Thursday, July 15, 2010

Scotland and Northern Ireland

Last week I mentioned that we took a Loch Ness cruise. The portion of the loch we viewed was mostly undeveloped, consisting of green hillsides with few buildings. The trees grow right down to the water in many places, so there's no bank in a practical sense. Filker Dr. Jane Robinson's song about the Loch Ness Monster, I found, contains truth in advertising where she sings:

"Twenty-four miles by one short mile, and a hundred fathoms deep;
There's jagged rock at the bottom of the loch, and the water is thick with peat."

While I can't testify to the rocks at the bottom, we observed firsthand how the peat washing down from the shore turns the water almost black. It's not hard to imagine mysterious beasts hiding under the surface. Unfortunately, from what little I've read on the "sightings," the evidence for their existence seems sparse and dubious. It's a big lake but still a limited space to conceal a viable breeding population of large animals.

My favorite part of the stop in Edinburgh was an underground ghost tour. Many of the old streets in that city have been covered over, producing subterranean tunnels. The owner of a pub where the tour ends (with complimentary shortbread and a shot of whiskey) leases a stretch of the underground streets and offers the tours. The experience began with a room where medieval torture instruments (mostly claimed to be authentic, except for the perishable items made of rope or leather, which are replicas) were displayed behind glass. I kept my mouth shut about the chastity belt, having heard that its abuses have been much exaggerated in popular lore. (I've read that the device served more often to protect the lady from rape in case of an attack on the castle, rather than a forceful guarantee of her virtue, and she often kept the key herself.) Then, on to the underground streets and chambers. Definitely creepy. Aside from faint, blue emergency lights at regular intervals, the area wasn't "improved" at all. Because the structures consist mostly of limestone, water seeps in, creating puddles on the stone floors. My most immediate fear was of not of ghosts but of falling, since the guide's flashlight supplied the only source of light besides the emergency lamps. She dressed in Goth fashion and appeared quite earnest about her belief in the restless dead who supposedly haunt the tunnels. The area does contain one "improved" section, a Wiccan temple in current use, which has a gate to protect it from tourists. The guide showed us a chamber where the group used to hold services but abandoned it because of evil forces, now trapped within a protective stone circle. After mentioning scary incidents that had happened when people dared to step within the circle, she asked whether anyone in the group wanted to try. Naturally, not even the one person who'd claimed skepticism about the supernatural didn't make a move. I was tempted, but the trespass would have seemed rude, given the guide's apparently genuine fear (unless she was an excellent actress). Anyway, why take chances? :)

In past centuries homeless people lived down there, preyed upon by criminals who knew the police wouldn't enter the tunnels to interfere. The guide showed us the supposedly most haunted room, infested by poltergeists resulting from an episode when a large group of people, including women and children, died from being trapped in the room by a fire.

The second part of the trip took us to Northern Ireland. One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, grew up in Belfast, but his family's home and church lay too far outside the city center for a visit. On the bus tour I did get a distant glimpse of Campbell College, where he and his brother attended briefly. I also got to see, if only for a minute from the bus window, a statue of Lewis standing outside an open wardrobe, emblematic of his classic THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE.

The walking tour of Derry (otherwise known as Londonderry) was emotionally wrenching, because the guide's deep feelings about the years of the Troubles came across so strongly. While checking the date of "Bloody Sunday" on Wikipedia, I discovered about a dozen entries by that title, three of them in Ireland. The event commemorated in Derry occurred on January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers shot into a crowd of demonstrators, wounding many and killing fourteen. This incident brought to mind our own civil rights movement occurring at the same period. In Ulster, however, the protests were on behalf of Catholic citizens deprived of housing and jobs by the Protestant majority. Coincidentally, on June 15 of this very year, shortly before our group arrived, a government inquiry finally came to the conclusion that the demonstrators were peaceful and the troops completely unjustified in shooting them. The British government apologized, and some surviving family members of victims expressed forgiveness. The guide showed us a memorial as well as political murals painted on the sides of buildings, which make the events of almost forty years ago seem very immediate.

It occurred to me once again that the most bitter hostility doesn't tend to exist between groups that are distant and very different. The most implacable hatreds on our planet seem to spring up between people who live as close neighbors and, to outsiders, look almost alike—French and English during the Napoleonic War era, French and Germans in the two World Wars, Israelis and Palestinians, branches of the same family in the border states of the U.S. during our Civil War, the Hatfields and the McCoys—and the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in Ulster. Our group was privileged to visit Derry at the moment of what the guide described as almost a miracle of reconciliation in the history of his home town. I was sad to read in the news about the violence that happened just a couple of days ago during the annual Orange Order march in Belfast.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. You're right, it's the close neighbors who lock into mutual hatred.

    Now why is that and what would have to be different to make it otherwise?

    We have the word xenophobia - FEAR of strangers. But hatred of strangers?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. It is an odd dichotomy isn't it?

    My niece would be so jealous. She says she's moving to Scotland to search for Nessie when she's old enough.