Stonehaven

I’m home now, but I have a couple posts left to catch up on the final days of my trip. Here we go!

We woke up early on Saturday and took the train north to Stonehaven. I had my heart set on a true Scottish country walk, along the coastal trail from Stonehaven to Dunottar Castle. Kj had been dissuaded from attempting this walk by several folks at St Andrews, so she was hesitant, but I was determined. We were both so glad that we went! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
We walked into town from the train station, which is about a mile, stopping along the way to pick up sandwiches at a deli. I found my hotel, or rather, my inn, and went to check in. It was so legit that there was no front desk and no manager etc — it was rooms above a pub, and you got the key from the bartender. The room wasn’t ready yet as it was a bit early, so we left our bags behind the bar, ate our sandwiches, and went walking.
We walked up a hill out of the village, then along a wide path through rolling wheat fields to a war memorial high on the hillside overlooking the sea. We took a short detour to see it, and there was a piper piping inside (unfortunately a sub-par piper, but he was making a solid effort and wearing the full outfit so props for that). It was a really lovely memorial, built to look unfinished and with a poem writ large around the inside, paraphrased here: “One by one death challenged them/one by one they looked into his grim visage/and refused to be dismayed.”
Then we continued along this beautiful rolling coastal path, with amazing views, all the way to Dunottar castle. It was a bit of a walk and washed out in a few places, but perfectly wonderful and absolutely worthwhile. I took about a million pictures but of course none of them capture the rugged majesty of the place. I LOVED IT.
We reached the castle (past another piper) and explored the ruins for awhile. It was really great but lacked a lot of explanatory information… I was left with a lot of questions. Specifically, I had lots of questions about how the bread oven worked, but that’s just me… Kj had some more cultured, intelligent questions to ponder 🙂
Then we trekked back to town and I checked in to my room, which was adorable! It had a four-poster bed with curtains, and a shower with buttons (!) and a switch outside the bathroom door warning guests that they had to flip a big red switch if they wanted a hot shower. Whaaaaaaaaat?! There wasn’t any explanation of exactly how far in advance one should flip this switch, either — that part was left up to the imagination.
I dropped off my bags and we went back into town to have dinner, after I led us on a mad dash around town hunting for an open souvenir shop (with minor success and many thanks to a very tired Kj for humoring me). Next we stopped off at a fish & chips place proclaiming itself as the ‘birthplace of the deep-fried Mars Bar,’ which Brendan had told me I should try but which I’d sort of thought he was joking about. Anyway, we tried it, and it was… totally delicious. It was only good while hot and melty, but yeah… it was GOOD. Then we found a pub and had a meal and a drink and played Evil Pineapple until it was time for Kj to go catch her train home.
After we parted ways I went back to the hotel and relaxed for a few minutes, then went for a walk on the beach at dusk. I found a present for Christina, who had requested a bone, through sheer force of will (by walking along the rocky beach in the almost-dark with my eyes shut, saying “I need a bone for Christina” until it was time to stop, then opening my eyes, looking down, and picking up a bone off the beach). Then I walked back and settled in for the night, as I had to be up early the next day to catch a train…

 

