their photographs. I moved slowly and looked intently at each one because I could not bear to omit a single one of those smiling faces even though each step got heavier and heavier.

At the time I walked around Spean Bridge, both Britain and the United States were at war again--not a great war, just one of those ugly, mindless conflicts in which people die far from home. Despite the fact that every day young American men and women and not so young men and women were dying, it was prohibited to photograph their flag draped coffins. It was as if their death as well as their life was to be consumed by the cause for which they died. As if by depriving us of the raw grief we might more easily accept the gloriousness of their death or forget the cost of the war.

Hoosiers and Scots have in common that they are often proud to serve in the military. They go willingly because they believe that they are doing the right thing or they go because they have been asked by the people in charge and obeying is the right thing to do. In Scotland this obedience is a strong tradition. Having recently visited Culloden, I was reminded of this fact. The clan leaders thought Bonnie Prince Charlie was mad for showing up with less than token support from the French for the would be revolution, but they were persuaded to send their men into battle nonetheless. Now, of course, Culloden is seen as the turning point for the end of an entire way of life, but as a newcomer to this country I see it as part of the way in which Scotland, or more particularly the highlands, continue to be viewed.

Highlands of Scotland compete as a "Less Favoured Area" (LFA) with Eastern European countries for extra money from the centralized organization, the European Union. When the BBC recently made a new weather map, it used a London-centric projection that made Scotland into a tiny sliver that disappeared after Edinburgh. I joked that they should just put "Here be dragons" and be done with it. After much controversy and complaint, the BBC tilted the map a little bit. The Highlands are now about the size of a fingernail at the edge of the map.

In addition to the LFA designation and the near invisibility on the BBC map, I began to understand the use of the phrase "white settlers" applied to people from the south who bought holiday homes or chose to retire up here. At first it had baffled me because everyone up here is white, very white it seems to me, but I think the highland Scots have much in common with Native Americans and African Americans. As with Native Americans, highlanders share a common tradition of an indigenous people whose land and culture have been exploited, often ruthlessly. And I believe that highland Scots have in common with African Americans what Martin Luther King Jr. described as having been given a bad check. African Americans were in many cases stolen from their countries and then promised emancipation and equality, which as Martin Luther King Jr. explained, was past due after about 300 years.

Queen Victoria loved the "wild" highlands and the open space. Her enthusiasm for her country home, Balmoral, made it fashionable and so shooting estates and train stations to the door of these estates brought wealthy business men to the highlands to experience the wild lifestyle as a respite from their city living. Ian Mitchell* dubbed it the "Balmorality" of the highlands and argues that her affection for the country and her fond descriptions of it were "a modest part of the ideological offensive against" social disorder. By extension, the highlands needed to stay "wild" or undeveloped in order to allow for the industrialization, including its attendant excesses, of the south.

Recently, it was suggested that a solution to the drought in the overcrowded southeast of England would be to make a great pipeline to bring the water down from Scotland. The legacy of Victoria lingers not only in the minds of outsiders but in the local imagination as well. Some have opposed developing wind turbines here not on aesthetic grounds but because they saw it as one more resource that would be "sent south." Shortly after I first heard this argument, I saw a newspaper article about an attempt to do just that.

*Mitchell, Ian R. On the trail of Queen Victoria in the highlands. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2000.

Friday, July 21, 2006

An American Tontine

If anyone were putting odds on which American would last, I think I would have been the longest odds. If our marriage is the indication of having survived the tontine, then Morris and I have won this round at any rate. Caithness is a hard place to live. If the wind and the cold don't erode your spirit, then the chronic greyness and the long dark will join in. If your spirit survives that, there is the coup de grace--the isolation. The same stark contrasts of rock and sea and broad moors that are so beautiful can also feel desperately empty. It is a long way from one place to any other. The 10 miles into town for the one movie theatre can be daunting in poor weather or pointless when the films are American blockbusters that are jarringly out of place over here.

The first American whose departure I noted was the author of a journal about her experiences in the highlands. I did not want to read the book because I did not want to be influenced by it, I said, in the writing of my own. However, when I read about her book in the local paper I was relieved not to have read it. After 5 years on an estate near Arbroath, she wrote most unkindly about it. A list of all the things wrong with her new life would have been another burden in my own struggle. Her comments made so much news, I think, because there is an underlying ambivalence between Americans and Scots--the ones who left and the ones who stayed. When an American comes back, it is a mixed celebration--on the one hand, an affirmation for those who stayed; on the other hand, a resentment for the success of the Americans who have more of everything, including the choice to come or to go, or so it sometimes seems.

