Memories of Scotland

I admire those who follow their dreams.  I have been writing fiction for over forty years now, and although I’ve had some success placing short pieces my novels haven’t found much interest.  So when I see the published work of someone who obviously loves writing as much as Ailish Sinclair does, it warms my heart.  Her debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, is the kind of historical fiction tinged with a little fantasy, all set in Scotland.  Having spent three happy years in Scotland myself, I like to read native writers.  One of the categories in this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge is a debut novel, so all these things came together in this one little book.  There may be a little spoiler info below, so proceed with caution!

Sometimes I read a novel without knowing much about it in advance.  That was the case with this one.  I read Sinclair’s blog posts and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t compose long, rambling essays.  Her posts often make me stop and think.  Her novel follows a love story that turns into a witch-hunt.  Unlike that claimed by those who have the whole world watching them, this was a real one.  The historical notes tell a bit about the characters based on women actually tried in Scotland during those dark times.  In fact, when one of my doctoral advisors gave my wife and me a walking tour of Edinburgh early on in our time there, he pointed out where the witch trials had taken place.  Sinclair captures the rage and frustration of women who had no recourse once such accusations flew.  A religion only too ready to believe the worst about people, women in particular, showed no mercy based on what was only hearsay and jealousy.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like in such times.  Castles and lairds make us think of fairy tales, but reality must’ve been somewhat harsher.  It’s fun to pretend about witches around Halloween, but there’s a sadness that’s difficult to escape as an adult.  That sadness is all the more profound for finding claims of witch-hunts on the lips of abusers and others who do their best to perpetuate inequality.  They dishonor those who actually did die so that men like them could feel smug self-satisfaction in the past.  The Mermaid and the Bear brought a number of these thoughts to mind.  Our society has made some strides towards treating all people as human beings but we’re yet a long way from where we need to be.  Books that remind us of that are always to be welcomed; dreams are worth pursuing.

Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.

Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.

Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.

Scotland the Evolved

Imports and exports are the stuff of international commerce. Nations import what they require or desire from nations that have a surplus. One surplus that the United States has is Creationism. The origins of the movement share some culture with England, but there is no doubt that the idea of Creationism is a distinctly American one. Histories of the movement have been written, and it has proven itself remarkably resilient and tenacious. The leaders of the various forms of Creationism (yes, of course there are factions) tend to be very good at fund raising and political maneuvering. Once Creationism has been safely laid to rest in one form, another arises in its place like the heads of a hydra. The United States has been exporting Creationism for years now. I recall talking with colleagues from the UK many years ago and they were asking what this thing was that was showing up in their classrooms. The Brits tend to be sensible people and they were unacquainted with this blatantly faith-based approach to “science.”

A recent piece on IFL Science! declares that Scotland, at least, has banned Creationism from science classes. As a form of religious or cultural belief, of course, it may be studied. I have a feeling that in the future our generation will be regarded with wonder as that which experienced a massive delusion that science is whatever you want it to be. Don’t get me wrong; I understand Creationist concerns. Indeed, up through my sophomore year in college I shared them and could not see how evolution would fit into a biblically informed worldview. This was not discouraged at Grove City College. The serious study of religion, however, does bring many truths to light. Religion can be studied empirically. When it is, ideas such as Creationism can be objectively assessed. When they are, mene mene tekel upharsin.

We will not see Creationism going away. With the conviction of righteousness that is fueled not only by monkey business, but also fears of social changes, it gives a verisimilitude of respectability. Science has eroded systematically such ideas as homosexuality as an aberration, gender being fixed and defined at birth, women being inferior to men, races as being different species. It used to feel like a safe world to those who felt the Bible supported their right to run the place. Creationism feels like science and tries to cast doubt on a worldview that has relegated the Bible to a quaint place on a dusty bookshelf of Weltanschauungen. It would be naive to suppose that it is about to go away just because it is banned. If we would take the time to understand it, and to try to address the insecurities it effectively assuages, we might see different results. Making fun, however, seldom leads to conversion. We’re simply too evolved for that to work.

Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.


For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.

