“Ride left, die right!”
Our mantra, continuously repeated to each other, often as a cheerful, running admonition but sometimes shouted in panic, was mostly repeated as a silent meditation while pedaling our bikes from the toe of Cornwall to Scotland’s sagittal crest during June and parts of May and July. The Land’s End to John O’Groats quest has become something of an obsession not only in the UK but also to a cross-section of aficionados worldwide — a British version of the Way of St. James, if you like. Like the Via de Santiago, it has many alternates, with the shortest at 874 miles. Our choice, the National Cycle Trails’ Sustrans Route, is 1,200 miles long.
One aspirant, who with his wife runs a B&B in Bodmin, Cornwall (in which we overnighted) was leaving for John O’Groats the following day to run one variant. Yes, run. Or as the placard on the back of the ungainly plastic box that contained his essentials (including a sleeping-rough kit) and was duct-taped to a tiny day-pack he’d strap to his back proclaimed:
Colin is running for ShelterBox disaster relief charity
1 man 3 Peaks
1,000 miles marathon a day
The 3 Peaks were Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest; Scafell Pike, England’s highest, and Brown Willy, a small hill atop Bodmin Moor, Cornwall’s highest point. (and one over which Tina, my wife and I biked on our adventure). The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon, as these inconceivably long long-distance runs are called.
He wasn’t the only eccentric adventurer we encountered. Another runner, whom we met at John O’Groats just as we were finishing, was just starting out. Unlike Colin, he’d packed his gear into a two-wheeled trailer attached to his chest with a harness. As we watched him start, he jogged into the arm swing and curious gait that ultra-marathoners affect to make it look as if they were running when in fact they proceed little faster than a fast walk, or about four miles per hour. We never found out his raison de run. One tiny, 73-year-old man with a backpack the size of a manatee and a pace that rivaled varve deposition in Loch Lomond (where we encountered him) was doing the walk to commemorate the Queen’s longevity. He presented us with his card. It requested donations to cover his expenses.
The man was 53 years of age, and this was his third British Isles end-to-end ultra-ultra-marathon.
Ian Stocks was bicycling a 20-day, 1,500 mile variant that included the UK’s eastern and westernmost salients, for Alzheimer’s Research UK. At a projected 75 mile-per-day pace he ought to have been much further south than where we met him. I noticed that his gear — bike, panniers, electronics — all looked new, and my BS antenna began to quiver. The received wisdom in the classic-liberal view is that as welfare programs take over the functions of private charities, the latter tend to atrophy. Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?
I’d once been solicited for a contribution to “raise awareness for breast cancer” by a group of women breast cancer survivors who were planning on skiing across the Greenland ice cap. They were all seasoned adventurers. I knew what they were up to. Contributions would pay for gear and transportation first; any money left over would go to the “raise awareness” bit.
At this point, let me clarify a popular misconception concerning folks who participate in extreme sports, objectives, deeds, adventures, and such for charity. Their shtick is to persuade the public that they are willing to undergo extreme exertion and privation for a good cause. But nothing could be further from the truth. They do what they are doing because they are addicted to adventure, unique accomplishments, firsts, personal challenges, transcendence of the quotidian, making their mark, even adrenaline or drama; in a word — they love what they do. But extreme adventures are costly, so many fund their objectives by invoking the charity label. I told Trish, the leader of the Greenland expedition (who, years before, had taught me to cross-country ski), that I needed my money to fund my own adventures and that I wished them luck. She didn’t take that well.
Great Britain, definitely a welfare state, seems to have a surfeit of charitable initiatives. What was going on?
So I checked out Ian Stocks’ website. What a surprise! All contributions go directly to the charity; nothing passes through Ian’s hands. Ian’s motivation is his father’s dementia. As of this writing, Ian is still behind schedule, mile-wise, but he has raised over 100% of his targeted contributions.
To me the more fundamental question is why this whole charade is necessary. If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment? Perhaps, in a gladiatorial sort of way.