My friend Sally has not been back this summer, so in my mind she is the second American victim of the cold, the grey, the isolation. I miss her. She was another midwesterner, so we knew some of the same places and things. Not that either of us actively sought to recreate a little America over here, but the familiarity was warming: our conversations were not like treading water to keep up. Sally is an artist and there are several Caithness women artists. It was a joy to talk with her about color and ideas and books. Her house was beautiful but remote. "Are you really happy up here?" she had asked earnestly and now she is not here.

We met Malcolm Saturday at an event and asked about his wife, another American. Malcolm and his wife had been married just shortly before we had. I had been jealous when I heard about how she was picking out furniture and decorating the house to make it her own. Malcolm told us that in 10 days they will be in court and that will be the end of it. "She was never going to live over here, and we tried going back and forth's the best decision for both of us." My heart sank. It seemed such a truncated end to what should have been a better narrative. "I wish I'd known," I said, I would have talked to her." I meant it with my whole heart, but as soon as the words fell softly on to the quarry floor, we both knew that words are not enough but neither one of us could say what is enough to hold any of us here in this almost invisible part of the world.

In the first few months, I struggled to get through each day. If it were not homesickness or the pervasiveness of living in someone else's house with my few worldy belongings in the corner of an unused room, then it was the cold or the grey. When I met people, they always asked how I was "getting on in Caithness". I chose to talk about the weather. It seemed safe. The conversation would then bounce amiably into comfortable territory: "Oh, aye, the weather takes some getting used to, right enough." Sometimes I got valuable tips on how to manage in the weather: wear shoe boots so you can still look sort of dressed but keep your feet warm and wear wool next to you skin were two lifesaving tips. Only once did a woman sniff a reply, "Hmm. It's usually the isolation." The mention of the taboo resulted in a conversational gap in which I felt every inch of the distance between me and everything familiar.

I thought then that perhaps the bookie, or "tout" as they call it here, was offering odds not only on how long this American would make it but also which of the many foes would be responsible for my farewell. Her money must have been on "isolation" and "not even one winter." I have made it through one winter, albeit we spent two months of it in New Zealand and Australia where I could soak up enough light and heat to sustain me, barely, through the dark, wet spring. I have learned basic cattle management and struggled through Byzantine farm paperwork. I have learned that the tax year is different and almost understand some of the tax issues. I have half a driving license and know the difference between a toucan crossing and a zebra crossing--neither one of which has anything to do with the namesake animals. I have a kitchen garden that this year actually looks a little like what I had hoped for and I have ideas and experience to make it better next year.

More importantly, I have friends who can cut through the isolation. A woman who loves the feeling of yarn and colors and textures as much as I do is only 20 miles away. I am a welcomed addition to the Busy Bees Sewing Club--a lively group that meets first Tuesday and sometimes third Thursday at the Murkle WRI--about 15 miles from here. As the leader's husband described it, "the stitch and bitch" group. I have been invited to the Murkle and the Forss WRIs and I am a member of the Caithness Agricultural Society with a badge to prove it. At the local newcomers to Caithness coffee morning, I am sometimes able to answer more questions than I ask.

I am beginning to feel a part of a "large and complex family" as my brother in law described it at the wedding reception. I have a "grandma cabinet" stocked with toys for the occasional visit of the youngest of the grandchildren, and I have met all but one of my husband's six siblings. The youngest has become my new big brother. We recently toured his farm with my friend Amy and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much I have learned about cattle but more importantly how much I enjoy looking at them and thinking about them. Since there are more cattle than people in Caithness, it is very important to be able to enjoy their company.

Sundays I can share a pew with a sister of my husband and her husband whose company I enjoy very much. Although the church is very different from the African-American baptist church I attended in Indiana, the spirit is the same. Perhaps soon I'll be on the equivalent of the Social Concerns Committee of this church. The name will certainly be different, but the spirit will be the same. Having learned how to see beyond the differences, the days are beginning to have a pattern and a rhythm, a safety net below the gap between the swings of the trapeze into which I have leaped. I am not sure the odds against leaving will ever go to zero, but if there were a transporter for the occasional quick trip back for a black bean burrito from Qdoba or green tea with ginseng or my grandson asking me to play one of his computer games, then the odds would be so close to zero that all bets would be off.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Amy's Dinner and then the Long Way Home

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Twelve days seemed like a long time, but each day tumbled over the other and the next until it was The Last Night. Amy had said almost from the beginning that she wanted to treat us to a nice lunch and somehow that got shuffled or overlooked until the dinner before her flight. We had come to Inverness, the regional capital of the highlands and closest thing to a big city for many miles in any direction. We are here because we have to put Amy on the airplane tomorrow morning and because we need to put Morris's car in for repairs. Amy has woven easily into the pattern of the days and it will be different without her.

