May 21, 2006

Scotland, Day 2, Evening at the Abbey

Q. Shenaynay

(click photos to enlarge)

Before we dive into the evening of Day 2, a bit of background and context is in order. (You all know how we love context.)

In the months before the trip, we received, through our membership in an international organization of the Bruce clan, some sketchy news that some sort of event was being planned in Scotland for the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's coronation as king of Scotland. We had no idea what to expect, but we were happy to at least have a concrete date to plan around.

We envisioned a few Americans clustered on the back row watching the kilted bigwigs do their ceremonial thing from a distance, and figured we would be touring around Scotland on our own.


Enter Lord Elgin, the British nobleman who is also Chief of the Bruce clan.

(A little cultural aside: Lord Elgin is a hereditary British title which for centuries has been passed on from father to eldest son. This current Lord Elgin's given name is Andrew Bruce, though nobody but close family calls him that, it would appear.)

We were to learn later that Lord Elgin had been looking forward to overseeing this celebration ever since he was a young lad, and had been for some time happily arranging exclusive celebrations specifically for Bruces coming to Scotland from abroad.

Out of the blue we received a letter from him, on very hoo-hoo stationery, welcoming us -- yes, us, your lowly Beehive buddies -- to Scotland. Huh.

Soon a second letter arrived, peppered with very proper sounding phrases advising us of "events definitely arranged" and offering helpful tidbits on proper dress, like this spiffy little quote which immediately worked its way into common Beehive lingo: "You will never go far wrong with smart casual." Oh, and the very kind and thoughtful tip that "the locals will favor tweeds." (Please do hear these in a droll British accent.)

There were also passing mentions of mysterious happenings such as "a medieval feast among friends at Scone Palace" and "a private supper at Broomhall" exclusively for Bruces visiting from abroad.

Huh. We began to get a little tingly. We stuck the letters on the fridge like good Americans, so our friends could gawk at them with us. We began to wonder what we were in for. We began to realize our suitcases were too small to carry all that Smart Casual stuff we wouldn't go far wrong wearing.

So, in a mildly tizzyish state we began to shop for larger luggage on the cheap, and combing the uppity consignment stores in the uppity parts of town for uppity Smart Casual Getups Such as One Might Wear to Broomhall... whatever that might turn out to be.

A particular variety of shriek began to punctuate the Beehive atmosphere:

"Mamadah, can I borrow your nice brown heels?"
( well... oh alright.)
"Mamadah, where are my pearls?""
(Wherever you put them!)
"Mamadah, is blue velvet okay in late March?"
(I would think so if the locals are wearing tweed...!)
"Mamadah, we neeeeed to just skip school and go shopping!"
(Do I have to be a grownup today?)

~Et cetera~

So when we checked into our hotel in Dooon-FERRRM-lin (see Day 1), there was yet another letter from Lord Elgin awaiting us at the front desk. It said, among other things, "Your arranged transport will arrive at 6:30 tomorrow evening."

Arranged transport. Oh, how sweet it is! No dark and rainy night in the Peugeot deathtrap... Jesus loves me, this I know.

"Wait! What?? LORD ELGIN is sending us ARRANGED TRANSPORT???"

The letter also informed that we would be conveyed to "an evening of story and song at Dunfermline Abbey" with a "hot buffet to follow at Abbot House." Alrighty then. We had no idea what any of that actually meant, but baby, we had our Smart Casual and we were ready for anything. Arranged transport... oh yeah.

So after our day in Stirling and Bannockburn, we hurried back to the hotel as daylight faded, and dressed for the evening in a great ditherish flurry. We dashed to the lobby. A small cadre of assorted Bruces from Canada and the US were gathered there, all waiting to experience the phenomena of having nobility send for you via arranged transport. The buzz was palpable.

And then The Bus arrived. A huge bus. A towering white luxury tour bus with plush smushy seats and mood lighting and piped in Scottish music. A rock star bus. Huh.

The dapper chauffeur whipped that rig through tiny cobblestone streets and swirled through roundabouts like he was waltzing with Ginger Rogers. Great Scot felt waves of awe. We mostly felt relieved.

In mere moments we were at Abbot House, a warmly lit pink stone structure. The glowing windows spilled small hints of the cheery voices and medieval balladry lilting along within. In the dark sky, the shadowy outline of the immense abbey levitated like a spectre just beyond the glowing pink stones.

(This shot of the corner of Abbot House was taken from the bus window. I like it the blurry quality, actually -- it sort of captures how it feels in my memory.)

And then an amazing evening began.

Abbot House has been so many things since medieval times that it is rather hard to define. Situated adjacent to Dunfermline Abbey, it is the oldest house in the whole region. It has been not only an Abbot's home, but also a laird's mansion, an iron foundry, an art school and even a doctor's surgery. Arms for Bruce's soldiers were made in the foundry. A few years ago it re-opened as a historical center, chock full of exhibits, Scottish art and historical relics.

Lord Elgin had invited about fifty Bruces who had travelled to Scotland from abroad for the commemoration, in addition to his family and a handful of his close friends -mostly heads of other clans. We had sort of anticipated being lost in a crowd at this event, so we were pleasantly surprised by how intimate a gathering it turned out to be.

We were greeted at the door by a medieval jester playing a lute, who paused to kiss our hands and flirt with the girls. All around us the Scottish accents were running thick, and beautiful old Scots wearing lush, heathered tweeds were sipping small glasses of scotch served straight up.