Fringe, Day 2

Here’s the thing about Scotland.
As Kj and I walked around both St Andrews and Edinburgh, a frequent exchange was as follows:
Me: “Oooh, a castle! What is it?!”
Kj: “That’s a [chapel/church/bank/hotel/house/grocery store/pub].”
Me: “But…. HOW DOES EVERYTHING LOOK LIKE A CASTLE?!?!”
Then, finally, toward the very end of our stay in Edinburgh, Kj (possibly out of mild exasperation) hauled us to the top of a rise, and said: “Ok, stand here… now look through the trees… over to your left…. do you see it? THAT’S a castle.” To which I responded: “…OHHHHHHH. Ok. I see now. Big, isn’t it…”
Scotland, man. They’ve got castles just lying about the place.
We started our day with a visit to Yankee Candle Scotland, wherein I rediscovered my deep and abiding love for the lawnmower candle (I’m sure it has a more poetic name, but whatever, it smells wonderful) and then went to the Sir Walter Scott monument. It’s a really impressive monument, especially given that it’s to an author, as opposed to, say, a king or whatever. It was built by some unknown semi-amateur architect and fellow freemason of Scott’s (though much his junior), and includes a small museum as well as four balcony levels that you can climb up to, depending on your level of comfort with progressively tinier spiral staircases and dizzying heights. Obviously we went to the very top. One critic said that it looked like someone had plucked the spire off a Gothic cathedral and plunked it down in a park, which is a bit cruel but I must admit, quite accurate. We also saw a fire from the top, or at least a copious amount of smoke from one, so I had fun for a minute pretending to myself that I was a fire lookout in the olden days.
Then we had a bite to eat and went to our first show of the day: Menage a Trois, presented by National Theatre of Scotland at a venue called Paterson’s Land. It was a lovely, lovely piece of dance/ theatre by a dancer choreographer who dances with crutches and who used text (spoken and written) within a dance piece with absolute success. She collaborated with a video artist and that worked quite well. The piece was about a lonely girl on crutches imagining them as her lover, but feeling that she can’t be touched or loved etc, and eventually coming to terms with herself. That’s a fairly trite synopsis, and the show deserves much better… it was really good. The movement was excellent, the story was poignant, and the piece on the whole was, though very accessible, extremely well done.
Afterward I did a tiny bit of souvenir shopping, and then we went to high tea at a charming antique shop/teahouse called ‘Anteaques’ but it was so absolutely adorable that the name didn’t make me want to die. I had an excellent smoky tea that I recently discovered thanks to Brendan’s sweet Indian/Australian aunt Pam, and a scone with violet jelly and clotted cream, and a chocolate-covered earl grey biscuit, and a couple truffles. We drank our tea from an antique tea set amid Victorian furnishings and lamps and fur coats, and it was exquisite.
Then we went exploring a bit, and visited Grayfriars’ Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s an old abbey with the monks’ herb garden still intact (or recreated, I suppose) and a gorgeous cemetery, and a very moving grave for a famous dog that wouldn’t abandon his master’s grave and was buried nearby.
The next show on the books was our most mainstream attempt, from a theatre company called Wet Picnic. The show was a comedic theatre piece about death called ‘Death & Gardening’ though there were no references to gardening as far as we could tell. I think both our feelings on the show can be summed up by Kj’s initial comment, after a bemused silence between us that lasted for about a block after we left the theatre: “Well” she said, “there had to be one.”
Yep. It wasn’t terrible but it felt unfinished, and it came from a company that seems enthusiastic but young and perhaps slightly lacking direction.
Next we headed out to another pub for dinner: The Last Drop on a recommendation from my friend Rich. It was quite good, and I tried my third Islay whisky (the first was amazing, the second was a sweeter variety that I disliked, and this third was very good but not quite as good as the first). I also had my first Yorkshire Pudding (I think — the UK understanding of ‘pudding’ is deeply confusing). It was sort of a beef stew with a flaky pastry lid. It was pretty good but not something I’d eagerly search out again.
Then we went back to our favorite venue, Summerhall, for a third show in the autopsy room. This one was from a quartet of female dancers from all different countries, who had met at the Lecoque institute and began working together. They did a positively brilliant post-feminist (not a term I feel wholly comfortable with, but I think it fits) piece of surreal dance theater. We LOVED it. I’ll be very interested to see what they do next. It was fresh and invigorating and creative and technically excellent and… just great.
After that we had a little time to kill but not enough to venture far, so we sat on a corner of a model viking ship in the courtyard and played a few rounds of Evil Pineapple (a game we created together at The Garrison and that I’d brought with me). It was wonderful.
Finally we went to our last fringe show, also at Summerhall but in a different space — an upstairs room with an old wooden floor. The piece was by a Belgian company called Abattoir FermĂ© and it was the one I’d been most excited to see. As we walked in, we noticed that the first two rows were taped off and marked ‘reserved.’ Kj mentioned it and I answered, only semi-jokingly, that it probably wasn’t for audience members, but was the blood-spatter zone. I was close.
The performance was my favorite of the Fringe – 90-ish minutes of bizarre Belgian surrealist non-speaking theatre, lots of nudity, a bathtub full of water that, by the end of the piece had been variously colored and liberally sloshed out onto the stage (the fact of the ankle-deep onstage puddle we had to navigate on the way out still makes me shudder for the integrity of the building), and generally lots of weird shit. It reminded me a bit of Jan Fabre and a bit of Hey Girl! at OtB, and I would LOVE to see more work by the company. I got the impression that they’re quite established. IT WAS SO GOOD. Yaaaay Fringe!!!
At the end, we made our way back to the flat, I did my first and only load of actual laundry (as opposed to handwashing clothing in sinks with whatever soap/shampoo was handy) and we got ready for an early start the next day.