The manager at the Volvo garage recommended Cafe One for dinner and called the owner to make a reservation and ask that he especially look after us. From the moment we walked in the door, the owner and all his staff worked attentively and good spiritedly to ensure a good meal and a good celebration.

Amy picked a red wine after we all three decided on steaks. Over the wine, she looked at me and wondered out loud how many glasses of red wine we have shared over the years. The recollection of red wine conversations set the tone for good talking and laughing. The venison appetizer provided Amy's first taste of venison, thus adding a sense of adventure to the red-wine nostalgia and the conversation.

The steak was amazingly good. I startled my former vegetarian self by saying to the owner, "We take good care of our cattle and I am glad to see you do, too." He smiled and talked about how he works to source food locally. "Amy's Dinner" as I dubbed it was already taking on epic standing and then we ordered dessert. Over chocolate fondant with ice cream and coffee with liqueur, I realized that no less memorable a meal would have measured up to Amy's 12 days in the highlands. In those 12 days, she had seen a calf born and named for her, crouched through a narrow entrance into a neolithic cavern, walked around a standing stone circle with only me and birds for company, walked the middle road between cattle and barley and the Pentland Firth, scrabbled along rock ledges into the firth with the tide coming in to discover the secret life of limpets and luminescent green algae, and hobnobed with everyday Scots in a part of the world nearly invisible to the rest of the world.

The afterglow of the meal lasted almost until Amy boarded the plane for the first leg of her journey back to the States. The day was beautiful with clear skies and warm sun. Morris was trying to take my mind off the empty spot where Amy had been by suggesting a run through the countryside. Morris knows the side roads and back roads and the stories they hold better than just about anyone else and I enjoy hearing them, so I tried to put thoughts of Amy out of my mind and we started on the long way home as she too was wending the long back to her home.

When we got to a single track road I remembered with a start that we had not taken a photo of one, so we set out to get a good single-track road photo and thus keep Amy connected here despite the long road home.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Visitor's Perspective: Amy's Page

My hostess is a transplanted midwesterner. I’m a visiting midwesterner on vacation here—temporarily ‘heeled in’ until I can be better planted where I belong. In the meantime I’m sending out shallow feelers to people I’m meeting, feelers which will break when I leave and may be reconnected when I return for my next visit. My thin tethers are the connections I’m making on social occasions. We’ve paid visits to Morris’s nth cousin Angela (also a good friend of Sharon’s), to Morris’s sister, and to an old friend of Morris’s down south. I’ve been with Sharon to a kaffee klatsch for women ‘in-comers’ to Thurso and to a barbeque of the Reay Garden Club.

I’m just about socialized out and ready to be only with Sharon and Morris and learn more history and see more landscapes. Oh, the landscapes—to describe the vast moors and the flat sea beyond seems impossible. I’m reminded of the time I rode horseback to the top of a mountain in southwest Texas, where the view was so wide it seemed there were more than 360 degrees to look around at.

Contrasting to the soft fields are the hard-edged vertical fences called dikes. These fascinate me. They are stone walls composed of Caithness flagstones set horizontally on top of each other. They are not mortared together, so the edges of each stone are visible—except for the two top rows, which consist of a layer of long flat stones topped by softball-sized stones set vertically like books on bookshelf but with their points sticking up. The grey, black, white, rusty, and yellow speckles create a fragmented multiplicity that is balanced and grounded by the simplicity of the long sweeping lines of each wall. The rugged jaggedness of the top stones is balanced by the calm, more or less straight direction of each wall. The absolute unpredictability of what color of spots a particular stone will have, how much it will stick out, and what slight angle it will be set at, is balanced by the predictability of the shape of the whole.

Greyish dikes, grey sky, white clouds, grey clouds, grey and/or green and/or blue sea, green fields, yellow fields, white sheep, yellow broom, purple heather, white bog cotton, grey ruins of buildings—all look as if they belong here and belong together. The roads have texture and follow the gentle curves and swoops of the moors, so the roads look natural even though they are man-made. The road signs, however, have flat surfaces, perfectly crisp straight lines and neatly painted colors. The signs look industrial and modern. They intrude upon, as Sharon says, the softness of the landscape.

