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Nigel Tranter

I wish I could say that the prolific historical novelist Nigel Tranter left us with a rich and readable lode of historical novels set in Scotland. Unfortunately, I cannot say that, having just finished Sword of State.

Sword of State opens in the year 1214, when the young Patrick, the 5th Earl of Dunbar, is sent by his father to take a message to the even younger King Alexander II of Scotland, who has just ascended to the throne. The two young royals immediately become fast friends. For the remainder of his life, Patrick was friend and fixer to King Alexander.

Tranter cranked out something like 90 novels in his long life. He died in 2000 at the age of 90. Sword of State has a 1999 copyright. Tranter wrote this novel when he was approaching 90 years old.

As a novel, Sword of State fails. Many of the most important ingredients of a good novel — mystery, subplot, suspense, emotion, complexity — are missing. What kept me going is that I greatly liked the characters, and it mattered that they were once real. Tranter’s career as a writer started with an interest in castles. So there is plenty of castle atmosphere. Clearly Tranter also was fascinated with maps and terrain, and my guess is that he visited and was familiar with most of the settings. Detailed topographical maps of Scotland would make a handy guide when reading Tranter. As with Tolkien, I learned new words for types of terrain and water, such as “mull,” “kyle,” and “burn.” This novel would be quite rewarding to a reader whose main interest is what life might have been like in 13th Century Scotland. But its weakness as a novel is that the narrative, long on exposition and short on action, follows a simple and single trajectory as Tranter checks off the main events in the lives of Patrick and Alexander. Characterization, and some of the dialogue, is pretty good, though.

According to the Wikipedia article on Tranter, his novels are “deeply researched.” No doubt that is true, though I wonder what his sources were. This taste of Tranter left me wanting to know more about early Scottish history.

If this novel has a villain, it’s the church. This does not surprise me. My guess would be that Tranter would agree that the Celtic world would have been vastly better off if the church had never existed. Tranter’s churchmen are greedy for land, money, and power. Popes should have names such as Avarice III or Ruthlessness VI rather than, say, Celestine IV.

I was angry when I finished this book, because of how Patrick died — miserably and uselessly, far from his Scottish home. He was killed in the Seventh Crusade. This crusade was sponsored by Pope Innocent IV, who pressured kings, including of course Alexander, to send money and men to fight “the infidels.” This particular bit of madness and genocide by the church cost 1.7 million lives.

Pope Innocent IV, by the way, was executing a decree written by Innocent III, Quod super his: “Innocent decides that if a non-believer refuses to accept and adopt the teachings of Christ, he is not truly a full human being and therefore is undeserving of humane treatment and subject to force.” This decree was used in the 19th Century to justify American genocide against native Americans. Some kinds of people never change. Today’s politics and the theologies that go along with it didn’t just come out of nowhere, did they?

Video: the Isle of Lewis and Harris

Here’s my video from last month’s hiking trip on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. I decided not to add a music soundtrack to this video. You’ll hear what the camera heard — mostly wind and water. This is a high-definition video, but you should be able to select lower definition in the toolbar if your Internet connection is slow. But watch it on a big screen, if you can.

Drag queens reading to children?

Photo credit:

What is it about the conservative mind that totally flips out at the idea of drag queens? Even most of us liberals, I imagine, raised our eyebrows in surprise upon first hearing about Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s edgy for sure. But, upon reflection, liberals realize that children love costumes, and that every single one of us wears a costume every single day, because, if we don’t, we’ll get arrested. And liberals like the idea of children learning that it’s the person inside the costume that really matters, and that we all get our own free choices in how we present ourselves to the world. On the other hand, where conservatives are concerned, Drag Queen Story Hour has been gasoline on the fires of the culture war.

The New Yorker has a new article with the title “David French, Sohrab Ahmari, and the Battle for the Future of Conservatism.” For those of us who try to make sense of the addled authoritarian mind, this article is a must-read. Sohrab Ahmari, who was born in Iran and who converted to Catholicism in 2016, calls Drag Queen Story Hour “a five-alarm cultural fire.” He argues that such a thing is so dangerous that conservatives should set aside the First Amendment and use whatever coercion is necessary to stop drag queens from reading to children. This must be done, he believes, to defend “traditional morality.”