 

Fringe, Day 1

Apologies in advance if I get some of this out of order — Kj and I had a wild two days together in Edinburgh that included 4-5 pubs and 7 shows, with other attractions tucked in here and there. It was great!
We got up at a sane hour and went to pick up my “Arts Industry Professional” pass from the festival office, which was pretty awesome but conferred, as far as we could discover, no real benefits other than some street cred and once I was mistaken for another Arts Professional and I guess that’s cool. But still. TOTALLY LEGIT, YO!
We had stopped at an amazing Italian deli for sandwiches on the walk into the city center (our flat was lovely but it was on the outskirts of town), so we ate them in a park before attending our first Fringe show, at Summerhall (which instantly became our favorite venue) by a company called Dudendance. It was an AMAZING way to start our Fringe experience. We picked up our tickets and were directed out back, and told to look for the sign for the queue for the ‘Demonstration Room’. Turns out that was a 19th century autopsy room (though I think primarily for veterinary science as opposed to human dissection). We lined up in an area that looked like, as Kj put it, “the back lot of Sesame Street… I keep expecting Jim Henson to come around the corner.”
We were eventually beckoned into an antechamber with a legit abattoir by a masked figure, where we filed in awkwardly and watched ten minutes or so of dance with weird mutant organic costuming, then were beckoned into the main chamber. THE MAIN CHAMBER OF THE AUTOPSY DEMONSTRATION ROOM. It was rad. The audience was seated in high semi-circular wooden pew-like benches with the back of the pew in front of you serving as a shallow desk for note-taking. Our feet didn’t reach the floor. It was uncomfortable, but brilliantly so. We proceeded to watch 40 minutes or so of a post-apocalyptic dance investigation of the cycle of human violence, and it was VERY good. Then we were beckoned back into the antechamber, where we stood on raised rows and watched a mad scientist-type do a grotesque autopsy on another character. Kj viewed it (correctly, I believe) as the completion of an experiment on violence — the scientist dissecting his still-living subject to see what had happened to it. I, perhaps perversely, also saw a sort of Frankenstein/Pygmalion aspect, and had moments of wondering if he were trying to resurrect his damaged creature… but I tend to look for the positive side of things. Anyway, it was a really good show.
Then we decided to return later in the evening for a second show in the same venue, this time a multimedia puppet show entitled Feral by a company whose name escapes me at the moment. We wandered about a bit in between, I think we visited St Giles Cathedral at that point, which was great. I especially liked the way all the seating faces the center of the cross, rather than the altar, which I think is meant to show that the Word is central to that particular belief system? We also visited a bar where we played a game of Scrabble (she trounced me) and I had my first glass of Islay whisky after sampling a taste the previous night (more on that later).
At some point we also visited the museum (I think maybe the National Museum of Scotland or something), which was in this amazing Victorian building and totally great. It was arranged in sort of a cabinet-of-curiosities style, which worked really well for the time period and made it really fun to explore.
Anyway, then we saw Feral. It was stunningly constructed. Absolutely lovely. A team of four puppeteers, a video artist, and a sound artist (some Foley stuff, yay!) created this incredibly detailed world… they built it before our eyes, all out of paper, lit it expertly, and then filmed it live with two mini cameras which were projected on a screen above and mixed live by the video artist to create this seamless live film, but you could also watch everything happening below, including all the setup for the subsequent shot. It was beautifully, beautifully done. The story left a bit to be desired, which is a common issue I have with puppetry — I just find that, naturally, the best puppeteers aren’t necessarily playwrights, and could really benefit from working with one, or with a dramaturg, as they have a tendency (again, naturally) to get caught up in these incredible worlds they’ve created and show us excerpts from life there, without always forming it into a story that an outsider to the world will especially care about. Sometimes (and I realize this might seem offensive but I don’t mean it that way) it’s a bit like being taken by the hand by a small child and introduced, in great detail, to each one of their dolls. “This is Joey, he’s afraid of the dark so he has to sleep on my pillow, but Jill here gets jealous because then she has to sleep in the toy bin…” Anyway, story aside, it was brilliantly done and I would absolutely love to see more of their work.
Then we went to procure tickets to the last show of the night — I had walked by a poster earlier proclaiming that The Tiger Lilies were performing at the Fringe, so of course I had to go. We first had some food at a pie shop (meat pies, yum! I had a haggis pie with mashed potatoes — it was my first introduction to haggis and I found it to be delicious). Then we went to a pub called Library Bar, which was quite nice, and had a drink. Then we went to see The Tiger Lilies.
I’ve seen them twice before and they weren’t as good this time, unfortunately. The venue was small and mostly empty, and there were maybe five to ten other fans in attendance, plus some randoms who had wandered in for something to do. They also appeared to be working on some new material. It was fun to see them in a small space, though, and I was in the front row! Also when they did their encore they solicited requests from the crowd, and granted mine (“Gin”), which has never happened to me at a concert, so that was super exciting! And afterward I got to meet them and had my picture taken with them, which was fun 🙂
As mentioned earlier, today Kj introduced me to Islay whisky (‘Scotch’). I really dislike whisky and bourbon and brown liquor in general, so I expected to hate it… but, um, it’s AMAZING. It tastes like woodsmoke and campfires and the night on a Scottish moor and history and old leather and magical wardrobes that lead to impossible lands. It’s definitely a thing to take tiny tiny sips of, but the flavour is really quite wonderful.
Then we made our way home and got ready for the next day…

