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Moss mottled the walls. Fissures branched like forked lightning across damp masonry which the rusting iron clamps tried to hold together, and buttresses of brick shored up the perilously leaning walls…

-Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

(This is Part 2 in a series of posts that are a “virtual journal” of my recent month living in Edinburgh, Scotland. What was meant to be a six month working sabbatical unfortunately became a mere month’s glimpse of what life in Scotland could be for me. It did, however, leave me with weeks to wander cobblestone streets, windswept sea cliffs, crumbling ruins, and snow covered glens.)

What an odd thing it is, when you have spent almost a dozen years working full time in a stressful profession, to suddenly find yourself with weeks of freedom…no responsibilities, no schedule, no pager, no one to answer to except yourself. I needed to be mindful of my budget, but beyond that, I was free to see where bus schedules, train timetables, and my own curiosity could take me.

I had a few ideas…places left unseen from previous trips, recommendations from friends, highlighted notes from dog-eared travel guides, various Christmas related events, socializing with friends, etc. I had also decided to visit a few of the more obscure Outlander filming locations, and….I had the self imposed “Castles and Cakes” challenge.

Ah, those last two may need a bit more explanation…

To the uninitiated, (and anyone from the UK who, as of this writing, still have no access to it), Outlander is a television series based on the eight book series by author Diana Gabaldon. It is the story of Claire, a WWII nurse who “falls through time” after touching standing stones and finds herself in 1743, in the years and events leading up to Culloden. She meets a Highlander named Jamie…a man who, to be fair to the male population everywhere, could truly exist only on the written page. What follows is the story of Claire and Jamie, but also the story of Scotland in the last Jacobite uprising, and a chronicle of the daily life and landscape of the Highlands in the mid 18th century. I am a big fan of good historical fiction, and this is good historical fiction. This isn’t a paperback romance in a historical setting. This is an immersion into a meticulously researched world populated by incredibly lifelike characters whom you come to care about as if they were actual people. Screen translations of these types of novels are typically a disappointment. The order appeared appeared particularly tall in this case…to hit all the points…historical accuracy, convincing sets and costumes, regional dialects (and Scottish Gaelic dialogue!), incorporating the landscape as an actual character, and finding actors who could convincingly bring two larger than life characters to actual life…ah, good luck! Oh, and there is an absolutely rabid fan base.

And yet…what producer Ron Moore, author Diana Gabaldon, actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe, etc have created is something that they, fans of the series, and the people of Scotland can all be proud of. It is being lovingly and delicately adapted, and beautifully filmed in Scotland, with Scottish set locations, mostly Scottish (or Irish) actors, and with amazing attention to every last detail in speech, costume, music, set decoration,etc.

Enough said! There are a number of blogs out there about Outlander…I just wanted to explain what it is and why it will be referenced occasionally here at the Selkie. Watching the series has put me on the path of a few historical sites that had been a bit more obscure (Though I think their time to shine has arrived, thanks to Jamie and Claire!) As a self professed “history geek” and lover of the outdoors, I always make historical and natural sites priorities on my itinerary. As a result, I’ve visited many of the filming inspirations and locations on prior trips, before the series had even started…Glencoe, Clava Cairns, Culloden, Doune Castle, etc. This time, I had hoped to visit a few of the other set locations…yes, to see them as a fan, but more importantly, to experience them as the places they actually are: how they exist in the landscape, and to appreciate their role in history. (Ok, confession: I *may* have also pictured myself in costume, rubbing elbows with the wonderfully talented Heughan and Balfe, and creating a sidekick charcter for myself..oh heck, nah…I was Claire! Any female fan would want to be Claire…)

And Castles and Cakes? Well, that was just a fun little project I created for myself! I’d try to see how many castles I could easily visit from my Edinburgh base, and how many cakes/bakes I could sample along the way. I had several friends following my progress on Facebook, and I think they expected a much larger version of me to return to the States! Fortunately, I walked everywhere I could! I thought of it as a celebration of my once glorious metabolism, which, at the age of 39, is noticeably beginning to slow down…

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My first weekend living in Edinburgh happened to coincide with St Andrews Day. In recognition of the holiday, Historic Scotland is generous enough to provide free tickets to any of it’s maintained sites. I decided to spend the day in the shadow of heroes and queens…

Blackness Castle is a 15th century fortress on the shores of the Firth of Forth, not far from Edinburgh. Known as “the ship that never sailed” because of its location and the resemblance of its angled walls to the bow of a ship, it served as the seaport of the burgh of Linlithgow during the medieval period. The Historic Scotland website refers to it as a “dour” presence, a “brute mass of masonry”- perhaps partly due to its history as a garrison fortress, state prison, and artillery fortification. This stark impression of strength may also be why it is such an effective stand in for the Fort William location in the Outlander series. Our heroes Jamie and Claire have some rather…unfortunate…experiences at Fort William in the series. I’ll leave it with that, so as not to ruin the story for anyone not familiar with the plot. (All that remains of the actual fort in the town of Fort William in the highlands is a series of grass capped earthenworks next to the train station and Morrisons grocery. Not a very captivating film location…)

