Journey to Scotland

Part V: Arbroath
Plus a Second Chance at Edinburgh

a travelzine by Diann

(Copyright 1996. Please do not reprint without permission.)


Webpage highlights:
Arbroath -

Edinburgh -

August 19, 1995:

I'm on the train from Glasgow to Arbroath, not pronounced as one would think. It drizzled last night; the concierge thought the day would brighten. I suspect eventually, but right now it is raining again. We just left Stirling. They come around with a hot and cold beverage cart -- I noticed even at this wee hour (before nine) beer was on the cart. Possibly those airline-sized bottles of whisky were as well. (Didn't ask, but discovered on a future venture that these were indeed also available.)

Arbroath was wonderful -- definitely a highlight of this trip. It's a coastal town on the eastern shoreline, on the way to Aberdeen.

Arrived in fog -- that ol' Scotch Mist -- a fog more offshore and in the distance than immediately upon us. The smell of the ocean -- now, that was immediate. Fishermen and gulls. I exited the train, and followed the directions down narrow streets to the ubiquitous information centre. There were fewer tourists here than most of the places I've visited so far. I got information, and a recommendation for a good place for lunch, then set out to explore. The landscape is much less flat than Edinburgh (not difficult), but hillier than Ayr.

My wanderings took me down first to the ocean and the harbor, where the tide was low (in retrospect, the tide was always apparently low in Scotland, whenever I saw the ocean), passing several "smokies" establishments along the way. They permeated the air with the pungent aroma of smoked fish. Mainly haddock, I later discovered, although they smoked other fish as well.

The Arbroath Museum is situated right at the harbor, in the lighthouse. Now, it houses a slice or two of life from an earlier Arbroath. Much of early Scots life (medieval and through the early industrial revolution) was centered heavily on fishing -- in some ways, it still is, but the fishing life is now both easier and pursued by less folks than at the earlier times.

A fisherwoman's life in old Arbroath was rough -- it was she who smoked the fish, baited the hooks for the nets, put the boats in the water -- and carried her menfolk onto the boats on her back so they wouldn't start out the day wet. Not that the men had it much easier -- they had to fish, repair nets, hooks, and sails. The museum calculated hours spent on each of these tasks in an average week -- amazing they had time to do anything else. Fisher folks were subject to many superstitions -- notes I made refer to a few terms they used, never calling a pig a pig, but rather a "curly tail". Rabbits and hares were always "maukins", rats were "long tails", and ministers were "men in black coats". To speak otherwise was bad luck.

During the Industrial Revolution there was a strong flax weaving industry.

As I arrived at the museum, the skies let out with a good rain, and so it was quite convenient to wander inside awhile. The rain was soon over, and the day slowly brightened.

Afterwards, I wandered the shoreline a bit, and then found lunch -- excellent! I was steered well. The place was deceptively named "The Old Brewhouse", and while they probably brew up a storm (I didn't sample), it gives short shrift to the excellent food they serve. I ordered haggis eggs appetizer (which came with a bogus story about hunting the haggis and collecting the eggs -- anyhow the haggis, which is a collection of spiced and ground sheep innards, was placed in circular mounds in a small egg carton, complete with a Drambuie cream dip. Very tasty. And I ordered the town specialty, a smokie -- a warmed smoked haddock served with lemon butter. Again, very tasty.

I walked up to the Arbroath Abbey, an impressive set of ruins which tower over the landscape even in their essentially-demolished remainders. Originally, the abbey was evidently a third again as tall, well dwarfing everything in sight.

Meanwhile, time has left its mark -- that and a few centuries of neglect in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. One of the few structures pretty much intact was the Abbott's house, which had been used for various purposes up into the last century. I explored that -- climbing around old stone structures is one of my secret pleasures.

Out in the grasses which now substituted for the floor of the Abbey proper, people had been setting up folding chairs. As I'd been exploring, a small brass band had seated themselves there, and had begun practicing. While coming out of the Abbott's house, I heard the sound of approaching bagpipes, up from the harbor area. Now, the Information Centre had told me there was to be a parade this day to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of VJ day. I'd thought at the time, maybe, perhaps I'd check it out, but it was of little concern to me. I'm really not all that interested in parades.

Now, here it was, coming.

I left the Abbott's, and walked over to the end of the grounds, which was higher than street level. A simple iron fence separated me from the sidewalk and street below. Up High Street, coming directly at me, was a parade led by bagpipers. Townsfolk and others lined the street. I realized I had a perfect ringside seat for the parade. A few other visitors to the abbey joined me.