My wife Tina and I had decided to tackle the end-to-end ride for purely selfish reasons: beer — unlimited traditional cask ales (more on them later), single malt whiskies, and daily feasts of delicious UK food: the full breakfast fry — bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried mushrooms and tomato, black pudding, hash browns and fried toast; the best curry restaurants in the world (Kashmiri, Bengali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South Indian); fish and chips to die for; carveries featuring four roasts with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire pudding and meat pastries that defy counting; steak and ale and steak and kidney pies, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, shepherd’s and pork pies, and many local, flaky variants. And, of course, the chance to explore a country in low gear, meet the people — prone to extreme civility with a subtle but outrageous sense of humor — and get our fair share of exercise in order to continue such adventures well into our senility.
If an individual wants to make a charitable contribution to a cause he cares for, why does he need a sideshow with no connection to the cause to spur him? Is it even entertainment?
Many end-to-end bikers from a variety of countries crossed our path. Unlike motorists, long-distance bikers always stop to pass the time of day, to inquire about one another’s journey, objectives, provenance, etc. Nearly all who were heading north targeted John O’Groats. Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow. Only the Brits got the joke.
Two separate couples had come all the way from New Zealand. I asked them why they’d come halfway around the world for this biking adventure, when they lived in a country famous for its natural beauty and low population density, a country that would seem to offer a biking paradise. Both couples shook their heads and looked at each other. They both — separately — responded that New Zealand was a relatively new country, and so did not have a well-developed network of old or secondary roads crisscrossing the two main islands. Only primary highways, mostly two-lane, bind the country together. These have narrow shoulders (when at all), and drivers are not sensitive to bikers.
The Road Less Traveled
The Sustrans route we chose uses traffic-free paths and quiet single-lane roads, hence its 1,200 mile length. Those quiet single-lane roads have their own quirks. Nearly all are bordered by 6–9’ hedges, perfectly vertical and maintained by vertical mowers. They are so narrow that planners have installed “passing places” and “lay-bys” about every 100 yards. The occasional oncoming or passing car encountering another car — or bike — must wait for one of these to get by. However, the Sustrans route also seems to go out of its way to stitch together every hill top, traverse watersheds cross-wise instead of following drainages, and generally adhere to Mae West’s observation that “the loveliest distance between two points is a curved line.”
Just to add a little spice to the repetitive answers and one-up them all, I decided to tell everyone that Tina and I were headed for Scapa Flow.
England’s myriad roads, in plan view, mimic the pattern formed by cracked tempered glass — an intricate grid twisted and crabbed beyond any recognizably geometric shape and resembling a Voronoi tessellation. They started out that way and only got more complex as time went on. When Rome conquered England, according to Nicholas Crane in The Making of the British Landscape, “the web of footpaths and tracks serving settlements were an ill-fitting jigsaw of local and regional networks which were difficult for outsiders to navigate.” The bends and salients in England’s roads had evolved over hundreds (or even thousands) of years to link settlements, sources of raw materials, strongholds, religious sites, and so on. These evolved organically before the invention of bulldozers and certainly of modern road engineering with road cuts and fills that reduce gradients and straighten out unnecessary curves. Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.
The Hills Are Afoot
Cornwall, the forgotten Celtic country, was a disheartening start to a very challenging ride. Not only does the Cornish section of the route gain little in a northerly direction — and sometimes even trends south — its ride profile resembles tightly clustered stalagmites with significant climbs over Bodmin Moor, the St. Burian and St. Columb Major summits, and a queue of lesser hills. Our old bodies required two rest days in quick succession — at Truro and Bude — if we were to have any chance of reaching Scotland pedaling.
Cornwall might seem forgotten because it’s bedeviled by an identity crisis. Although Celtic in origin, distinct in language and separate as an entity from England, with many unique cultural traits, it somehow missed Tony Blair’s devolution revolution in 1997. Rob, our host at the very modest Truro Lodge, told us that Truro, a cathedral city, was the capital of Cornwall. Since he’d been Truro’s last mayor, I asked him if that made him First Minister of Cornwall. He smiled wryly, admitting that Cornwall had had such an influx of English settlers that there wasn’t much enthusiasm for Cornish devolution, much less independence.