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It was exactly the “dour” appearance of Blackness Castle that I found so beautiful. It was a misty, foggy morning and I was one of the only visitors at the time. The Forth Rail Bridge was obscured by fog, the lane leading to the castle and the surrounding fields and shoreline were silent. Moss covered stone, damp courtyard, the crevices and corners themselves filled with Blackness….the whole place seemed suspended in grey. And yet, I found the place strangely beautiful…the water’s edge just beyond, the rolling fields behind, the stone walls softened and smoothed with time rising all around me…

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As I left the castle grounds, I saw a narrow path leading up a small hill. It lead to stone foundations and then down to muddy flats along the shore of the Forth. Shore birds busily took advantage of the low tide, and the sun creeped out just enough to cast a glimmer on the wet silt. I wandered down the lane leading back to the tiny village of Blackness and continued down the walking path that was bordered on one side by the peaceful scene of a hedgerow and crumbling stone wall enclosing gnarled fruit trees and sheep, and the more wild seascape scene on the other side. It was lovely. It may sound odd, but if it had been a bright, sunny morning and the village and castle alive with people, I don’t know that I would have had the same experience or that the place would have had the same impact on me.

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I wished that I had time to walk further along the path and see where it lead, but it was time to turn from stark to status, from fictional hero to historical queen…I was spending the afternoon at Linlithgow Palace.

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The contrast between Blackness and Linlithgow was palpable as soon as I arrived. The town square was bustling….a weekend Christmas Fair was a merry welcome at the foot of the steep lane that lead to the imposing gatehouse of the Palace. A steady stream of visitors made their way slowly up the lane, gazing at the red stone edifice that rose at the top of the hill…a commanding presence despite it’s empty windows and roofless turrets. After a fire destroyed much of the ancient Linlithgow Castle, James I began construction of the Palace in 1424. What he began, the successive Stewart (or Stuart) monarchs continued, until James VI of Scotland (James I of England) moved the seat of the monarchy of the combined crowns to London. The once magnificent Palace fell into disrepair and fire eventually swept through again, leaving the ruins that stand today. Although much was done by the Stewarts to impress the visitors of past and present, today, Linlithgow is remembered primarily as the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots.

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I won’t linger now on Mary, but in future posts, I hope to write more of my impressions of the ill fated Queen. I find both Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, to be fascinating women. I think modern history tends to distill their lives and the ways in which their reigns intertwined down to a contest between brains and beauty, with brains winning out in the end. But, as with everything, the true story is so much more complicated than that…

Mary was born into a palace of stone and tapestry, roaring fireplaces and exquisite fountains. Today, the vaulted ceilings are the sky above, and the rich wood and fabrics are but ash on the wind, but I can see what it once was….in the graceful turn of the stone stair, the soft turn of the carved angel’s cheek above an entryway….I can almost hear the rustle of silk gowns skimming the floors of the passages, or hear the strains of the lute and lyre in the expanse of the Great Hall…

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As I entered the Palace chapel, I thought that perhaps my musings had gotten away from me, as I distinctly heard a bagpipe. Fortunately, I hadn’t lost my grip on reality. Another woman, sitting on one of the window ledges nearby, waved me over and pointed to the church on the Palace grounds. “A wedding,” she said. Below us, a line of kilted groomsmen stood with hands clasped behind their backs and greeted guests, as the sounds of pipes echoed off the nearby loch. Though we were strangers, we found chatting in the window of the Palace chapel to be easy, and we talked for quite some time…of weddings and love found and still hoped for, of Scotland, and of travel and how you never knew where it may take you or how it may alter the course of your future.

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It was a rather fitting end to the day, I thought. Over the course of the day, my thoughts had stretched from distant past to possible future. As is often the case in Scotland, the veil of time felt thin. The past is present, the future just a return to what once was. I was reminded too, that there is a beauty in decay…in the fall of autumn leaves, in the fire of sunset as the light of the day dies, in the crumbling stone of castles and palaces that try vainly to withstand the test of time. Though shadows of what they once were, we return to these places as settings for our films and imaginations, to let our thoughts run wild, and to stand beside heroes and queens…

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For more information on Outlander (and thank you to Starz for use of the image):

http://www.starz.com/originals/outlander and http://www.dianagabaldon.com/books/outlander-series (That can get you started…there are so, so many sources of outlander info out there now!)

For more information about Blackness Castle and Linlithgow Palace:

http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

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