They marched up, turned, marched along the border of the grounds. then entered the abbey grounds. There was something intrinsically powerful about all this -- a moment of time, captured. The past, the far past, and the present, conjoining. A patriotic impulse, but joined to these Scotsmen, who were here to honor the victory of the past. It was very moving, very meaningful. And not something I'd thought I'd ever get out of a parade.

Too, I'd always thought that the Pacific arena of WWII was something more of concern to Americans than to Europeans. But history books, if for no other reason than the sheer swamping amounts of information they need to sift through and incorporate, are not necessarily complete. Anyhow, I had to go to Scotland to feel this kind of thing, and it feels very hard to explain adequately.

I left before the ceremony in the open-air abbey with its desolate and isolated standing fragments of wall. My next destination had been the chapel at St. Vigeans and the Pictish stones, and I didn't want to get there as it closed -- especially since I didn't know what time that would be.

I'd been told it was but a mile's trip. Damn long mile, I'd say. More like three. At least, it was mostly a gradual upgrade, which meant I'd have a pleasant downgrade to look forward to on my return.

Had fun examining the architecture of the houses along the way. Reached the road by St. V., which became a sharper downslope, and winded through a much less populated area. I could see St. V. in the distance.

Turned left, and crossed under the railroad tracks, then came out at St. V. St. Vigeans is built up on a mound, and the church itself has been rebuilt many times over the last fourteen some hundred years. Tombstones bristled out of the yard. I climbed up, looked around, admired the scenery. Walked around to enter the church, but was informed that there was a wedding in progress. It would last only ten more minutes, the bagpipe-laden piper informed me.

I asked about the Pictish stones, and was directed to a cottage below.

There were directions -- one had to pick up the key from the key holder in cottage 7. Easy enough; an older very thin man handed them over to me. I entered, and had the stones to myself. The Pictish stones are mostly early Christian-with-pagan-influences in origin. Originally, they'd been built into the church during it's several incarnations; the masons had just grabbed any handy stone and plugged it in wherever it would fit. The stones date from the 5th and 6th century AD. I found them to be rather impressive. (As I never rented a car during my trip, I never got to see some of the ancient carved stones which remain out in farmers' fields. Alas.)

St. V. was locked up when I came out -- I'd heard the piper leading the wedding party away to their Bentleys. Evidently, shortly after a couple other waiting tourists had poked their heads in the church (who evidently hadn't been interested in Pictish stones), they'd closed it for the day. Some of the wedding party was still conversing on the street when I came out, so it wasn't that incredibly long a visit.

Walked back from St. Vigeans', and had an excellent meal at the India Cottage close to the train station -- some type of inexpensive and tasty lamb dish over one of the Indian breads. I was their first customer (other than take-out) of the evening. I talked with two pleasant Indian waiters, one up from Manchester for a few days about three months ago, and he had no real plans to go back.

When I first arrived, the sound system was playing some middle- Eastern chanting of some sort. They switched it over to some pop. When one of the waiters asked me if he should turn the volume down, I suggested he go back to the Indian music instead. He informed me that what had been originally playing wasn't exactly native Indian music, but chanting from the Koran, and that it was how they rested and prayed as they got ready for work. He then switched over to a more traditional Indian cassette.

I caught the train back to Glasgow, and took a cab to the hotel.

August 20th:

The next morning was the 20th -- I finally discovered the stash of shortbread in the container with the teas and coffees on the sideboard in the hotel room. Damn, I'd missed out all week! Wasn't hungry then, so I hid it away in speculation that more would magically appear during the day, and went to Edinburgh again. This time, to catch a few plays and such at the Fringe Festival. I took the train this time, with a couple kilt-clad Scotsmen in adjoining seats.

I saw: _Six Characters in Search of an Author_, a play of 1924 vintage -- sort of good, but could have been stronger with better acting. _Abigail's Party_ -- excellent character study with humor, revolving around a cocktail party. And Circus, an okay musical act that was British rock but not half as innovative as its advertising had indicated. There were one or two other plays I wanted to see but missed because they'd been sold out. I also missed the Boys of the Lough, an Irish folk band whom I like, for the same reason.

I listened to a few street fiddlers and bagpipers as well.

Dinner was at Wee Wiggans (sp?), where I spent a bit too much money on tasty smoked trout and some entree with crab meat. Here I met another woman from America traveling alone who was also planning on attending the convention.

And back to the hotel, eventually.

Diann's Scotland Page | London | Glasgow | Edinburgh | Ayr | Arbroath | Highlands-1 | Highlands-2 | Intersection | Cuisine

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 1996