Am I like the road signs? Yes, in the sense that I’m a visitor and they’re a relatively recent addition to the landscape. And yes, in that my American accent must sound odd to my new Scottish acquaintances and the signs look stark next to the grass. Ah, but the road signs are utilitarian and I’m not. I’m here for reasons of friendship and pleasure and adventure. I’m a social being. The Scottish people up here are too. They talk a lot about their connections, both living and dead. I’m now a part of their network; they’ll talk about me at least a tiny bit after I leave. I like that fact. Road signs don’t make connections with their surroundings. I do.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

One Grey Cat More or Less

One grey cat more or less makes little difference in the grand scheme of things, but I tend to operate more on the micro level where little grey cats are important. Wee Grey Stripes was the daughter of Old Black Coat and Lady Greymantle. She survived a plague of feline influenza in the village over the long winter and took over the dairy maid's cottage where she was born after her mother and her brother had disappeared. I saw Black Coat last week, but he has only ever been an occasional visitor.

I took on the Malthusian balance of plague, famine and population. For a while the cat population boomed. In a land where everyone knows more about cattle and sheep and dogs and badgers and birds and foxes than I do, I listened respectfully to their conversations and tried to learn. When they said with the same certainty that cats would not hunt if they were fed, I spoke up. I do not know cattle or sheep or dogs or pigs or horses or badgers or birds, but I know cats. At first I just told stories about cats who had hunted despite being well fed and having such tell tale names as "Fluffy Boy"--not the name you give to a predator. They listened politely to the stories, but were not in the least persuaded. Perhaps they thought an urbanized American could not know about animals of any kind.

Cats hunt because they are wired that way. You cannot keep even the most overfed, pampered housecat from hunting birds, squirrels, prairie dogs, mice, moles, spiders or even spots of light on a carpet or piano wire with feathers on the end of it. Knowing this, I fed the cats and trusted that if the population bloomed excessively, I would figure something out. But Malthus seems to have worked me into the equation and now plague or pestilence or predation have worked overtime to reduce the temporary imbalance of cats.

Wee Grey Stripes hissed when she was so small that her eyes were only beginning to change color. Her brother was bolder. Her hissing may have served her better than her brother's curiosity. I fed all three of them--Lady Greymantle, Little Black Coat and Wee Grey Stripes. Lady Greymantle never made any sounds at all. I saw her as a shadowy figure or in the walled garden at a safe distance in a rare moment of leisure in the sun. I saw her often working in the tall grass along the side of the farm road. I saw her once dragging a baby rabbit nearly as big as she was back to the dairy maid's cottage. The skin remained there after all the rest was gone. The whiskers of the dried skin, still upright, would catch the breeze and quiver as if the spirit of the rabbit had not been released. And then one day all three were gone.

Lady Greymantle, as a good mother does, moved her kittens often in the first weeks of life. Over the months I caught occasional glimpses of them here and there as I walked on the farm, and then Wee Grey Stripes returned to the cottage alone. Whenever I saw her, I went out to the dairy maid's cottage with something especially tasty--if you happen to be a hard working barn cat. In very little time she had me trained, and I saw her more often. Apparently I got lax or short sighted and she began sitting at the back door of the house to make sure that I saw her. Occasionally she would eat warily just outside the back door. Startled, however, she picked up the half fat chicken liver pate carton in her jaws and ran with it to the safety of the dairy maid's cottage: a scaled down tiger with her prey returning to the safety of her lair. And she continued to hiss.

After a few days, she took to lurking beneath the car in the driveway--a half step between our house and hers. About this time she began to meow as well as to hiss. When she saw me, she came out from under the car, did her little dance of joy at the thought of food coming and hissed and meowed as she danced up the walk to the dairy maid's cottage and her food bowl. Her daily fare now was packets of meat in a fatty kind of jellly sauce and special milk for cats in case she needed extra nutrition. I could get closer now, too. She would eat when only three feet away from me, and after eating she would sit on the doorstep of her house, wash her face and paws, and watch me in the garden despite the threats from numerous worried birds overhead.

Another neighbor also feeds the cats I discovered in conversation. We compared notes. I don't think Wee Grey Stripes ventures there, but Lady Greymantle or Black Coat are regulars there. Cats have territories and perhaps in a feline discussion of boundaries and territories Wee Grey Stripes had won her home territory. Perhaps sentiment or nostalgia drove her back to the cottage. More likely it was the careful training of her hard working mother who taught her to appreciate a good spot when she could get it. One of the charms of cats is that you never quite know what makes them do what they do.