 

St Andrews

I got up super early to catch the train to St Andrews to meet Kj. I’m still not used to the simplicity/efficiency of train travel… I had asked my host the night before how early to arrive at the station: “is one hour early enough?” — she looked at me like I was crazy. “…five minutes is enough, maybe ten if you want to be certain…” “Oh.”
I got there 45 minutes early anyway, because it’s me, which meant that I had time to buy my ticket, find the pasty shop, buy a cheese & mushroom pasty (not the same as a pastRy!) that also contained, I think, potatoes and onions, and eat it in front of a bizarre monument that turned out to be for Sir Walter Scott.
Then I got on the train to Leuchars (a word that looks ugly on the page but is perfectly delightful when pronounced by a Scottish person) followed by a bus to St Andrews, where the lovely and wonderful Kj met me at the bus station. It was as if we’d just seen each other last week, as opposed to almost exactly a year ago… I think that’s the mark of a true friend: that you can see one another after an extended absence and pick up just where you left off.
She showed me all around St Andrews, which is a charming little hamlet (it might be slightly too large to be called a hamlet, but I’m going for it) with three streets: North Street, South Street, and Market Street. We saw some ruins, including a ruined cathedral; I went up a ruined church tower and looked all around; we went out to the pier and looked at the North Sea; explored the town; visited a surprisingly good little museum; played putt putt golf at the St Andrews course (I technically played golf at St Andrews! One of the first and most famous golf courses in the world!); and had dinner together in her ancient communal dining hall. Then we made our way to Edinburgh and settled in at our flat, to get ready to attack our Fringe experience. It was a beautiful day.

