A Writer-ly Trip to Scotland
I just got back from a “Spring Break” trip to Scotland with 27 Arcadia University freshman and two intrepid co-leaders. Given that the name of the course I’m teaching is Classic Scottish Children’s Literature, we all knew we were in for a literary ride and the trip didn’t disappoint. Perhaps it was a bit too much “literary” for some of the students, but not for me!
This was a writer’s dream come true from our first night’s Literary Pub Tour through Edinburgh’s closes and winding medieval streets to our visit with renowned storyteller David Campbell at the Scottish Storytelling Center. The final guided tour of Edinburgh that a small group of us took was based on the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson. It began at noon on a cool, overcast day. Our superb Stevenson guide pointed out that Edinburgh itself is a city of oppositions: the classical, planned “New” Town (18the century) and the rambling medieval city which was considered somewhat dangerous and debauched in Stevenson’s day. That old part of the city, originally hemmed in for security sake by medieval walls and thus forced to develop upwards, includes the Royal Mile which stretches from Edinburgh Castle – the great towering edifice built on an extinct volcano – to Holyroodhouse Palace, still used by modern royals.
Though he was from the upper class, Stevenson identified with the riff-raff of the old town. His literary output shows vestiges of both lives, from the upper middle class sensibilities of A Child’s Garden of Verses to the internal conflicts and dichotomy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so prescient in its insight into human psychology.
As a class, we had read Stevenson’s Kidnapped, which I found strangely modern in its sensibility – eminently accessible to my students. Is it any surprise that Stevenson could write with such authority about the seafaring life, descended as he was from generations of lighthouse engineers, surrounded by water in Edinburgh, and with his extensive love for travel, especially to the South Seas as an adult? Writers still do best when they write what they know.
It was a fittingly raw and windy day for our Stevenson exploration, and the whiskey and shortbread that awaited us in the basement of an ancient pub at the tour’s conclusion was a welcome treat. Then it was on to visit several used bookstore and the evening’s entertainment: a posh dinner at the University of Edinburgh’s student union (the oldest in the world) and a traditional Scottish ceilidh — an evening of Scottish dance and music. What a fitting conclusion to a magical trip!
For me, the overriding theme of the trip comes down to what Marielena Zuniga wrote about so elegantly last week: how geography and place can permeate the very soul.
Earlier in the week, when I took a small group of interested students to wander Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, we took our time and absorbed the atmosphere. It didn’t seem exactly odd when we encountered a disreputable group of drinkers in a corner with a small, fierce-looking dog trotting around with a log in his mouth. One elderly member of the group hailed us and said he’d show us a thing or two in the cemetery. My instinct was to flee with my students, but the gent actually did have something to relate. J. K. Rowling had used the names on the cemetery stones to name many of her characters in the Harry Potter series. After the cemetery stroll, we walked to Elephant House, the coffee shop where Rowling had drafted her early books. Along with sandwiches and tea and shortbread, we breathed in the atmosphere. So close to the kirkyard that inspired her and with the great medieval city visible all around us through the café’s huge windows, it was no surprise that Edinburgh had inspired a contemporary writer as well!