If you like cats, then you like the fact that you cannot tell them to do anything. You can ask the world of them, but the cat always has the last word. I like that about them, but it certainly does make life with them a bit more difficult. Wee Grey Stripes has not been at the door of the dairy maid's cottage for five days now. Perhaps I asked too much of her or perhaps she decided that my neighbor has better food on offer. I like to think that she will be back in the next day or so or that wherever she is she is fine, but I have learned a little bit about foxes.

I pick up lore in bits and pieces and stitch them together as best I can. Foxes are around here. Foxes are more common now in urbanized areas than out in the country. Yes, what I saw in the mud in the road was probably a fox print. Foxes are indiscriminate killers. Foxes always leave dung as markers. All these fragments came together this morning when I saw the fox dung in the kitchen garden. My heart sank. What chance would a small grey cat have against a fox? All the narratives that sprang to mind had Wee Grey Stripes as remnants of herself, her whiskers pointed into the wind still dreaming perhaps of the dairy maid's cottage.

I shook my head to clear the image and began the sad task of packing up her food. I moved it from the stairs by the door where I could quickly grab it as soon as I saw her, or was allowed to see her, I should say. This task of packign up and waiting for the next cat, is not new to me. My knowledge of cats has come cat by cat. As each cat left me, there was a wrapping up and putting away, a grieving until the next cat found me. The task is only made bearable by the knowledge that another cat will come.

When I left the United States, I took a trunkful of cat paraphernalia to a woman who had more cats than the old woman in the shoe had children. "At least I'm not as crazy as she is," I said to myself as I unloaded the toys, the pillows, the geriatric vitamins, the special food, the combs and brushes. My soon to be husband sitting in the car might not have seen the distinction.

This morning just as the kettle began to whistle, I spotted two balls of fluff in the doorway of the barn across from the kitchen window. Faster than thought, I was into the cupboard where I had stashed Wee Grey Stripes' food and I was away with a bottle of cat milk. If Wee Grey Stripes is still looking after them, a little extra milk won't hurt. If not, then my new grey cats have found me just in time.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Lady Barbara is an American

Even when you know that cultural influences include dress and manners, you can be taken aback. When Lady Barbara, a carefully coifed woman in pearls and archetypal British slender coat, began her speech, I asked the woman next to me, "Is she American?" She nodded and then I laughed. "That's why she sounds so funny." Her presentation was good and well received but I was preoccupied by trying to decide just what it was that made her look so British. Of course I wondered if I would ever come to look so different from the way I sounded? I don't think I will ever lose my accent although I have lost some American words at least temporarily. Perhaps that is what really happens when people kiss the earth of their homeland upon returning; they are collecting the words they left behind there.

We were at the annual Dounreay cocktail party. Friends and not so friends of Dounreay have been invited to share in a little celebration of another year's worth of activity. Lady Barbara had come all the way to Thurso to share the good news. It was a high level view and no details or distractions which is always how good news messages come packaged. I was just a little discomfited by being referred to as "the local supply chain."

I think Scots have a long history of good news messages in which one way or the other they have played the role of local supply chain. The words have changed no doubt over the years but the message seemed remarkably all too familiar. Perhaps the first step in my Scotification is to adopt the political sensitivities of my new country.

Morris and I had our photo taken with some of our other neighbors. I imagine we'll see ourselves in an upcoming newsletter or perhaps on the web site. If we are named, then perhaps I'll have my first foray onto virtual celebrity with my new name.

I talked about cats with one neighbor. It seems that Old Blackcoat has quite a territory and may have several feeding stations along the way. She referred to him as dusky grey but the tell tale gimpy hind leg identified him without a whisker of a doubt. Another neighbor has offered me a fleece from her Jacobs fleece in exchange for some veg from my garden. The woman with her says she would have given me hers if she had only known, but they went to a woman in Betty Hill who spins. She offers to put me in touch with her. I am glad to find all the women up here who knit and spin and weave because it seems so important to hold on to those skills as well as to just be able to share an enthusiasm.

On the way home I think about what I might knit from the Jacobs fleece, so called because an individual fleece has cream and caramel and brown and black all in a motley assortment. For people like me who often struggle to make up my mind about things, especially design decisions, I look forward to carding it and spinning it just as it comes so that the end result will look something like an ice cream sundae with swirls of toffee and chocolate.

The heavy clouds and damp air have given way to a lighter sky and still water as we watch the ocean on our right as we head home. The water is silvered and the air above the water has so much moisture that the whole horizon takes on a powdery blue glimmer. The farm road now has cow parsley--tall, white, umbrella shaped compound flowers--and grasses along both sides. The cow parsley has a soft, pale luster against the grey of the stone dykes and one or two cattle here and there pop their heads over the parsley and the dyke to welcome us home.