Except for the historic nature of English roads, which sometimes subjected us to 20% grades and less-than-direct transects, they’re a biker’s paradise.
But there is some ambivalence. The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard. Outside Truro Cathedral, a couple of buskers with fiddle, guitar, and microphone played traditional tunes to an enthusiastic audience. And in Penzance, along the waterfront promenade, a Cornish band led by a baton-waving, tails-wearing drum major marched in front of our hotel evenings at dusk playing Cornish Morris-type music (I later found out that the all-volunteer ensemble was short on musicians and was soliciting participants).
In 2007, David Cameron promised to put Cornwall’s concerns "at the heart of Conservative thinking." However, the new coalition government established in 2010 under his leadership did not appoint a Minister for Cornwall. Although Cornwall only holds the status of a county in Great Britain, as recently as 2009 a Liberal Democrat MP presented a Cornwall devolution bill in Parliament (it got nowhere), and advocacy groups demanding greater autonomy from Westminster have been waxing and waning over the years.
On June 5 we left Cornwall and entered Devon, the heart of Thomas Hardy country, complete with irresistibly cute, white-washed thatched roof cottages. Though every bit as hilly as Cornwall (1,640’ Exmoor, the Mendip Hills and the Blackdown Hills to the fore), it welcomed us with a roadside sign declaring: Where there are flowers there is hope.
The Cornish language is being revived. Cornish music, nowhere near as popular as Irish or Scottish music, can still be heard.
“Oh, how much fun!” Tina declared — her enthusiastic response to any novelty, serendipitous triviality, unanchored excess of exuberance, or even the prospect of another 20% uphill grade. Up these our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress. To pass the time on the slow pedal I recounted the libertarian themes in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a novel she’d never read: his depiction of marriage as a crushing force, his belief that organized religion complicates and obstructs ambition, and his critique of the Victorian class system.
At Glastonbury (another rest day) our route finally turned resolutely north. The famous abbey town and final resting place of the legendary King Arthur has become a bit of a Wessex Sedona with crystal shops, goddess centers, metaphysical bookstores, vitamin, herb, and natural food shops, and a vibrant cast of street characters in a variety of stages of mendicancy, sanity, and hygiene exhibiting extremes of sartorial flourishes from total nakedness through purposeful dishevelment to natty eccentricity. Even our B&B hostess had a claim to fame. Sarah Chapman held the Guinness Book of World Records women’s record for walking five kilometers upright on her hands! But the ruins of the abbey, legendarily founded by Joseph of Arimathea in 63 AD and associated with Saints Columba, Patrick, and Bridget but sacked and burned by Henry VIII when he broke with Rome over its refusal to submit to him instead of the Pope, are the town’s saving grace.
By the time we reached Bristol we were deep in the bosom of Old England. Bristol, once England’s doorway to the world, is a thriving, lively, modern city. In its harbor, lovingly replicated, docks the Matthew, John Cabot’s ship. A plaque next to his oversize statue reads: In May 1497 John Cabot sailed from this harbour in the Matthew and discovered North America. The only drawback to being a port city is the seagulls, loud giant avian dive bombers. They are brazen and incorrigible in their quest for food. Early mornings reveal overturned trash bins throughout the city. Gulls have been reported snatching burgers out of hands and even whacking a pedestrian eating a snack on the back of the head so that he drops it and the gull steals the tidbit. One municipal mayor complained that gulls are a protected species.
On to the Midlands
Past the moors and fens, the landscape turned to rolling farm and toft landscape dotted with rhododendron copses. Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste. One evening at a pub, a morris troupe, performing traditional English music and dance dating from before the 17th century, enhanced our after-ride pints. The all-male troupe wearing bells — perhaps the original source of the phrase “with bells on their toes” — and accompanied by a squeeze box, was delighted to entertain foreigners familiar with morris dancing. We stayed in an old Tudor building with buckled floors, absurdly low pass-throughs, and narrow winding stairs whose commemorative plaque read: Crown Hotel: Rebuilt in 1585 on site of a much earlier inn destroyed by the fire of 1583. A coaching stop on the London-Chester run.