 

Edinburgh!

After a hustle through the train station in London (though I did find time to stop for trifle at Marks and Spencer), I was on the train to Edinburgh. It was a pleasant ride, lots of sheep and coastline. I arrived in Edinburgh around 5pm, and went looking for my homestay. The directions I was given were fairly clear, however they assumed you would leave the station through the front door, and what fun would that be? Assuming one could find the front door…? Anyway, I asked a construction worker where I might find Leith Walk (mispronouncing it of course), and he replied with something I can only approximate: “Well darlin, ye joost goe oot thar, past th’ pasty shop, oop th’ stair, toorn t’ ye left, goe a wee bit more, an’ ye’ll find Leith Walk joost thar.”
WELCOME TO SCOTLAND!
Sooooo I’ve discovered that my obsession with British television didn’t prepare me for being fully surrounded by an assortment of British accents in London. Some British accents are lovely, and most are charming in small doses, but some are a little grating and when they’re all around you, it loses some of the charm.
But.
Scottish accents.
It’s just the opposite: on screen/stage they tend to set my teeth on edge a tiny bit… but in person? SO LOVELY! I could quite happily be surrounded by thick Scottish brogues all day every day. I had to warn my fella that if a gentleman in a kilt (possibly with bagpipes [which, holy shit, BAGPIPES EVERYWHERE]) referred to me as a ‘bonnie lass’ I might never come home.
Fortunately for everyone involved, this didn’t happen…
Anyway, I eventually found my homestay (the fact that Scottish streets curve frequently, change names at approximately every other intersection [and then sometimes, but not always, change back], and are very casual about posting street signs in the first place made it a tiny bit challenging). I was greeted by my absolutely lovely bohemian host, who was like your favorite young Scottish aunt, and who gave me lots of helpful advice along with her tour of the apartment. Our room (for me and Kj, who was joining me the next day) was lovely – a platform bed for me and a cozy mattress on the floor for her). The building was approximately a million years old, but perfectly lovely — the entrance stairs in the hall were so worn that walking up them felt like being on the deck of a ship in high seas (I’m not exaggerating and I truly doubt that I could have navigated them if I were even slightly tipsy). When I left it took me about ten minutes to work up the courage to attempt to open the main entry door, which had a latching mechanism I’d never seen before that was opened by pressing a giant red button that looked for all the world like it would instantly summon the fire department and/or police while making loud siren sounds; in fact it just made a tiny click and opened the door. I didn’t dare press it until I’d checked every other possibility, though.
I asked my host for a recommendation on a place to get ‘proper fish & chips’ as I’d missed that in London, and then set off to explore.
I went up and down the Royal Mile, which is thick with souvenir shops and even thicker, during the Fringe, with all manner of street performers (trending heavily toward the magician/circus act variety), piles of off-street performers handing out flyers for their shows, and a zillion tourists/audience members tootling about more or less aimlessly.
A note on roving audiences: Edinburgh has, simultaneously, an international book festival, the Edinburgh International Festival (classical music, straight theatre, etc — self-consciously highbrow), and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is staggeringly enormous and encompasses every type of performing art (and is approx 50% stand-up comedy). So the massive crowds roaming around this not-so-massive city are… eclectic.
Then I sought out authentic fish & chips (“garden peas or mushy peas?” “ummm… garden?”). It was quite tasty, though definitely not something to eat every day. I ordered a side of bread & butter without thinking about it, though (and having freshly come from Paris…), and was surprised when it arrived — one slice of white sandwich bread with butter. Ha!
Then I went back and settled in to prepare for an early morning departure to visit and fetch Kj in St Andrews.