Three events, not in chronological order: first, I caressed the stones of the Ring of Brodgar, located on the West Mainland of the Orkney Islands. Among those weather-beaten, Neolithic monuments I entered a state of reverie, entranced by ruminations on the passage of time and the insignificance of my ego. For whatever reason, people in Scotland’s ancient past had gone to great trouble erecting these megaliths in a predetermined pattern. I like to think that among other motives, the beauty of human exertion and the poetry of spectacular stone rising above the sea to the splendid sky were among them. So many centuries had passed between then and now, between those original inhabitants and myself, a wayfarer, that I experienced not only humility but also clarity in the gloaming.
The second: I had rented a house in the city of Inverness. When I wear my Orkney tuque in winter, I remember the relentless wind blowing off the sea, the fabled henge at dusk, and why I chose to stay in a house rather than a bed and breakfast in the gateway to the Highlands, as civic pride proclaims. Several stores sell hiking, camping gear, sturdy walking shoes and wind resistant outerwear. In addition to bedrooms, I wanted a kitchen, a living room, a private walled garden, as well as dinner, for several weeks. The house had to be a home where working class families had once lived, preferably pre-World War One and since renovated, located outside the city’s touristy centre but within walking distance of a food market and the train station, which, in fifteen minutes, it was. The trains in Scotland are somewhat arbitrary in their schedules.
A third event occurred among the stacks of Leakey’s Second-hand Bookshop established on the premises of the old Gaelic Church. To reach it I walked over the river Ness on a pedestrian footbridge and up a hill on a side street. I discovered a collection of stories by the Scottish author Ali Smith, of whom I had heard but not read, and proceeded to peruse it. Seated in a cubicle surrounded by piles of books and papers near a functioning wood-burning stove (flaming logs in a book store!), the shop’s owner was pleased to leave me alone. I read the first three stories standing up, then paid five Scottish pounds for it and two other books, and read the rest of Smith as I sat on a sinking tomb in the graveyard of the nearby Old High Church. Wind carrying the sun’s warmth after a passing smirr of rain – a drizzle (there may well be as many words for rain in Scottish dialect as there are words for snow in Inuktitut), I raised my eyes from The Whole Story and other stories, and wondered if the narratively brilliant and surprising Ali Smith had ever sat on this very spot, enjoying the same view overlooking the river.
It seemed serendipitous that I should have rented a house in what the book informed me was her hometown, and bought a previously owned copy of her stories in a shop that she might have patronized. Here, in Scotland, where I had never expected to be, an ancient kingdom of quirky, inexplicable, tragic and magical events: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom. It was a day like other days and I was on my way to work, walking the same way as usual between our house and the town” (may, Smith). Well, I fell in love with Scotland. I couldn’t not, although flowering trees had little to do with it. Ear-splitting bagpipes, appetizing haggis (or not), plentiful oat cakes, savage slaughters (e.g. Jacobites), wind turbines, Brexit troubles, distilleries, haunting music, nameless lochs, the highlands, the list goes on; in addition to all that, more universities per capita than any other nation in the world: rather magical, when one thinks about it.
On my return trip from the Orkneys, I took a bus from John O’Groats, the northerly point where you board the ferry. The bus transported locals and travellers to the station in the town of Wick where we waited for departure only to be informed that the train was cancelled, and another bus had been arranged to carry passengers to the train station in Inverness. As it turned out, that was a happy circumstance because I shared the back of the crowded bus with three elderly Scottish ladies who, delighted to learn that I came from Canada where half their family now resided in Nova Scotia and Ontario, regaled me with the story of their lives. Only a small fraction of Scots speak Gaelic, I learned, regardless of bilingual street signs; none of the ladies did. One of them with a thick burr in her voice pointed out the window to wind turbines crossing the highlands like whirring mythological beasts. She hated them, but she also hated hydro pylons, any “contraption” to quote, which defaced the purity of the landscape. Perhaps she heated her home with peat.
© 2017, Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. A two-time recipient of the Quebec Writers' Federation award for English-language fiction, his forthcoming book is a collection of stories soon to be published by DC Books Canada. He lives in the country not far from Montreal, and when he's not digging the soil he's working on his latest project, a series of linked short stories.
[Photo: Joshua Radu]