By now Britain’s schizophrenic weights and measures standards were beginning to puzzle us. Road distances were in miles, temperatures in centigrade, beer and milk in pints, and folks gave their weight in “stone” with large weights measured in Imperial tons. While the metric system may be simpler in computation, the English system is ergonomic and evolved organically, thereby rendering it more intuitive. And, most curious of all to me, a northern country that in summer experiences 19 or 20 hours of daylight and invented standard time, which it measures from the Prime Meridian of the World at Greenwich, succumbs to the idiocy of Daylight Savings Time.
Refreshingly, the government has not been able — by and large — to impose metric mandates or force observance of DST throughout the realm. When the time changes, businesses readjust their opening and closing times to GMT. With barely four or five hours of total darkness, how much daylight needs to be “saved”? As to the other weights and measures, one informant told me that, except for centigrade temperatures, all new and traditional systems coexist peacefully, with only a handful of rigid requirements such as strong spirits in pubs, which must be sold in 25ml, 35ml, 50ml, and 70ml increments.
Up these hills our odometers would sometimes only display zero miles per hour, even though we were making progress.
Worcester (pronounced Wooster), is the home of Worcestershire Sauce and site of the last battle of the Civil War, in which Cromwell decisively defeated the Royalists. Even more importantly, Worcester Cathedral holds the remains of King John, he of the Magna Carta. The mausoleum was extremely moving, not just for its considerable age and all the empty space surrounding it, but also for the immense significance of Magna Carta itself. For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty through the separation of powers and the recognition of the rights of a portion of the populace.
In keeping with Sustran’s objective of avoiding traffic, we bypassed Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. Not so for Manchester. Inevitably, we got lost there. Signage was poor, our map not detailed enough, and Google not up to the task. So, contrary to the clichéd stereotype of a male, I asked a passerby for directions. The lady responded, “You’re in luck, I’m a geographer. Where are you going?”
Now, asking passersby has its drawbacks — too many to detail here — but, in this instance, we weren’t going to a particular place but rather trying to find National Cycle Network Route 6 to get back on track. Never mind; an academic geographer informant — here was the gold standard! After detailing our trip to her I showed her our guidebook’s map. She was no biker and had never heard of the National Cycle Network. She wasn’t impressed by either our guidebook or our map, of which she couldn’t make sense. At once she launched into a tirade about computer generated maps and lectured us on the preeminence of British ordnance survey maps.
Through the humid and fecund West Midlands, we developed a fondness for the heady odor of pungent silage mixed with barnyard manure — definitely an acquired taste.
I responded that she was absolutely correct, except that we would have needed over 100 ordnance survey maps to cover our entire route, at a prohibitive cost in space and pounds sterling. Then she and Tina, interrupting their on-again, off-again chitchat, in between attempting to solve the riddle at hand, pulled out their smartphones — the last resort of the self-unreliant — and sought guidance from Google.
By now I was losing patience. We’d eaten up precious time getting nowhere, so I resorted to a navigator’s last resort: bracketing. I thanked our geographer for her help, gently disengaged Tina from her, and explored four separate directional salients for a mile each, starting from the roundabout we’d stopped at in order, to ensure that one of those was or wasn’t where we were headed. Through the process of elimination, a compass, a closer examination of the clues in our guide, and not a little intuition, we found our route. Lo and behold, we were nigh on it! A block further along the last salient explored, we encountered a National Cycle Network Route 6 sign.
The lessons: Never mistake a geographer for a cartographer: the former specializes in the distribution of the human population over the surface of the land; the latter makes maps. And . . . have confidence in your own abilities.
North by Northwest
The Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, and the Lake District welcomed us with a smorgasbord of all-you-can-climb hills, appetizers to the Scottish Highlands. By now we’d talked to a lot of innkeepers, publicans, bikers, walkers, shopkeepers, and random strangers. With the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service (NHS) imminent on July 5, I sought infrequent opportunities to gather anecdotes about people’s experience with the service, especially now that Conservative governments had floated proposals to make the NHS financially more viable, most of which included increasing copays. I never brought up the subject but always managed to get folks to elaborate on offhand remarks. One lady mentioned that she’d recently broken her wrist playing cricket. So I asked her if the NHS had taken care of her (Britain has a dual — private and public — insurance and medical system).