Viking Trail

History is a powerful elixir, capable of transforming sinners to saints with the mere passage of time. Well, calling Vikings saints may be a bit of a stretch, but still, they have become some of the sexy bad boys of the Middle Ages, and with the finding of a Viking horde in Scotland last month, they are in the news once again. Vikings and monks were kind of like medieval dogs and cats. Monasteries, located in lonely regions, often amassed wealth and Vikings, looking for loot and less scrupulous about bloodshed, were eager to take it. The give and take (literally) of this violent lifestyle involving seafaring, battles, and churches, makes for good ancient drama and much of it took place along the coasts of Scotland. Our Scandinavian scourge, however, didn’t stop there. It is well established that the Vikings made it to North America well before Columbus. Those who don’t dismiss the Kensington Rune Stone also claim that the Vikings reached Minnesota long before football ever did. Whatever the reason, we are fascinated with Vikings.


Perhaps they are the ultimate autonomous self-promoters. We all would secretly, at least, enjoy being able to set our own standards so that they favored us and our loved ones. The Vikings represent the flaunting of the rule of law, traveling far to take what they want by force. And, perchance, leaving a bit of treasure behind as well. The Vikings became Christianized and the slave trade (long before the New World caught hold of the idea) was effaced to the point of becoming uneconomical to them. Nobody is certain why, but the Vikings, probably for a variety of causes, ceased to be the terror of the seas. Now the Scandinavians are considered among some of the most literate peoples of the world.

Along with the decline of the Vikings, however, also came the fading of the monastic cultural hegemony. To be sure, there are monks and nuns still today, but the force with which they gripped the medieval imagination began to decline with the Protestant Reformation and the recognition that vast wealth, even if cloaked in poverty, is still vast wealth. Now the finds from both monasteries and Viking sites constitute historical treasure. Information about a world long gone. The underlying idea, however, is never very far from the surface. We may lay claim to post-colonialism, but powerful economies have a way of getting what they want in the way of trade treaties and tariffs in any case. When a Scot finds a Viking these days, it is a cause for celebration as we let bygones be bygones and cut the humanities curricula nevertheless. The Vikings never really disappeared.

High Road

“You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,” starts the chorus of that overused, unofficial national anthem of Scotland. The low road, while offering less spectacular views, is quicker and more practical. At least that’s how it seems to this erstwhile expatriate who spent three bonnie years in that land. Still, we all know the appeal of taking the high ground. In studies of morality, high moral standards are better than low. High income is sought after over low. We are encouraged ever to reach higher, shooting our probes out to the very stars. Who wants to admit to being low? There’s more than a hint of this condescension in the terminology I’ve lately been noticing when it comes to the Bible. Instead of saying that an author of a book is Conservative, it is now common code to claim that s/he has “a high view of scripture.” I guess the rest of us have a low view.

Despite the increasing secularity of culture, there are still many, many books being written about the Bible. In fact, the standard industry rag, Publisher’s Weekly, routinely carries story after story about religion publishing, much of it biblical. But readers want to feel safe when approaching the Bible. New ideas can be dangerous and challenging. So we want to know the perspective of the writer before we crack open the cover. Those who believe, within a reasonable degree, that the historical tales of the Bible are factual have a high view. When the four stories of Jesus contradict one another they can be harmonized. That’s the high view. Saying that the world was created in one day, as Genesis 2 asserts, is tending toward a low view, literal though it may be. After all, didn’t we just read in the previous chapter that it was six days? One can become six with a high enough view. Just stand on your tippy-toes.

A high view

A high view

Now the cynical side of me wants to believe that this coding of the high view of Scripture is willful misrepresentation. The stratospheric viewers may not actually say that the industry standard has a low view—not exactly—but miracles are easier to see from the mountain top. If you want to know who to trust, you rely on those with a high view. In this world the sun can stand still and giants can grow to be nine feet tall. It is a high view indeed. While no one knows the original meaning of the lyrics to “Loch Lomond,” many associate it with the Jacobite rebellions of the eighteenth century. The lyricist may be referring to the heads of the executed exhibited on pikes along the high road from London to Edinburgh while their dispossessed relatives walked on the low road. Neither group devalues its native land where some hope to return and others died trying. So feel free to take the beheaded high road while I take the low, because we’ll all end up at Loch Lomond in the end.

Cultural Religion


The National Museum of Scotland, like many museums in the British Isles, is free to visitors. Such museums are repositories of national pride and provide a sense of the scope of a nation’s history. While penurious grad students (as opposed to plain penurious, as best describes those long unemployed), my wife and I would wander over to Chalmers Street and pop in for an hour or two of inexpensive culture. During the last minutes of my recent trip to Scotland, I ducked into the newly—well, it has been nearly two decades, I have to admit—expanded museum for a gander. I was naturally drawn to the history of Scotland section—you can see dinosaurs and robots in the US, after all—and was struck at how very religious it was.