The Scots are at once dignified and jolly at heart. Their faces are full of stories. We felt at ease with them much more quickly than we expected to. They greeted us like long-lost kinsmen -- so hospitable that it took us by surprise. We foreign travellers were clearly the honored guests of the evening, which none of us had anticipated.

We meandered through the seemingly endless maze of intimate rooms of the old house for a half hour or so, making introductions, getting acquainted and just generally gawking at everything. Our ears began to settle into the tune of the Scottish voice.

By the time all our party had gathered, it was dark and had begun to rain. A sturdy grey-haired woman from the historical society appeared at my elbow and melodiously offered to escort our family over to the Abbey. We couldn't fathom why we needed an escort until we found ourselves traversing in complete darkness through an ancient cemetery. Oh, and to add to the effect, rain had begun to fall in heavy drizzles, giving the atmosphere a misty pall. Fabulously creepy. We ducked around mossy headstones sans umbrellas -- again, these people don't pay much notice to the weather.

(For future reference, in case you should ever need to know, the local tweed resists raindrops better than velvet does.)

A few minutes later the huge wooden doors of Dunfermline Abbey -- doors older than America -- creaked open into the Medieval Nave, a cavernous stone space with soaring columns that upheld ceilings all but concealed in darkness. Essentially, we were in a crypt.

We wandered around reading tomb inscriptions and trying to absorb the idea of being in an edifice that has a history dating back to the 800's. Umm hello, that's before the Battle of Hastings. Our brains were wobbling.

Dunfermline Abbey oversees the city from its highest point and defines its horizon. It is ancient in a way that an American mind can scarcely calculate, and yet the sanctuary is still fully in use. Here in the states, we would probably have yanked it down long ago and replaced it with a technologically viable modern box made of faux stone, built to last a couple of decades. Over there, they revel in their oldness. It's comfortable and comforting to them.

We then stepped up into the Memorial Chapel -- which is just gorgeous. (For more photos of this chapel, go to that link for the Abbey, above.)

We knew beforehand that Robert the Bruce was buried beneath the floor somewhere inside Dunfermline Abbey in 1352, but what we didn't know is that his tomb is front and center in the sanctuary, right under the elevated pulpit of ornately carved wood. (Many other Bruces are buried in the transept area, in tombs adorned with marble sculptures and such.) The top of King Robert's tomb is red marble from the tomb of Constantine, if I heard correctly, inlaid with gold.

Lord Elgin related to the gathered Bruces that when Robert's body was exhumed in a chapel renovation in 1898, Queen Victoria told his grandfather - who was, of course, the Lord Elgin of that day - that she thought a huge equestrian statue would be most appropriate for Robert's burial site. But he didn't think that was quite fitting for a Scottish cathedral, and designed the tomb as it is today. I'm guessing it took a considerable amount of pluck to disregard Queen Victoria's wishes, but hey, he was a Bruce... er, I mean, a Scot.

The newspaper took pictures of all the assembled Bruces gathered around the tomb, and then it was time to settle into the ancient pews for the evening of story and song. The performance was first-rate -- a group of superb celtic musicians presented the history of Scotland through storytelling and folk songs right in front of the tomb in the darkened abbey. Words cannot convey the coolness quotient here. The atmospherics were just out of control. It was simply fabulous.

We then journeyed back across the dark cemetery to Abbot House again.

I held the camera up behind me and snapped this shot without even looking because we were running in the rain. It's a side door of the abbey; you can see the raindrops!

There we were treated to a wonderful buffet of Scottish salmon and venison, served with the obligatory root vegetables which the Brits consume at practically every meal. Tea followed, served with shortbread and something luscious called Border Cake -- a tart of dried fruits baked to perfection and ladled with heavy cream. Yet another duo entertained us as we dined - on Scottish fiddle and some sort of indigenous drums. Heavenly. We roamed around the exhibits for another lovely hour or more, and chatted up lots of nobles who, by now, were calling us "cuz."

Finally the rock star bus came rolling round to fetch us back to the hotel, where we had a precious few hours to sleep before Lord Elgin would send The Bus around for us again early the next morning...

but that will be the story of Day 3, coming up next... which was without a doubt the most amazing day of the whole trip.


mess o' greens said...

Bravo! What delicious wonderment!

Thanks for posting again. We'll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment!

Karen G. said...

"a door older than America"--Europe makes me feel that way, too.

And what is this about Day 3??? I thought this was still day 2?

Keep 'em coming--this is almost as good as going with you!

Lynn Bruce said...

This post was about day 2... the wording was just a little unclear. Day 3 is on its way!

Androphenese said...

scrumptious, to say the least...

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band said...

Hey, can I say "wow" and not be considered base and uncouth? it is, after all, an understatement of the century.

M. Ivanolix said...

Wonderful story! Was Lord Elgin's title any way related to the famous Elgin Marbles?

Great Scot said...

The Elgin Marbles are named after the the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who bought them and brought them to England in the early 1800s. The Lord Elgin that we met is the 11th Earl of Elgin.

Mama Squirrel said...

Around here we are more familiar with the 8th Earl of Elgin:, Governer-General of the "Province of Canada" from 1847–1854. (That was before Canada was really a country.) Bruce County, Ontario (where my parents live, on Lake Huron) was named for him, along with the towns of Port Elgin and Kincardine.

So there, you're all famous here.

Mama Squirrel said...

Oops, I CAN spell governor.