Monday, May 5, 2008

Scottish "Homecoming"

As many of you know, I hail from a little village in Ontario called "Embro." Tradition (or legend) has it that the name comes from a quick and garbled rendition of "Edinburgh" (pronounced 'EDinburrow'). The annual Highland Games happened in Matheson Park behind our house, with highland flings, caber tosses, and pipe bands. It seemed like all the churches in the area were "Knox Presbyterian." And whereas the "V" section of the phonebook is so large in Dutch Grand Rapids, back home its' the "M" section that is thickest, populated with names like MacIntosh, MacKay, MacDonald, Matheson, and more. My own ancestry shares this M-ness: on my mother's side I descend from MacDonalds; on my father's side, the Maisley-McWilliams. We even had a fellow named James Muir pipe us out of our wedding. (Deanna, not sharing as much Scottish blood, has less of a soft spot for bagpipes. So the night of the rehearsal, when James asked her where she'd like him to stand, she asked: "Are you familiar with that 7-11 on the outskirts of town?"

In sum, having moved away from Embro twenty years ago, I've come to appreciate what a Scottish island my hometown was. So it was a strange sort of homecoming when I had opportunity to visit Edinburgh this past weekend. This was our last excursion with the students, and it was a fabulous capstone for our semester together. While the weather had projected rain for both days (no big surprise), in fact the weather was almost sunny and warm. We didn't get wet even once.

After arriving at Waverly Station, and taking a lunch break, we all gathered at the Walter Scott monument to begin an afternoon exploration, up the Royal Mile through the heart of Old Town. We began from Holyrood Palace, residence of the monarch in Scotland, past the new parliament building (see below), then spent some time at the home of Scottish Reformer John Knox and St. Giles Cathedral, from which he engineered the Scottish Reformation. We also enjoyed the Lady Stair Writers Museum (dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and poet Robby Burns), then finished at Edinburgh Castle.

But perhaps the highlight came later that afternoon when we all scaled Arthur's Seat, a volcanic outcropping that towers over the city, offering spectacular views of the entire region. The climb was a tough slog (probably took us about 50 minutes to reach the top), but well worth it.

The next day some of the philosophy majors and I made a little pilgrimmage, first to the tomb of David Hume (a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment) in Old Calton Cemetery, then on to David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh, home to a Philosophy Department with quite an illustrious history. (It was fun to see that the Edinburgh Philosophy Dept has a "Norman Kemp Smith Room," whereas the Calvin Philosophy Dept has the "Jellema Room.")

Then as a group we enjoyed a tour of the new Scottish Parliament Building. Bit of a story here: Scottish Parliament was dissolved in 1707, after the Treaty of Union formed "Great Britain." However, the nationalist streak in Scotland--heirs of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce--grew increasinly uncomfortable with this, and only in the last 10 years (in 2000, I believe), a Scottish Parliament was reconstituted. They then built a new, very un-medieval Parliament building--nothing like Westminster or the Canadian Parliament. By a Spanish architect Morales, I found it quite impressive, including the way it blended into the landscape of the area. After tea in the Parliament cafe, I went to the Scottish National Museum, made a quick stop back at the Lady Stair museum to pick up a souvenir edition of Burns' Collected Poems, then had about 30 minutes to see the Titians at the Scottish National Gallery before heading back to Waverly Station to catch the train back to York.

Edinburgh is often described as the "Athens of the North" because of its rich intellectual (and architectural) heritage. I was charmed by the city, and by the rugged terrain of Scotland--which got me thinking about those ancestors of mine who made their way to southern Ontario. What made them leave such charmed environs? Was it with regret and sadness? Perhaps anger or despair? Were they driven away? Or did they leave with exhiliration and hope? (Granted, the rigors of life in Banffshire are probably a long ways away from the delights and comforts I enjoyed in Edinburgh.) Were they as eager to leave Scotland as I was to leave Embro? Hard for me to imagine.

1 comment:

Matt, Lydia and Micah said...

i walked with you on your trip to edinbourgh, but matt and i were there 8 years ago on our honeymoon! we went to many of those same places and of course we even had to visit the hume building at the university. we spent the first 3 days of our honeymoon at a bed and breakfest across the street from the sir walter scott monument. it really was a charming city! glad that you had such a memorable last hoorah with your students. hope to see you in michigan when you get back.