It’s not that the Scots are any more pious than other peoples, but it is the nature of religious artifacts to receive special treatment, and therefore, to survive time’s greedy decay. No one dares to anger the gods. Beginning with the Stone Age Picts, and flowing through contact with the Romans and eventually to the Celtic culture now associated with Scotland, religion is obviously preserved. Prehistoric Picts, by definition, didn’t leave written accounts of their religion, but the treatment of special artifacts in a gritty, harsh world shows where social values were to be found. Christianization, with its apocalyptic earnestness, only accelerated the process. Celtic crosses, case after case of precious metal sacramental artifacts, and a large display of the Reformation denominated the more secular displays, or so it seemed. (The working steam engines and large looms, however, gainsay a bit of my enthusiasm. And swords seemed to be everywhere.)


While there is a genetic base for some sense of nationhood, it is not unusual to hear a person of African or Indian heritage speaking with the familiar Scottish brogue. Surely they are Scottish too. Culture clearly ties disparate peoples together into a “nationality.” In this museum that reaches back to the dinosaurs and beyond, a great deal of the history involves people of similar ancestry who come into contact repeatedly with those of other heritages. What gets left behind after those encounters, when it’s not swords, is religious. The religions themselves then clash, fracturing into a new stage of cultural development. Even in today’s secular Europe, some of the most notable buildings are the cathedrals. And in its own way, the National Museum of Scotland is a cathedral to all who wish to understand what makes us human.


Monument to Madness

Reflections on the implications of my recent trip to the United Kingdom will likely continue to filter into conscious expression over the next few days. Jet lag will inevitably fade, and some concepts will shake down and settle into place as the reality known as work once again demands its pound of flesh per day. One of the realities that struck me during my time in St Andrews was how violent the Reformation was when it came to Scotland. Truth holds the world hostage, since everyone wants to believe they own it. And it’s my word against yours unless one of us can pull in a larger authority—and who is larger than God? There was a lot of credibility riding on the Reformers’ certitudes. And resistance was strong. Fatal even.

Reform is nearly never gentle, especially religious reform. After the Society of Biblical Literature’s meeting disbanded last week, I wandered around the old, medieval section of St Andrews, trying to get a sense of what such conviction must have been. One of the participants narrated to me more of the stories of those who’d died in the course of conversion. Patrick Hamilton, it turns out, may have been the first victim of the Reformation, but he was not the last. Walking along on a sunny afternoon in a country where several religions consciously coexist (I was, as an American, surprised to see so many large mosques in the UK), it seemed difficult to believe that humane individuals would torture someone to a horrendous death by burning just because of religious differences. The killing times seemed so long ago. Or perhaps our killing has just become more subtle.


Following the directions I’d been given, I came upon the Monument to the Martyrs. Not wishing to belittle the atrocity of undeserved deaths, I could not help thinking of the pillar as a Monument to Madness. Is the need to feel right so great that others must be made to die for it? After all, among those generally considered to be sane, we all believe that we are right. Who consciously accepts untruth as reality? In such circumstances the best, the only reasonable response is to agree to disagree. I can let you accept your truth, if you’ll let me accept mine. And perhaps such tolerance would serve our planet well. Even the number of trees spared had autos-da-fé been forbidden provides a silence to the wisdom of allowing difference to thrive.

Check Mace

In the medical sciences building of the University of St Andrews stands a glass display case cradling a mace. The mace, a symbol of smiting authority that goes all the way back to Old Kingdom pharaohs, has a long tradition in academia as well. In all the pomp and glitter of an academic processional, a dean, provost, or chancellor carries a symbolic mace, as if to keep an unruly faculty in order. (I am sure that most of them have wanted to use that mace a time or two in reality, but have been constrained by both convention and the rule of law.) Medical science is among the fields of research quickly moving away from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of medieval superstition. We are, after all, simply soft machines, doing as nature has programmed us. What more could there be to it?


Looking more closely at the mace, I see on its ornate base, a flanking ring of winged oxen. Perhaps obscure to medical students, the winged ox is the symbol of the putative Gospel writer, Luke. Each of the Gospels emphasizes different aspects of Jesus, and the symbol assigned to Luke has been the ox. If the wings didn’t give it away, the explanatory placard on the wall nearby confirms my analysis. Eyes traveling up the silver shaft, the crown of the mace houses yet another saint, this one an apostle. St Andrew (of course) tops the mace, holding his X-winged cross. Underneath is an amorphous structure for which I need to turn to the placard to have explained. The fountain of healing waters, it tells me.


