An Ohio Yankee Searches for Food and Nudists on Scotland’s Trails

Sometimes I want to murder time
Sometimes when my heart’s aching
But mostly I just stroll along
The path that he is taking

—from “October Song” by The Incredible String Band

Last time, I was on the lookout for a rumored nudist colony along the West Highland Way (WHW) in Scotland.

Strolling along the southeastern shore of Loch Lomond with my hiking companion Johannes, I kept glancing at the forested island to my left. A flash of white?! Maybe not. I’ll scope it out again on my return trip.

We pitched our tents at Milarrochy Bay campground, only a hundred or so yards from the loch. We’d hiked nearly 20 miles that day. I was exhausted and turned in early, although Johannes struck up conversation, auf Deutsch, with several other camping groups, all of whom happened to be younger Deutschlanders like him.

adam and eveI enjoyed Johannes’s hiking company. Intelligent and affable, he had a unique and enviable way of weighing his words before voicing them…maybe because he was a professor. And we hiked at the same pace. So he was the ideal hiking partner.

We said goodbye next morning, Johannes continuing northward, me turning back to Milngavie. I’d been warned of midges, which are tiny gnat-like insects that can consume a human in five minutes. Unzipping my tent, a small cloud of them drifted inside and began munching on my arms. So I packed up quickly and immediately hit the trail. (Scotland’s midges play fair, though. They won’t bother you if you maintain a 7-mph pace, or reach a certain elevation. I wasn’t timing my stride, but I skedaddled and headed for the hills.)

Conic Hill was most important. We’d bypassed it yesterday to make time, but today I was hoping for an expansive view of beautiful Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain in surface area, and dotted with many islands shaped like green puzzle pieces. One of them, Inchcruin, was used as an insane asylum in the 18th century. Another, Inchmurrin, is today used by sane people to “appreciate nature.”

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Loch Lomond, from Conic Hill. Inchmurrin is the farthest island. Inchcruin is further north, to the right of the photo.

Arriving at the top after a short climb, the view of Loch Lomond was beautiful. One of those larger islands down there is Inchmurrin. I’m too far away to spy nudists, though. But, really, why would I want to invade their privacy? I guess because their lifestyle is different and, in a way, admirable.

(If you’re still curious about Inchmurrin naturists, click here.)

Conic Hill wasn’t as high as Ben Nevis, but the view was just as scenic. The Conic descent was a bonus, because for perhaps a mile ahead I could trace the WHW path, a beige scribble that swept and swooped over the rounded pastures. Passing bleating sheep then crossing a stream through a shaded wood, I met a friendly guy from Croatia who was striking camp. You’ve got a great view ahead of you, sir.

While exiting the last sheep-grazing meadow, I saw a large sign that encouraged people to keep their dogs leashed. The sign had a gory photo of a mutilated sheep. Supposedly, 50 privately-owned sheep are killed every year by unleashed dogs on the West Highland Way. What struck me, though, was the polite wording. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Do keep your pet tethered whilst walking though these fields. This will prevent unnecessary distress for all. Thank you.

The U.S. equivalent would be POSTED: ALL DOGS MUST BE LEASHED!! VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED!!

The troll lives in the little dark area on the left.

Approaching the rowhouses on Gartness Road where Johannes and I had rested and enjoyed ice lollies the previous day, I passed by a stone bridge almost totally obscured by dense foliage, with a small sign reading “Trolls Bridge.” If you recall from childhood the fairy tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” you might understand why I paused here and listened for an irritated “Who goes there?!”

Then I arrived at the rowhouses. Now, remember, I’m a stupid Yank, and an even stupider Ohio Valley Yank at that. So I know little about stone rowhouses (townhouses). Anyway, I was hungry, and between the size of the building and the many cars parked outside, I figured one of the doors would open to the restaurant that I knew was there, and where I could get a hearty lunch. The question was…which door was the entrance?

Door number one—it might have been the one with the nameplate that said “Wilkie Watters”—was locked. But door number two did, indeed, open. However, I didn’t expect to see a half-dressed woman, on a couch, with a phone at her ear, with bulging eyeballs, who yelled “What are ye doin’?! This is me hoose!!”

Uh, sorry, ma’am, just a blockheaded Yank looking for a hot meal. I abandoned the restaurant idea and had a Clif bar instead.

The last significant stop for me on the West Highland Way was Glengoyne Distillery (est. 1833), only a quarter mile from the trail on the other end of a large field. I’m not a whisky man, but I was distressed after the rowhouse incident. Also, when in Scotland do as the Romans do, so I swerved my rubbery legs offtrail to the distillery’s gift shop, where I bought a souvenir bottle of Glengoyne’s 18-year-old single malt Scotch whisky. I figured the liquor would give me a shot of much-needed energy, as I was fast losing strength in the July heat, a blazing 92 degrees Fahrenheit, way excessive for Scotland.