For all that a lot of it is unintelligible, Magna Carta was the first assault on the absolute power of English royalty.
“Yes, they did,” she said. But then she backtracked, saying, “No, they didn’t.” So she explained. She went to the nearest hospital with her hand bent at an unnatural angle to her forearm. The staff said they had no room for her, to go to another hospital. So she did. The next hospital looked at her wrist and said it was broken. But they had no room for her. “Go home and wrap it up,” they said. Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.
Another B&B host, an elderly lady who had recently lost her husband and ran a very modest one-woman operation told us she’d had a hip replacement. I asked how well the NHS had treated her. She responded that it had taken a while to get the procedure done, but only because she didn’t understand and had difficulty navigating the bureaucratic requirements. Once she mastered them she was put in queue, awaited her turn, and was very happy with the results.
Of course, the other hot topic of conversation was Brexit. I wasn’t shy about soliciting opinions on that. Two issues determined the close vote: immigration and EU rules (trade, a third issue, was uncontentious: everyone favored trade. However, the first two are interpreted very differently along the political continuum.
Luckily, her husband had private insurance. The private doctor immediately took care of the fracture.
In the course of our five-week traverse of the island we encountered numerous resident immigrants from a very broad array of countries working in sales, labor, and the service sector. I made a point of listing the countries they hailed from: Italy, Romania, Poland, Venezuela, Eritrea, Somalia, India, France, Pakistan, Greece, Spain, Bangladesh, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Thailand, Russia, Germany, Argentina, China, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium, Brazil, Philippines, Ukraine, Ireland, and the USA. These were not tourists or ethnic waiters at ethnic restaurants.
Left-leaning reportage attributes the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration vote to “racism,” or “little Englanders,” the British version of chauvinist rednecks. Right-wingers claim that immigrants are taking over jobs. Neither of these glib explanations stuck a chord with us or our informants. But all, regardless of whether they were “leavers” or “remainers,” expressed strong concern about Britain’s nearly limitless immigration. One Welsh AI entrepreneur — a remainer — averred that with an unemployment rate of 4.1% there was no employment problem in the UK. Gareth was so fixated on trade that he blithely dismissed any other concern as illusory.
As to racism, none of the immigrants we interviewed alluded to it; in fact, all expressed a great deal of affection and respect between themselves, the Brits, their neighbors, and their employers (ours was a very limited random sample). And none of the Brits expressed any — even the slightest — unfavorable sentiment about foreigners. Only when riding through Muslim enclaves did we sense any, admittedly vague, tension. So what was going on?
One waitress complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat.
My sense is that the Brexit vote was a continuation of a British exceptionalism that goes back to 1066 — it’s been nearly a millennium since the last invasion. Compared to the continental countries, Britain has been uniquely stable, especially — being an island — as to its borders. In that sense, there is a nebulous perception of continental countries as entities akin to banana republics, with feuds, invasions, and shifting boundaries. To Brits, joining that club has always cost some degree of sovereignty. Margaret Thatcher personified that sentiment when she was unwilling to sacrifice the pound sterling, the world’s oldest, most stable currency (except under Callahan and Wilson) to a committee of continental bureaucrats. Britain did not join the Euro currency; but it did join the European Union, a continuation of the aspiring free-trade policies of the earlier Common Market. The Brits want to trade but don’t want others to control them.
One Scots barmaid was in favor of leaving, but voted to remain for the sake of her children. She complained about the niggling EU rules — another erosion of British sovereignty — that even control the shape of bananas an Englishman can eat. Gareth, our Welsh informant, thought this a red herring issue. But immigration rules are part of the broader EU rules: both require a surrender of sovereignty that the Brits have had enough of ceding.
Finally, there was a general concern that Britain was losing its identity — its culture, if you will — and becoming a nation of immigrants like the US. The August 11 issue of The Economist reports that “more than a third of London’s population was born abroad.”