From tip to tale, then, the mace of medical science is inherently religious. My reading of late has been from scientists claiming that, in the words of the old commercial, “parts is parts.” There is no underlying life-force or animating principle. Life is biological robotics, so I’m told. So as I stood in St Andrews last week, considering this metallic mace, I was poised on the edge of science and symbol. There is no biological need for such symbols—indeed, the mace was originally a weapon to inflict grievous bodily harm. Now, chased with silver, intricately ornate, it begins and ends with religious implications. I can’t help wonder what the robots make of that.

Whose Reality?

It was a groggy, foggy morning when I stepped off the bus in St Andrews. I’d been here before, but it had been over two decades ago, and with my wife, who is my navigator. I knew the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting was here, but I didn’t know where. Instinctively, I headed toward the medieval part of town. A religion conference, I reasoned, would best fit there. Seeing no signs of the inimitable professorate that I associate with the Society, I finally stopped into a university office where a dubious-looking receptionist peered at the conference letter and shook her head. The she spied a familiar address on the letterhead. “Ach, that’ll be doon this way, past the second roond-aboot.” Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I understood. I suppose if I’d just read the materials sent ahead more closely, I would’ve known that we were meeting in the newest part of Scotland’s oldest university.

A religion and science reunion came in the form of the physics and maths building where the meetings were being held. Science grad students, somewhat bewildered by so many biblical scholars, pushed open their lab doors with a sense of wonder—and perhaps disbelief. Could so many educated people seriously spend their time on the Bible? Science, after all, now has cornered the market on truth, hasn’t it? What hath Jerusalem to do with St Andrews? Ancient universities were generally founded to study theology. In 1413, when St Andrews opened its academic doors, God was the undisputed arbiter of truth. Now high-tech fighter jets scream overhead in nearby Leuchars, and we are secure in the ability of science to save us. And still biblical scholars, like the horseshoe crabs, come together in huge numbers on the beachhead of the human psyche every year.

To the student trained in the sciences, I have no doubt that we appear superfluous. Nevertheless, without religious belief, or the Bible, our society would not be where it is today. Although now it seems that science and religion bear deep hostility to one another, they actually grew from the same root and have a similar goal—to discover the truth. Science finds no evidence beyond the material, but religion declares the material as the perennial under-achiever. Scholars of the Bible from around the world, many of them not religious believers, expend their limited resources to come to one of the more inaccessible tourist destinations of Scotland and meet in a clean, modern, comfortable sciences building. Across town, in the heart of the old, medieval district, stand the remains of a once grand cathedral. Still majestic in its glorious decay, the church towers over a town once ruled by religion where now science and golf define the new reality.


Burning Faith

1528. February 29. St Andrews, Scotland. 24 year old Patrick Hamilton was burned to death for espousing the teachings of Martin Luther. St Andrews University is the oldest of Scotland’s four ancient centers of higher education. Heterodox religious teaching was considered a very dangerous thing in those days, especially in the halls of academe. Once infected with Lutheranism, like a zombie, you had to be burned so that the rest of the world could be safe, the virus contained. Only the problem in this case was an all too human one—difference of opinion regarding religion. The Thundering Scot, John Knox, would’ve been all of about 14 at the time, and reformation for the Catholic Scotland was still years in the future. Now, one of the largest European cathedrals, in St Andrews, lies in ruins because of that very reformation.

Religious bickering has a tendency to move beyond the ridiculous to the insane. Burning young men, after decades of burning hundreds of young and old women alike throughout Europe, was one of the most heinous symptoms of a horrid madness that had grown from religious fervor and fear. Religion itself is not to blame as much as the human tendency to use it as a weapon against those who are perceived as different. Some five centuries later and the physical stakes are gone but the fervor and fear are as strong as ever. As we hear politicians and televangelists lash out against those of whom God disapproves, the smoke still rises from the spot where Patrick Hamilton, late of the University of St Andrews, was sacrificed for his faith.


Ironically, as I sat on the quiet morning train from Edinburgh to Leuchars, from the headphones on the young man behind me wafted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Was Patrick Hamilton aware that he was on a literal highway to hell as he returned home to Scotland? Did he have an inkling that his own people would torture him to death because he taught such dangerous ideas as salvation by faith alone and Scripture as the instruction for that salvation? Could anyone have guessed that the then teenaged John Knox would introduce what was to become an even less forgiving form of Christianity to Scotland by the time young Hamilton should’ve reached his dotage? Religion is funny that way. Even those who give their all to defend it easily become its victims. And a few yards down the road the Society of Biblical Literature meets in a university building dedicated to the sciences. History’s ironies never end.

