Last Thursday, we journeyed to the west coast of Scotland… to a wedding. Once you are in Europe everything is pretty close, so it took us no time at all to get up to Edinburgh. From there, we rented a car and drove on the wrong side of the road up to an inn called Cromlix House. The place was made of dark granite and set in amongst the trees. From the outside, it looked like most other great Scottish houses – grim. It would have made a good reform school… or a place to keep the criminally insane. On the inside, it brightened up with Scottish tartans on the chairs… and tartan patterns on the carpet… and tartan skirts on the young girls who served dinner. There were so many conflicting tartans, it put us on edge. Each clan, of course, is supposed to have its own tartan… each with different colors and patterns. The Mackenzies, the MacDonalds, the Munros, the MacLoughlins… all in one room. If a MacFarlane had showed up in a plaid, we might have gone criminally insane too.
But the place was warm, the girls were delightful, and the food was hearty.
The next day, we drove for another three hours across Scotland until we saw the shimmering, shiny sea off the west coast, beyond Fort William. Our road wandered uphill and down… and followed the contours of the coast until we came upon the church – a Scottish Episcopal church, hidden in a glen. The church was also built of grey stone… but the dark stone was relieved by the uplifted roof and arched windows.
Most of the guests were already there when we arrived. About half the men wore kilts. A few wore them with sweaters or ordinary jackets. The others had short, ornate jackets of dark blue, with gold buttons… often with medals or other insignia on them. Women wore the same kind of dresses you’d find in any other part of the civilized world.
We sat down. A minute later, the bagpipes, played by two burly Scots, announced the arrival of the bride.
The priest wore a kilt too… hidden beneath his robe. He had an accent, but not a Scottish one. Instead, he had a London accent… a cockney accent. Later we discovered that he had come up from London to marry a Scottish woman and had lived in the area for 20 years. Now in his late 50s or 60s… he had worked at a number of occupations – including the military – before entering the clergy.
The church service was followed by a reception at another great house in the Scottish style – severe on the outside, warm and inviting in the interior. The house had once been a hunting lodge; it was recently renovated and is now available for rent. Antlers on the walls… paneled dining rooms and salons… overstuffed chairs around a large fireplace… more Scottish tartans… it would be a delightful place to take afternoon tea or murder someone.
The other guests were an interesting mix of old Scottish families and Americans. A mutual friend from Latin America was there; we discovered that his wife is related to other friends in Paris. It is a small world, sometimes. A couple from New Jersey… the bride’s family from Michigan… people up from London… the groom’s family from Aberdeenshire – it was a charming mix.
Dinner was served in a big tent. Speeches were made… toasts were offered… wedding cake was passed around.
“You can’t talk about it in this group,” said a Scot, now living in Italy, “but a lot of this Scottish stuff is not as ancient and venerable as we make out. A lot of it was invented in the 19th century. The tartans, for example. Yes, the Scots world colorful plaids… but they were rough fabrics colored by natural dyes. The intricately-colored plaids you see today – each one different for each different clan – were created, probably for tourists, in the Victorian era.
“And I’ll tell you something else… around here they will all talk about ‘going back to ’45’… they mean going back to the way things were in 1745, before the Scots were conquered by the English. But thank God Bonny Prince Charlie was beaten… or Scotland would be even more backward that it is now…”
And then, the band came in. A tall boy brought out chairs and began attaching electronic cables. Then, a short boy, who looked as though he couldn’t be more than 15, brought a bagpipe. And another boy, plump, round-faced, with straight black hair and a look of Fatty Arbuckle about him, carried in an accordion.
The tables were cleared away… the band started up… and the bride and groom took the floor. The band played traditional Scottish music. We might have expected it from a group of geezers, preserving the old ways. But this was a group of young lads – playing remarkably well.
“Oh… he’s a Macaulay,” explained a man in a kilt, talking about the bagpipe player. “The Macaulays have been playing the pipes for 600 years. That’s why he plays so well.”
“Now we must organize some reels…” said an attractive woman with dark hair and an English accent.
Your author has never been much of a dancer. But if he has one good quality, it is that he does not embarrass easily. He has danced the tango, the bosa nova, the hully gully, the twist, the funky chicken and the waltz. But until last week, he had never danced a Scottish reel.
A man in a kilt and a brown sweater took a young blond woman by the hand and showed us how to do it. They faced one another… swirled around, arm in arm… then, each turned to the next person in line…. saluted with a quick jerk of the feet and hips… and then swirled them around too… and so on up the line… whirling around with hands in the air and arms locked together.
It looked easy enough. But when the couple from New Jersey and the couple from Ouzilly set to it, the whole group soon fell into confusion.
We left the party after midnight. In the morning, we came down to breakfast and found a man in a kilt on the pool table. We took his pulse to make sure he was still alive. Another was taking his rest under the dining room table. Two feet poked out from under the table cloth.
“Make sure he’s still breathing,” said the woman who organized the dancing. A mischievous child kicked his foot. He groaned.
“Oh… it’s okay… let him sleep,” she said.
“After you left, the party really got going,” she explained.
An addendum from 6 September 2007
“You didn’t do a very good job of describing our trip to Scotland,” Elizabeth complained. “It was much more fun than you made it appear.”
She adds this note:
“The West Coast of Scotland is beautiful…majestic hills bare of trees, sweeping down into valleys of pastured sheep. Purple heather. The landscape is inviting in the sunshine, and most forbidding under storm clouds. The first day we saw much of the latter; then the sky cleared and on our return to Edinburgh we had a glorious drive through the region around Loch Lomond and the Trossach hills.
“We were there for a wedding at Kinlochmoidart on a peninsula looking into the Irish Sea. We stayed in a shabby little hotel overlooking a loch, very much like the lakes in Nova Scotia, with little islands on granite rocks rising out of the water, and surrounded by flickering birch and dark fir trees.
“The wedding was very pretty, in a small granite church at the end of a dirt lane. Lovely stained glass. The bride was ushered in to the music of bagpipes, and the service was the fine old 17th-century Church of Scotland (Episcopal) one with its emphasis on the sacred union of body and soul in the married state. The service is like good poetry: rich in imagery and concise in expression.
“The groom and most of the men in the small gathering wore kilts, and so did the priest, under his chasuble! He looked and sounded like a cheerful, robust London cab driver. In fact, he comes from London, and entered into the priesthood late in life…just a year or two ago. He gave a brisk and heartfelt homily, we sang some lovely old hymns, and then the couple was man and wife and off we all went to a gloriously gloomy Scottish hunting lodge for a reception and dinner.
“The dinner, in a tent, was followed by Scottish reels, and there was some reeling! The wine flowed freely and so did the rain, which leaked into the tent and got the dance floor very wet. But we slipped and spun with the best of them to ‘Strip the Willow’ and the ‘Auld 51st’ until the patterns got so complicated that we gave up and did some docy-doing to the general tempo.”
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