Of course, the booze didn’t have the same effect as Popeye’s spinach might. But it went down like liquid velvet. I took a few luxurious swigs and saved the rest for my whisky-drinking son-in-law.

I dragged myself past The Shire, Mugdock Castle, and arrived at my trailhead turnoff about 4 p.m. I’d hiked approximately 40 miles with backpack in two days, a personal record. But my geriatric legs paid a heavy price.

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Glengoyne Distillery in Dumgoyne, Scotland

The final insult, after the Gartness Road rowhouse, was encountering two drunks on a bench in the middle of the trail turnoff to my daughter’s house. Arms embracing each other, laughing uncontrollably, they told me I still had a mile to go to Milngavie center, and that I was…get this…cheating.

Can you imagine? I tried to explain, but they kept me there for a full five minutes, laughing the entire time, while I wilted in the heat.

Actually, these two were pretty hilarious—God’s holy fools—and an appropriate ending to my troll…I mean, stroll. Now that I think of it, I should have gifted them my Glengoyne bottle.

(I made one other side trip while visiting my daughter and her family, this one to neighboring England and the port city of Liverpool. I’ll write about that next. If I recall, there was a little band from Liverpool that made a few records…)

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West Highland Way troll, who looks like he’s had some 18-year-old single malt

 

 

An Ohio Yankee Rambles on Scotland’s Trails

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This is the third installment in my travel-to-Scotland series. Most travel essays read like toothpaste commercials, so I’ve tried to jazz up mine with some subjective asides. After all, it’s not just about geography, food, culture, and hotel accommodations, it’s also about how all these affect each personality, and personalities are different, including distorted personalities like mine.

With Longitudes, you get the good, the bad, and the self-indulgent.

While in Scotland, I tried to mix town with city with country. I’ve already discussed Milngavie (“Mull-guy”), Glasgow, and Edinburgh, so now I’m leaving the pavement and discussing some trails. Specifically, Ben Nevis and the West Highland Way.

Ben Nevis: Mr. Nevis isn’t a person, he’s a mountain. His name is an anglicization of the Gaelic Beinn Nibheis, which means “malicious mountain.” Having summited Mounts Whitney and Washington in the U.S., I didn’t find him malicious at all. In fact, he was more like a large teddy bear. My old school friend Tad had summited him years ago, and since we Kiski boys (“Faith, Humility, Tolerance”) are a competitive lot, I felt compelled to plant my own invisible Kiski flag alongside Tad’s.

I struck out early Sunday morning with my son-in-law, Mike. We drove from Milngavie to Fort William, a several-hour-drive (see map below). Ben Nevis Mountain Path starts at a car park outside Fort William, and meanders across fields of grazing sheep, gradually rising up toward the clouds.

Big Ben is the highest mountain in the British Isles, at 4,411 feet (1,345 meters). Most hikers summit and return in a day, so there are no camping areas, huts, signs, or other evidence of man’s tinkering. Just a gentle, rocky trail and a few cairns for directional help. The only eyesore was a clear-cutted mountain slope to the southeast, but we soon left this far behind us.

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View from about halfway up Ben Nevis

Mike was much faster than me, a Ferrari compared to my Ford Fiesta. But he waited at the top, waving me over to where he sat amongst a small crowd at the base of a large cairn near an emergency shelter. We peeked inside this shelter, intended for climbers who might be stranded atop during bad weather. Pretty dismal; nothing more than a coffin-like hole in the rock to protect from wind and rain.

Also atop Ben Nevis: “…(A) piano that had been buried under one of the cairns on the peak was uncovered by the John Muir Trust, which owns much of the mountain” (Wikipedia). Amazingly, the piano was evidently carried up 20 years earlier as a charity project by some enterprising men from Dundee. This stunt sounds suspiciously like a Monty Python skit—I picture Cleese, Idle and company with red beards and kilts—but it’s a fact. “And now for something completely different.”

We returned to our car in late afternoon, a perfect day hike. Our muscles ached for several days afterward. But it was a good pain.

whw map

West Highland Way and Ben Nevis

West Highland Way (WHW): there are many hiking trails in Scotland, but this is the longest and most well-known, with distance backpackers arriving from all points on the globe. The trail starts in Milngavie (where our daughter lives), north of Glasgow, and runs northward through western Scotland to Fort William, a total of 96 miles, or 154 kilometers (see map). It encompasses farmland, forests, lochs, villages, and mountains.