Scotland the Heatwave
It was uncanny. As soon as we crossed the unmarked border into Scotland, the plaintive tones of a highland bagpipe filled the air. Around the corner we suddenly found ourselves in Gretna Green, once Britain’s answer to America’s Texas, where Scottish law allowed marriage between underage couples, but now a slightly pathetic tourist trap where couples with a romantic disposition to elopement still choose to tie the knot. Never mind, we were entranced and let the piper grab our souls, wrench our hearts, draw tears, and make us feel that we could transcend our limits. And, remarkably, accents turned on a penny from Yorkie to brogue.
As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!”
On the first day of summer hordes of embarrassingly (to us, anyway) scantily clad Scots crowded along the shores of every loch, river, canal, and estuary, suntanning their albescent flesh. The unusually hot and dry weather, which had started earlier, was the cause of much comment. Tina, ever one to engage anyone in friendly conversation, asked a middle-aged lady if the unusual circumstances might be caused by global warming. The lady replied that if they were, “Bring it on!” In the 20 days we spent in Scotland it never rained. On June 29 at Pitlochry, the temperature hit 89 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there — leading to a hot muggy night with little sleep in a land where air conditioners and fans are a waste of money.
We looked forward every day to a pint or two of “real ale,” available in participating pubs everywhere but sadly lacking in Gretna Green — another disappointing aspect of the little town. I’m an avid fan of British Real Ale, a beer nearly unavailable anywhere else, and a primary reason for our trip. Real or cask ales (cask-conditioned beer) are unfiltered (they still retain yeast, though that drops to the bottom of the cask) and unpasteurized beer, conditioned (by processes including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. They require pumping by hand to serve and give good head in spite of being lightly carbonated compared to bottled beers. There is nothing quite like them in spite of their being brewed as bitters, stouts, porters, and even IPAs.
Breweries are small and local, and mostly supply only a handful of establishments — until recently. We visited one brewery in Pitlochry, the Moulin Traditional Ale Brewery, that brews only 120 liters per day of four different ales and supplies only one pub and one hotel. In the latter half of the last century corporate brewers began buying up pubs, pushing their beers and sidelining — or even eliminating — cask ales. Brits were not amused. In response, the Campaign for Real Ale was founded in 1971, and managed to convince the corporates not to eliminate cask ales. Some, such as Adnams, Greene King, and Marston’s, now even brew their own cask ales.
Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.
While in Glasgow we managed to hit the Fifth Glasgow Real Ale Festival, offering over 150 different real ales from all over the realm. As they say in Kentucky, “we were in pig heaven!” We’d barely finished our first pint when the 18-piece Caledonian Brewery Edinburgh Pipe Band marched in playing “Scotland the Brave,” forcing us to freeze in place and raising the hairs on the nape of our necks. We imbibed 105 different real ales during our ride. Only space prevents me from listing them all and their creative names. As of 2014 there were 738 real ale brewers or pubs in the US. There might even be one near you.
In Killin we took a rest day and visited the Clan McNab burial grounds on Inchbuie Island in the River Dochart, along with the associated Iron Age fort and even earlier stone circle. Here in Prescott, Arizona, my hometown, David McNab books Celtic musicians who come on tour to the US. Married to a Scots lassie, he treasures his heritage. We’d be a culturally poorer town without his concerts.
As we passed Loch Tay, the Scottish Crannog Centre, an outdoor museum with a restored lake dwelling dating from about 800 BC, beckoned. The crannogs were built on stilts or artificial rock islands on the water. Villages, consisting of three crannogs, each with about 90 inhabitants, were common in Scotland and Ireland as early as 5,000 years ago and as late as the early 18th century. While Scotland has only 350–500 crannog villages, Ireland — on a much larger land mass — boasts about 1,200. Doubtless, both countries have many more crannog villages, underwater archaeology presenting considerably more obstacles (in survey and excavation) than terrestrial.