As you might imagine with someone who lived in San Francisco for many years, it has been my honor to have met many drag queens and transexuals. People who have been misunderstood and mistreated all their lives, if they survive with their wholeness and goodness intact, are very likely to have spent a great deal of time thinking things through and drawing some conclusions about what really matters. I have learned a great deal from them about what it means to be human. I remember reading some years ago (though I have not been able to find a reference) that studies have shown that religionless gay people generally score higher on tests for moral maturity than do priests. That does not surprise me, because, to authoritarians, thinking things through is dangerous. One’s beliefs about morality are to be received from moral authorities and are not to be questioned. But, freed from tradition and authority, one might find one’s way much more quickly to the leading edge of moral progress. During the 1980s, for example, while most of America was in a state of moral panic and moral paralysis on the matter of AIDS, it was the drag queens who stood with microphones under the lights of America’s gay bars to educate the at-risk population about what was going on and how to stay safe. No doubt they saved countless lives.

As a heretic and beneficiary of the First Amendment (which people like Ahmari would set aside), I think it is important not only to speak up for those who are different and whose differences are good and benign, but also to heap ridicule on the foolishness and hypocrisies of authoritarians. For example, Google for “Jerry Falwell Jr. and pool boy.” That’s a story worth following. Don’t miss the stories about that West Virginia bishop and his depravity: “A penthouse, limousines and private jets: Inside the globe-trotting life of Bishop Michael Bransfield.” While searching for photos for this post, I had a lot of good laughs at the photos of churchmen in their robes and finery, which I would call drag. I’ve included an example below, as well as the famous video of a priest slapping an infant during a christening.

I feel mean, and a bit guilty, when I write snarky posts like this one. But I do believe that public ridicule and public expressions of contempt are our best defense against the moral defectives who tell would people how to live. “Traditional morality” is a harder and harder sell. Why can they not see why?

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, now disgraced. Would you trust your children to someone in this kind of costume?

Or this one?

The chainsaw fights back

The severity of the overgrowth from the woods and old blackberry stalks is directly proportional to how long Ken has been away from the abbey. He had been away for quite some time, so the overgrowth was serious. Even the weed-whacker on wheels is defeated by blackberry stalks, so Ken took the chainsaw to them.

Envying the U.K.’s public transportation

Paddington Station, London. Just look how clean it is.

I added up the number of hours of travel required to get from Acorn Abbey in the Blue Ridge foothills of North America to Stornaway on the isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It comes to about 28 hours. Of those hours, 25 hours were on a plane, several trains, a bus, and a ferry. Only three hours was by car — getting from the abbey to the Raleigh-Durham airport for the flight to London Heathrow. Can you guess which part of that long trip was the most unpleasant?

Purely by accident on this trip, the ferry was the most unpleasant. That was because storms and gale-force winds off the North Atlantic were blowing into the sea channel between the islands and the Scottish mainland. The ferry, which was not small, reared and bucked through scary wave after scary wave, with seawater crashing against the windows way up on the passengers’ observation deck. Everyone tightly held onto their seats, and there was a great and contagious chorus of gagging and throwing up, which would have been funny but for the exhausting work of keeping one’s eyes on the sea, one’s grip on one’s seat, and one’s lunch down. But, had the weather off the North Atlantic been more placid that day, then the ferry would have been a lark, and the worst part of this 28-hour trip would have been the drive to Raleigh over America’s rude highways.

Even the 6.5-hour flight, on a Boeing wide-body 777 operated jointly by British Airways and American Airlines, was not that bad. Those two airlines have figured out that the best way to keep passengers entertained on long flights is to keep bringing free food and drink.

While the U.S. continues to pave itself over with ever-meaner highways, the U.K. remains a nation of trains. Yes, the trains tend to be crowded. Passengers more than doubled between 1997 and 2014. The U.K. is investing billions to expand and upgrade the rail network. The rail system is a true network, with carefully constructed schedules that usually give you just enough time to change trains when your destination is off the main routes. The British people are brilliant at boarding trains quickly, so station stops are short. Often you meet interesting people. I had planned to sleep on the train from Oxford to Edinburgh, but I ended up having a long conversation with a retired gentleman from York who gave me a good perspective on how people feel about Brexit and the state of the world. Unsurprisingly, most of his questions about the U.S. were about guns and Trump, two facets of American life that Europeans have a very hard time understanding.

The U.K. trains are nicely tied in with the Internet. You can buy tickets with your smart phone. While you’re on the train, the Trainline app will use GPS to show you what train you’re on and what stations you’re approaching.

