Who knew there were so many festivals in Scotland? A few years ago, my brother, son, and I took part in unique, fascinating celebrations all over that northern stretch of Great Britain in just two weeks.
Years before, when I was teaching in Guatemala, I took an end-of-year holiday jaunt around the British Isles with my son Adam, who was then in college in the States. A long day drive brought us to Edinburgh at dusk (it was dark for most of the short day in winter). Undaunted by the gray, dreary weather, we joined the spirited Hogmanay, a huge year-end festival with the highlight a crowded New Year’s Eve street party on Princes Street, closed to traffic. It was a joyous celebration with bands, bagpipers, street food, dancing in the streets, and fireworks on seven hills—three of them visible from where we were, with the grandest over Edinburgh Castle. At midnight, bagpipers played, we hugged strangers, shared a Scottish woman’s Drambuie, and sang Auld Lang Syne; the Scots know more verses than you’ve ever heard before. And then, the music: Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” pulls me right back there, holding on to each other so as not to get separated as we danced through the crowds. (Celebrate good times, yahoo!)
In the summer of 2017, I spent a week in Poland, participating in an English immersion week for Polish adults in remote Lipowy Most near the Belarus border. Most years, I volunteer to teach English or help build a house somewhere, followed by a few weeks of travel. My brother Herman in Toronto had just lost his wife to cancer, so I asked him if he wanted join me, and where would he like to go in Europe? Scotland, he answered with no hesitation; he and Norah had traveled there some years ago and he wanted to return. We rendezvoused at the Glasgow airport and hopped the metro to meet Adam, my frequent travelling partner, at a bar in town, where we shared a crock of mussels and ale, and then we were off and running.
There are many cities in the world that now echo the Fringe Festival, but Edinburgh is the original, enormous, fabulously creative, and unparalleled, with every kind of theater, art, music, magic shows, circus acts, comedy, and uncategorizable performance in venues large and small. We perused the thick month-long 70th anniversary catalog and caught a few of the scheduled events over three days, but mostly we spent hours cruising around the busy avenues to enjoy hundreds of street performers. The odder the better: two mime artists caressing shining bubbles in a fluid dance, a woman with a head covered with toilet paper rolls secured with duct tape, acrobats atop acrobats atop acrobats, a centaur whose human side wore medieval garb. And there was time for a few side explorations: Adam and I chose the Harry Potter cemetery walk, where J.K. Rowling borrowed many names from headstones; Herman and Adam took a whiskey tasting tour while I checked out craft booths.
Coming back through Glasgow, we hadn’t expected to find a festival until we heard the buzz all the way from Edinburgh. The International Bagpipe Festival was scheduled for the following weekend. We wouldn’t be there for the final competition (for which we would have had to purchase tickets and sit in stadium tiers), but during that week, bagpipe ensembles from the world over (who knew?) practiced in squares and parks, marching about, in uniform or out, happy to have impromptu listeners. Herman left us to revisit the People’s Museum history of the Glasgow working class; I wandered back to a shop for beautiful woven scarves; while Adam hustled across town to catch his favorite unannounced group, The Red Hot Chili Pipers. I arrived just as they had finished and were signing cds (so yes, I bought one and they were good!).
Making our way up the spectacularly scenic, rugged western coast of Scotland, there were so many interesting places to stop—here’s just a few. Tobermorey, a charming, colorful village on the Isle of Mull with cliffs overlooking the sea, was home to sheep and seals. We boated to Fingal’s Cave, where the echoing, crashing waves inspired Mendelssohn’s dramatic Hebrides Overture. We explored castle ruins on the Isle of Skye, packed with tourists, and looked for Nessy in the famous loch at Inverness.
Driving a zigzag route back south through the central countryside, we were just in time to catch the Highland Games taking place in small villages, soaked with rain and mud, but still the games were on! Attracting kilted participants both local and beyond, they featured such historic competitions as the caber toss (a huge telephone pole-like thing), the stone put (where they twirl around before letting go), tug-of-war (where many end up covered with mud), and highland dances (prancing lasses and laddies in traditional plaids).