This odd dwelling pattern was first glibly explained as being of a defensive nature (most 19th century archaeologists being retired military men), but few weapons or evidence of warfare associated with the crannogs exists. The new explanation is that the dense vegetation of the Celtic countries favored cleared land for agriculture, not for mere habitation, while the riparian location facilitated extensive trade networks, evidence for which — including networks all the way to mainland Europe — is abundant.
The Loch Tay Crannog Centre, near Kenmore, Perth, and Kinross, isn’t just one reconstructed crannog with three dugouts. The staff has recreated the entire lifestyle of the inhabitants: foot-operated lathes; grain-grinding stones; wool spinning, dyeing, and weaving; and fire-starting by “rubbing two sticks together,” a practice often mentioned but seldom seen. It means using a fire drill. With the proper knowledge, preparation and materials, all things are possible. The demonstrator (even his shoes and clothing were authentic) started a fire in less than a minute.
The Braw Hielands
Somewhere beyond the Crannog Centre we crossed into the political subdivision known as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Trees and settlements became scarcer, midges and cleggs more numerous. Heather (purple), gorse (yellow), and bracken (green) gilded the landscape. Long-haired Highland cattle and Scottish Blackface, Wensleydale, Cheviot, and Shetland sheep predominated. It is here — not in Gretna Green — that the romance of Scotland kicks in: Rabbie Burns; Bonnie Prince Charlie; Nessie; Capercaillie and Old Blind Dogs; kilts, sporrans, and claymores; haggis; the Outlander miniseries; and even Mel Gibson berserking over the moors as William Wallace come to mind.
However, my own mind gravitated to those two giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. I’d not run across any memorials, statues, or even streets named for either in their homeland. That’s more understandable for Hume, whose somewhat counterintuitive, esoteric — albeit undogmatic — thinking isn’t readily accessible. But Adam Smith, the father of economics, the Charles Darwin (or Albert Einstein) of the dismal science, is a household name. His insights are readily accessible and intuitive.
In three separate trips to Scotland, I have been struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials.
Smith and Hume were drinking buddies (which is saying a lot in 18th century Scotland, where getting plastered to oblivion was a national pastime). One bit of Hume’s thought that was accessible — though still counterintuitive — is encapsulated in an exchange he had with Smith. The United States had failed to agree on an official religion for the new country: a first for its time. Smith, a man of indeterminate religious beliefs, bemoaned the fact, opining that the lack of an official faith would doom the country into irreligiosity. Hume, an agnostic, disagreed. He predicted that countries without official faiths would experience a flowering of religions, while the official religions of countries that had them would wither into irrelevance. Although this anecdote is either false — Hume died in 1776 — or was altered in the retelling, it well captures Hume’s thinking.
The anecdotal Hume was right. America soon experienced the Second Great Awakening, the birth of a multiplicity of religious sects in the 1800s. Today, according to The Guardian (September 4, 2017), more than half the UK population has no religion; while nearly 76% of Americans identify as religious.
In three separate trips to Scotland (one where I walked across the country) I was struck by the lack of Adam Smith memorials. One informant said the Scots had little affection for Smith. Public opinion inside Scotland holds Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, responsible for the Highland Clearances. And public opinion outside Scotland perceives the Scots as socialist. It’s not so simple.
In the 2017 UK elections, the Conservative Party received 28.6% of the vote and overtook the Labour Party, the real far-left socialists, who received 27.1%, as the main opposition party to the majority Scottish National Party, which got 36.9%. The Scots are nationalistic, thrifty, good businessmen who hate taxes — traits not often associated with socialism (though they abhor class and status pretensions).
But back to Smith and the Highland Clearances. Smith was a strong advocate of both private property and efficiency in production. When The Wealth of Nations came out, Scottish clan chiefs decided to reinterpret their position as not just clan heads, but also fee simple owners of clan lands, according to how they interpreted Smith’s concept of private property. They became lairds, owners of the clan lands instead of feudal lords. As feudal lords they’d had a complex set of rights and duties with their crofters. However, as lairds, they suddenly became absolute owners of what was now their private property. Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.