Where the trains don’t go, the buses will get you. Even on the remote western side of Lewis and Harris, the buses out of Stornaway dropped us off a short walk from our Airbnb accommodations.

In the U.S., it’s just a given that conservatives hate trains and love to kill them off. George Will once said, “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” Liberals’ love for trains is often attribued to “Euro-envy.” I enthusiastically plead guilty.

Note: I’ve had a number of things to attend to and haven’t yet had a chance to work up my photos and video from this trip. I hope to get that done within the next week or so.

Some Scottish food porn

⬆︎ Pork roll with Yorkshire pudding, Royal Hotel, Stornaway

Traditional Scottish cooking is strangely difficult to find. Many eateries — especially in places that cater to tourists — offer what I call “international tourist cuisine,” which is mostly Mediterranean and is pretty much the same wherever you go. On this year’s trip to Scotland I found that provincial hotels are the best places to find traditional cooking.

⬆︎ Slow-braised beef and Yorkshire pudding, Royal Hotel, Stornaway. The Royal Hotel at Stornaway definitely was the best dining room I found on this trip. When I sent compliments to the chef, the waiter said that there are three chefs and that all of them are Nepalese. I don’t know where they were trained, but they are very good.

⬆︎ Scotch broth, Royal Hotel, Stornaway

⬆︎ Bread basket, Royal Hotel, Stornaway

⬆︎ Oven-roasted salmon, Harris Hotel, Tarbert

⬆︎ Vegetarian haggis croquettes, Harris Hotel, Tarbert

⬆︎ I spent a day in Oxford on this trip. This is a salad from Quod restaurant in Oxford

⬆︎ Salmon patties, Quod restaurant, Oxford

⬆︎ Ravioli, Quod restaurant, Oxford

⬆︎ Vegetarian breakfast at Côte Brasserie in Oxford

⬆︎ Meat pie from the high street bakery at Dunbar

⬆︎ Vegetable-beef pie from the high street bakery at Dunbar

⬆︎ Vegetarian breakfast with fake sausage, Royal Hotel, Stornaway

⬆︎ Royal Hotel, Stornaway

⬆︎ Shortbread, Skoon art cafe, Geocrab, isle of Harris

⬆︎ Harris Hotel, Tarbert, isle of Harris

⬆︎ This is a home-cooked meal, made on a Coleman stove in a yurt. It’s mashed rutabaga with pork chop and pasta in orange sauce.

My first Impossible Whopper

I wanted this burger to be a world-rocking experience. But unfortunately it was not. It was a perfectly decent burger. But yes, I could tell the difference. But recognizing that it wasn’t real meat wasn’t the problem. The problem — at least for me — was that the Burger King Impossible Whopper, like the burger from Beyond Meat, contains some sort of mysterious seasoning that is intended to make it taste like meat. I just don’t like that taste. It tasted artificial. I think this would make a much better burger if it was creatively seasoned to taste like what it is — a vegetarian burger.

Still, it’s not about me. It’s about what products like this can do to reduce the consumption of meat and to convince people that meat substitutes can be good.

Meanwhile, the world is waiting for a proper meatless hot dog.

Harris tweed

Vintage Harris tweed jacket bought in Stornaway

The Scottish island of Harris is remote, windswept, rainswept, and underpopulated. How, then, did it become so famous? For Harris tweed, of course.

First, a technicality. The usual way to refer to this place in the Outer Hebrides is “the isle of Lewis and Harris.” That raises the question, are we talking about one island, or two? It’s actually one island. The northern part of the island is Lewis, and the southern part is Harris. Mountains form the geographical (and, to a surprising degree, cultural) boundary between the two places.

I have never particularly been interested in textiles. But what struck me about Harris tweed, as I learned more about it, is what an incredible model Harris tweed provides for a sustainable cottage-based industry. By law, Harris tweed comes only from these islands. All Harris tweed is woven by hand by the local crofters, at home in their cottages. (A croft is a small farm with its cottage and outbuildings.)

The production of Harris tweed peaked in 1966. But there are signs that it’s making a comeback, and production is expanding. The Wikipedia article gives a good brief history of Harris tweed. Crofters have been weaving it for their own use for centuries. In the 19th Century, it was discovered by the English aristocracy, and soon everybody wanted some. Everything came from the island’s own resources — wool from blackface sheep and dyes from wild local plants. Local mills spun the yarn. Once the cloth has been woven in the crofters’ cottages, the mills inspect, wash, and press the cloth.