Persistence of Memory

I’ve posted before on sacred geography—the idea that a place is holy for some reason or other. That holiness is very personal, and although some locations seem to draw national, or even international, veneration, special places are intensely individualized. Edinburgh is one of those places for me. I haven’t been here for 21 years, after a stint as a post-graduate that lasted for three years and three months. Walking into Edinburgh from Waverley Station yesterday was overwhelming. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining (somewhat a rarity in these latitudes) and that my daughter was seeing it for the first time. Edinburgh is one of the truly beautiful cities of the world, but in my case, it is also invested with my personal history here. Once I called this city home.


Wandering about, noticing the changes—Edinburgh has always drawn tourists during the summer—it was clear from the many languages and accents that people from all over the world were exploring the main touristed areas: the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Bobby, Princes Street Gardens-for me the experience seemed to run deeper. They will leave, I hope, with only positive memories of this mystical town, for a fair bit of medieval magic still hovers about it. For those of us who experience Edinburgh as sacred, however, there is good and bad mixed. I not only laughed here, but I cried, I worried, I was frustrated, sad, elated, depressed. I poured myself into a life here that I knew was ephemeral, temporary, destined to pass in the short hours that define one’s young adulthood. How could I have ever left? How can I ever leave again?

Away from the tourists, we wandered back to the places we used to live. How is it even possible, I wondered, staring up at the windows of our old flat, that I was ever bored there? Even the sacred, with constant exposure, becomes profane, I guess. And it requires an absence—perhaps two decades is far too long—to bring it back into focus. I am bursting open here. Some tourists are, I’m sure, busy falling in love with Edinburgh for the first time. For me, it is returning to an old friend. Twenty years of being heartlessly bounced about from job to job make the place I was born seem far less inviting than the streets and alleys that inspired Harry Potter and Waverley. This is the Nunc dimittis of my soul at this very moment. It comes to mind, Faust-like, whenever one enters paradise, knowing it will last for a few moments only.

Bonnie the Brave

As a preemptive warning to my regular readers (am I’m sure you both know who you are), I am off today for a stint in my old haunt of Scotland. Before you get out your congratulations, be advised that this trip is for work. The Society of Biblical Literature, in addition to the big meeting about which I sometimes post, holds an international meeting every year. Since my employers frequently want me out of the office, I am being sent to the fair city of St Andrews in the kingdom of Fife for a week. Although I studied across the Firth of Forth in the wondrous town of Edinburgh, I ventured to St Andrews a time or two during my postgraduate days. By that time anyone in tune with popular culture had seen Chariots of Fire, and it was almost a requirement of credibility to visit the famous beach on the North Sea where the actors iconically ran as the movie began. And as in Chariots of Fire, I’m not sure that wifi access will be readily available. Should I find access, I shall gladly update my blog with my customary observations. If I fall silent, you’ll know why.

Scotland had a tremendous draw for me as I was contemplating where to complete my studies of religion (as if one ever can). Not that I was Presbyterian, and not that I have Scottish ancestry (although Celtic is represented in the Irish stowaway on my father’s side a few generations back)—it was the antiquity that drew me. One of the mysteries, to me, of new religious movements, is how people can believe in a religion that recently began. Should there be a supernatural, I’ve always supposed, and should that supernatural be concerned that humans have the truth, why wait so late in the story to start? It was such thinking that drew me from Methodism to its estranged parent, the Episcopal Church. Among the Episcopalians are many who argue for a continuity with the Catholic tradition, separated, literally, only by a matter of divorce. And Catholics go back to Jesus himself, a member of a religion so old that even the Romans grudgingly respected it (Judaism). I guess I’m guilty of old-school bias.

Kim Traynor's Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

Kim Traynor’s Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

So it was that I came to spend some years among the Presbyterians at Edinburgh University. The Ph.D. that I earned there translated to an unfortunately brief career doing what I’m best at—teaching. My tenure at Nashotah House never offered the opportunity to travel back to Scotland, or even England with its Anglicans. And as I prepare to board a plane across the Atlantic, although strictly for work, I can’t help but to reflect on those years of intensive learning, hoping to do my Scottish alma mater proud. And returning to the States to have my career shipwrecked on the rocks of unforgiving religious dogma. It may be that once I’m back among the heather and thistles, I may cast my laptop aside and try to claim religious asylum in a past that I can only see through rose-coloured glasses.