I allowed myself a good week to recover from Ben Nevis, and planned a two-day solo hike. Luckily, it coincided with the two warmest and sunniest days of my whole visit.

It was only a ten-minute walk from Holly’s house to the trailhead, located about a half-mile from the official start in Milngavie. Though my standard practice is to hike alone, at the trailhead was a young man adjusting his pack straps, we got to talking, and we ended up hiking together all day. His name is Johannes, and he’s an environmental microbiologist originally from Heidelberg, Germany. He had just finished attending a nearby conference, and wanted to explore most if not all of the WHW.

Johannes on WHW

Johannes, taking the lead on West Highland Way

Unlike Ferrari Mike, Johannes was closer to my cruising speed. Leaving the environs of Milngavie, we passed by Mugdock Country Park, the side trail to Mugdock Castle (see my August 1 post) …then practically bumped into River and Alistair (River is Holly’s golden retriever, and Alistair is a retired gent who regularly walks him). We were a good two miles from Holly’s house, and I was impressed with Alistair’s devotion to his job.

One thing I learned about the Scottish is that they not only love dogs, they love to ramble. The U.S. is one of the most corpulent societies on earth (28.8 kg/m2 body mass index), and I’m convinced we’d be a helluva lot healthier—physically and mentally—if we rambled more.

After coming in view of the Campsies Fells (hills) and passing Craigallien Loch, a small lake that looked ripe for some fishing action, we took a short break where a road called Ballachalairy Yett crosses the trail. Near the Yett is a picturesque cottage painted in brown and red called The Shire. I’d seen it earlier in the week while on a morning run. Although I think it’s a hostel of some sort, I’ve been unable to find any information on it. (If anyone knows anything, please leave comment.)

While resting and munching on snacks, Johannes and I met Timothy, who was making a delivery to The Shire. When Timothy found out we were from outside Scotland, he asked us our views on controversial Brexit, which Scotland is overwhelmingly opposed to. This topic led to Boris Johnson, then Trump, then the far-right German AfD party, then climate change, then Native Americans.

The Shire_on WHW

The Shire

In the states, I avoid verbal political conversations with people, whether friends, neighbors, or co-workers. We’re so polarized in America, these talks invariably result in blood pressures rising, or worse. So I was amazed at, not only Timothy’s cheekiness, but also how the three of us had consensus. I may have to leave my home country; there are actually people with clear heads! Needless to say, it was very refreshing. If a Scotsman, German, and American can break bread like this, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for our planet. And it’s yet another reason we Yanks need to ramble more.

(You can pay me later, Rick Steves.)

Later in the day, Johannes and I made a second stop at a collection of rowhouses along Gartness Road near a stone bridge. Someone had placed a cooler outside one of the houses, stocked with refreshments for hikers, with payment on the “honor system.” We rested here about 15 minutes, listened to the trickling waters of Endrick Water stream, and I had a refreshing watermelon ice lolly (popsicle). Not a single vehicle or person in sight. Ahh, such peace!

Watermelon ice lolly at Wilkie Watters'

Enjoying a watermelon ice lolly outside Wilkie Watters’ place on Endrick Water

After this came a long trek along Gartness Road, where we shared cramped space with several ultra-modern and ultra-large farm tractors. Then Garadhban Forest, where we lunched in a shady grove and met a winded hiker about my age from Perth, Scotland. Both Johannes and I were also feeling tired, so we decided on a shorter alternate route to the main WHW, our intended destination a public campground on Loch Lomond shore, northwest of Drymen (see map).

This alternate trail followed a boring road stretch through the small village of Balmaha, and bypassed Conic Hill, one of the higher points along the southern WHW, and which (I found out the next day) offered a stunning view of south Loch Lomond.

Loch Lomond has many irregular-shaped islands, and I’d heard rumors about an 11-acre nudist colony on one of the largest. Since I was doing an out-and-back hike, I vowed to determine the naked truth of this tomorrow.

Next time, I’ll share my discoveries.

An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court…Still Bumbling Along

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Our dubious hero was last seen peeking through the windows of The “Oxford” Bar on self-effacing Young Street in Edinburgh. No sign of James Bond. (Click here.)

But, let’s follow our hero back to ground zero: the Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle, where non-locals go to eat, tilt Scottish whiskies, and hear the same bagpipe song at each intersection.

My blogging friend, Neil (Yeah, Another Blogger) had earlier visited Edinburgh and recommended Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for lunch. Brodie’s is located at maybe the busiest corner in Edinburgh, on Lawnmarket and Bank Streets. I stepped inside, but the place was as crowded as a New England sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday, so I continued downhill along Lawnmarket until it turned into High Street. Neil also recommended Whiski Bar and Restaurant, and this joint was ideal: cool, dark-paneled, and tourist-free (except for me). I took his advice and ordered a Brewdog Punk IPA, along with a shot of whisky and a dish of haggis.