I walked into a Harris tweed shop in Stornaway and was shocked at the prices. For handmade products of such quality, that is not surprising. Men’s jackets started at around £400 ($500). Even simple waistcoats started at about £140. I left the shop reluctantly, priced out of the market.

But fate stepped in. Upon returning to Stornaway some days later to catch a bus to the south of the island, a local man in a coffee shop struck up a conversation with me. He was wearing a Harris tweed jacket and waistcoat. After we had talked for a while, I complimented him on his jacket, saying that I’d love to have one but that the prices were just too steep. He told me where I might find a vintage jacket for much less. In fact, the shop was right nextdoor. In the shop I found a long rack of men’s jackets. The shop’s owner helped me try them on. The one I liked best fit me perfectly. The price was only £59, so of course I bought it. The cut is remarkably smart and modern, though the jacket was made in the 1960s or 1970s for Dunn & Company. The jacket is now at the cleaners, getting its buttons tightened up, along with a good cleaning and pressing.

To the men of this island (and elsewhere), where even in summer nighttime temperatures dip into the Fahrenheit 40s, a Harris tweed jacket is a year-round, everyday-casual item. I realized that, to be properly warm, the jacket should be worn with a waistcoat and scarf. I won’t hesitate to wear it to the grocery store this winter. I wore it to dinner at Oxford.

There’s a pretty good market for vintage Harris tweed items on eBay. I plan to look for a waistcoat there.

A Hattersley loom. It’s probable that my vintage jacket was woven on one of these. Wikipedia photo.

Blackface sheep near the village of Ardmor.

A crofter using a Hattersley loom, c. 1960. The weavers are men as often as women. Wikipedia photo.

Home from Scotland

A Scottish meat pie bought at a High Street bakery in Dunbar. Click here for high-resolution version.

I’m home from Scotland, with stops in Edinburgh, Dunbar, Inverness, Stornaway, Tarbert, Uig, the wild west coast of the isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, a quick pass through London, and a day in Oxford in merry old England. I plan several posts: a picture post; a video post (which may require a few days for editing); a post on finding traditional Scottish cuisine (not easy, but we found some); and a post on Harris tweed (which, of course, comes from, and only from, the isle of Lewis and Harris).

Though I had my ever-so-heavy Nikon camera with me, I found myself reaching again and again for my iPhone XR. Not only does the iPhone serve as an excellent camera for wide-angle shots, it also shoots superb high-definition video. On this trip I tried to capture, in video, as many of the sights and sounds as I could — screaming gulls, crashing waves, bleating sheep, thrumming ferry boats, a Scottish cat or two, and even a Scottish congregation singing a Sunday morning hymn.

But first, I’ve got to soothe a certain American cat hoarse from grieving, get some groceries, deal with some political obligations, and catch up on a few chores.

I also had my first Burger King Impossible Burger after returning to the U.S., so I’ll have a post about that, too.

As usual, I felt no cultural discomfort in the British Isles, which I think always feel like home to the Celtic psyche. But returning to America through the Raleigh suburbs was a terrible jolt.

Taking a two-week break

I’m off to Scotland with my camera and walking stick. I’ll return to blogging the last week of August.

The destination this year will be the Outer Hebrides — the islands of Lewis and Harris. I’ll also have a couple of days in Edinburgh and a day in Oxford. On the way to the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, I’ll pass through Inverness, Ullapool, and Stornaway.

Deciding what to read on this trip was difficult. I wanted fiction set in Scotland. I finally settled on a historical novel by Nigel Tranter, Sword of State. It’s set in the 13th Century and has to do with Patrick (a future earl of Dunbar), and King Alexander II of Scotland. Tranter, I believe, is well known in Scotland. He wrote something like 90 historical novels, which is a lot of novels to crank out.

These are interesting times in Scotland and the United Kingdom. The U.K. has a new prime minister, and Brexit is looming. The Scottish people are very worried about Brexit and are rethinking the 2014 referendum in which Scotland voted against becoming an independent country. It is possible that, if the referendum were held today, Scotland would vote to break with the United Kingdom.

Summer here in the American South has been brutally hot. I’m looking forward to some cold, blowing rain off the North Atlantic and a bit of moor and bog.