I finished my Beach Book last week while we were vacationing on Ocracoke Island. This year it was Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular historical fantasy-fiction book, Outlander. I’ve seen the first season and a half of the cable production—and it really is stunningly filmed and wonderfully acted—but had put off reading the book.
That it took me 27 years to read Outlander, first published in 1991, will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or much about my backstory. See, I kinda like Scotland. And the Scots. OK, more or less All Things Scottish. Unlike “anglophile” for England or “francophile” for France, there does not appear to be an assigned term for this in regard to Scotland. There is the word “scotophil,” but that’s a biological term meaning “something that lives and flourishes in darkness.” On the other hand, having Wintered Over in Scotland, this may be less off-the-mark than you’d initially think.
There are many things that explain my unnatural attachment to Scotland, perhaps the two most important being 1) a genealogically-crazed first cousin recently informed me that my Great x20 Grandfather is King Robert the Bruce, and 2) I met my wife, Kay-Kay, in Scotland, lo these many years ago, when we were university students at St. Andrews.
Since spending a year in Scotland as a student, I’ve lost count how many times we’ve been back. It has to be at least six or seven. We were close to being back later this week, since the annual Historical Novel Society meeting is outside Glasgow this year. Alas, we’ve been piling up the travel this year and Hard Decisions Had to Be Made.
My maiden arrival in Scotland back in the early autumn of 1980 was interesting. I’d met up with a group of about 40 students from my undergraduate college, Tulane, who were all coming over to study at various British universities and we toured around England for 10 days together. I remember we had two bus drivers the whole trip who we nicknamed Elwood and Jake. Also, our tour guide was a very cool retired guy named Nobby Clark. He wasn’t particularly knobby, as I recall, but he assured us the traditional nickname for anyone with the last name Clark was Nobby. I have never been able to confirm this, but chalk it up as one of those Peculiar Things Only English People Know.
Scottish universities started almost a fortnight after the English variety and I was the only person going to St. Andrews anyway, so I had some time on my hands to knock around alone. I left London and headed to Wales, where I was frightened by the regular spontaneous outbursts of choral singing in pubs by total strangers, so I quickly jumped a ferry to Cork. I figured that coming from a Big Irish Family would give me some entree and I felt safe in my knowledge that the Irish were nowhere near as good singers as the Welsh.
Once I got to Belfast, however, I was patted down at the train station and again on a bus going across town. This was at the beginning of Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes with The Troubles at their height, so I skedaddled for Larne and jumped a late ferry to Scotland.
I landed well after midnight with a belly full of duty-free beer, then jumped a shuttle bus to the train station. Let me set the scene. It’s 2:00 AM and it’s 1980. The only people inside the Glasgow Central station were a) old mumbling drunks, and b) young stumbling punks. I needed to get to Edinburgh, so I asked a few of the said drunks and/or punks when trains would start running again, where I could get tickets, etc. I could literally not understand a single word anyone was saying to me. Seriously. I started getting flashes of irrational fear that I’d mistakenly got on the ferry to Norway. It was only later I learned that the Glaswegian accent is derived from a combination of Orc and humpback whale.
I fled the station in terror and headed for the taxi stand out front. The first cab was driven by a Sikh guy in an orange turban, which was a huge relief because I figured he’d at least speak recognizable English. I jumped in and told him to take me to any hotel that had a room available since my parents’ AMEX was going to get me out of this jam.
I made it to Edinburgh and then out to St. Andrews the next day. There I settled into college life on the banks of the North Sea at a Very Old University founded in 1413, thus making it 79 years older than… America. And with a lot of peculiar traditions.
One of these involved a few sets of marble initials inlaid into the cobbles of the streets in the center of town. These marked the spots where the last Catholic bishop of St. Andrews had burned some annoying Protestant dissenters and it was considered very bad luck for any student to tread upon them, lest you fail your exams.
This turned out to be something of a theme at St. Andy’s—the Protestant thing, not the burning of people. At graduation, you kneel before the Principal and he mumbles some words in Latin or Greek or whatever—he mumbles, after all—then places a silk pouch on your head that contains the student cap that John Knox wore when he studied there. This would be before his followers shattered all the stained glass and chiseled off all the idolatrous images from the University Chapel. Oh, and also hung the aforementioned Catholic bishop from the walls of his own castle in town.
Another interesting tradition in the fall is what’s puzzlingly called Raisin Weekend—has something to do with 15th century students living on oatmeal and raisins, I think. There was a Meal Monday holiday in the spring, so maybe there’s something to that story. This involves your “adoption” by older students who become your “academic mother and father.” On Sunday night of Raisin Weekend, your father attends to you—and it always involves him making you Drink a Lot of Alcohol. My academic father, Colin, asked me quite nonchalantly if there were any drinks I didn’t like. I told him I’d gotten horribly sick on Guinness recently in Ireland and couldn’t abide even the smell of gin. He promptly began feeding me pints of Guinness and shots of gin. All night long. I was paralytic and Colin dragged me back to my dorm room by my belt.
The next morning, in a horribly hung-over state, we were required to muster at the quadrangle of my college, St. Salvator’s, dressed in whatever ridiculous costume one’s academic mum had devised. In my case, we were dressed as flagellants and roped in a line—my mum being a Medieval History major. Then all the upper class students got to pour, dump, rub, or throw whatever they wanted on us. In my case, this included molasses—or treacle, as they call it in Scotland—over my head, shaving cream in my face, and a pound or two of putrid fish entrails down my shirt. Good times.
All this said, I learned more in that year at St. Andy’s than the other three I spent at Tulane. Scottish universities are really very good at teaching undergrads, with a demanding curriculum and a lot of writing. We students, in groups of three or four, also had weekly tutorials with professors so you had to keep up and know your stuff. There was no way to duck lectures or put off reading until just before the final. In fact, the “finals” were known as degree exams and were given once, at the end of the academic year. You were on the hook for everything covered since Day One in your courses. Also, we had to wear a necktie and an academic gown to even be allowed to sit for these exams.
So much Scottish stuff, so little space. Guess I’ll save it for another blog post. Or maybe even more.