The crofters were subsistence farmers. Their part of the deal was to give a percentage of their harvest to the clan chief in return for protection, leadership, dispute resolution, and so on. Advances in agronomy and a booming market for wool indicated to the new self-declared lairds that sheep grazing would enrich them much more than a few bushels of oats. Most chose sheep over oats and evicted the crofters, hence the Clearances. (This is a simplified version.) Not all lairds ignored the crofters’ feudal rights. Lairds’ responses ran the gamut from keeping the crofters as tenant farmers, to buying them out, to cruel dispossession and eviction. There was no uniform formula; the greediest landlords made the headlines. Adam Smith got the blame. Finally, however, in 2008, an elegant ten-foot bronze Adam Smith statue on a massive stone plinth and financed by private donations was unveiled in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile within sight of a rare statue of his friend David Hume.
Outside Inverness, capital of the Highlands, the Culloden battlefield, site of the last battle (1746) fought on British soil, cast its spell. Supporters of the Stuart (Jacobite) dynasty fought the by-then established Hanoverian dynasty army of George II. The German Hanoverians had been installed as monarchs of the United Kingdom after Parliament tired of both Stuarts and civil wars. A common misconception holds that Jacobitism was a Scottish cause because the Stuarts, before being invited to rule over England had been kings of Scotland, and most of the Jacobites were Scots. Again, not so simple.
Since Scottish law had not formalized feudal rights and duties, the transition from a feudal system to a modern market economy was — to say the least — awkward.
Monarchy has its own rules of succession. Under those rules, Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ought to have become king of the United Kingdom. The problem was that the Stuarts were Catholics and a Catholic, according to the Act of Settlement passed by Parliament in 1701 — the expedient to finally dump the Stuarts — could not rule over a Church of England realm, much less head that church. Adherents to the monarchy’s rules of succession did not accept Parliament’s power to overturn those rules, hence the Jacobite uprising. Scots, English, and Irish participated. The presumptive heir to the Jacobite crown today is Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria von Wittelsbach who, if he were on the throne, would be known as King Francis II.
We took a rest day in Inverness and got a dose of fire-and-brimstone Scottish Calvinism and attended a couple of ceilidhs — once both at the same time. A determined preacher in white shirt and tie stood on the Crown Road, Inverness’s high street, reading the Bible in thunderous and orotund sonority to the passersby while fiercely gesticulating with his free hand. We were entranced. Particularly when a young fellow in a t-shirt and a newsboy cap took a stance across the street, pulled a bagpipe out of its case, laid out the case to collect donations, and hit the chords of “MacPherson’s Lament.” He completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions. As to the other ceilidhs, one particular impromptu session at a pub included two fiddles, a guitar, uilleann pipes, and a saxophone — the last two instruments a particularly innovative and sonorous combination.
North of Inverness nearly all the trees disappeared, as did fences, buildings, and power poles; even the livestock thinned. It was a magical, surreal landscape with the odd abandoned stone sheep enclosure. At Tongue, the North Sea finally came into view. When the Orkneys appeared on the horizon, our hearts skipped a beat: we knew we were nearly done. Stroma, the nearest Orkney, presented a spectral appearance. It had been abandoned in 1962. A scattering of old stone cottages, unconnected by roads, eerily dotted its landscape. Soon John O’Groats, little more than an inn and tourist shops, materialized out of the grassy plain. We’d covered 1,291 miles — according to our bike odometers — in 29 days, with an additional eight rest days.
The piper completely drowned out the homilist, who nonetheless persevered, impervious to all external distractions.
After a shuttle to Inverness and an overnight ride on the Caledonian Sleeper we arrived at Euston Station, London. During the ride — both of them — we reflected on Britain’s virtues. It’s a country with no earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, or mudslides; having an ideal climate with no extremes of heat or cold, aridity or rain; a varied and undulating topography of grasslands, moorland, woodland, glades, estuaries, highlands, and lowlands; hamlets, villages, towns, and cities with a minimum of sprawl; little crime, few slums or homelessness; a cultured people with a generally sensible disposition (and oodles of book stores); and enjoying separation of head of state from head of government. Finally, it’s always been Great, and, best of all — has unsurpassed beer and whisky. What more can you ask for? Lower taxes?