Normally, I dislike sharing photos of the food I consume. Word descriptions are one thing, but there’s something tacky about posted photos of one’s meals. But haggis is uniquely Scottish, and rarely found elsewhere, so forgive me for breaking my self-imposed restriction.

Haggis and Brewdog Punk IPA

Haggis, at least as prepared at Whiski, is a small globe of mashed potatoes with bits of ground beef, ladled with a smooth gravy sauce, probably made with sheep guts. My dish had a rounded wafer of some sort piercing the potatoes like circular buzz saw.  It was a little flag that said “Eat me!” So, I obeyed. I lean toward more spicy cuisine, but this Whiski haggis was a unique experience, quite tasty, and perfect light lunch fare.

Oh, I almost forgot: the Brewdog Punk. Maybe I’m losing my taste for IPAs, but Neil, this Brewdog tasted a bit too “hoppy.” Next time I’ll go with your other IPA suggestion of Stewart First World Problems.  Maybe it hops around less.

While sipping my whisky at Whiski, I had a short conversation with a pretty waitress who told me that she was the only native Edinburgher employed there. This confirmed some suspicions I’d had of Edinburgh.

For dessert, I ambled across the street to Mimi’s Little Bakehouse (another Neil recommendation) for a cheese and chive scone. (I’m glad you were around, Neil, as Graham Kerr was nowhere to be seen. Anyone remember him?). Scones are fat, flaky muffins, usually wheat or oatmeal based. Brits often nibble on them with their afternoon tea. My scone was as big as a cake, and helped soak up a lot of the booze from the Whiski. Best scone I ever had. And, I might add, the only one I’ve ever had.

Leaving Mimi’s, I started seeing narrow brick-lined alleys with interesting names like “Tweeddale Close.” The alleys led to cozy courtyards with dwellings and businesses punctuating the perimeter. Curious, I wandered down Tweeddale Close.

After squeezing through a pack of dazed-looking sightseers wearing nametags and tethered to a tour guide, I entered one doorway, climbed the stairs to the third floor, and barged into the offices of a local leisure magazine. Brewdog Punk on my breath, scone crumbs at the corners of my mouth, I asked one of the employees about this “Close” phenomenon. She explained it’s an exclusive Edinburgh term meaning…well, an alley with a courtyard.

Gee, and I thought there was something deeply meaningful about a Close. Thanks for the info, Fiona! (Burp.)

Back on High Street, I saw several more Closes. My favorite was World’s End Close. Okay, but please, how much time do I have? I really wanted to investigate this one. But I was afraid I might tumble into one of Calcutta’s black holes, or into a one-way celestial omnibus, or worse, spontaneously combust. So I fought my curiosity. Like heaven, hell, and the appeal of the Republican Party, some things are intended to be a mystery.

World's End Close

World’s End Close is the stone entrance on the left. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Before hopping my train back to the Glasgow suburbs, I visited a few more monolithic hunks of rock in beautiful Edinburgh: Calton Hill, with its towering monument to English naval hero Lord Nelson, the highest point in the city, and where I could scan all of Edinburgh, along with the placid waters of the Firth of Forth; Old Calton Cemetery, where the bones of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume are honored with a large tomb; and skyscraping Melville Monument, erected to a guy who was impeached in 1806 for misappropriation of public money, the last public official to be impeached in the United Kingdom (thus far).

Just as in the states, massive stone memorials to dead people seem really important to some folks. I don’t know, but I continue to scratch my head on that one.

I think it was German writer Bertolt Brecht who said not to pity those nations without heroes. Pity instead those that need them.

(Next time I’ll be stepping onto the West Highland Way trail to visit the natural carvings of the Scottish Highlands. Stay tuned!)

 

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An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court

scott monument

Last year, our daughter moved from Nashville, Tennessee to a sleepy village in Scotland called Milngavie. It’s located seven miles northwest of Glasgow. (The move was precipitated by our son-in-law’s job transfer). While my wife and I have always encouraged our kids to travel, Nashville to Milngavie seems quite a cultural shift. But Holly is comfortable over there. She’s more Vauxhall Corsa than Dodge 4×4, anyway.

Last month, I finally got to visit them and our two granddaughters. The only thing I missed, aside from The Lawrence Welk Show, was American sunshine.

One of my familial lines leads to Scotland, so it was a sort of coming home. My middle name is Scott, a family clan name traced to ancestor William Scott, who ran a deer park and salmon fishery in Scotland in the 1700s. Bill fled Scotland for County Derry, Ireland (something about papists). His grandson, James, then ratcheted up the rebel thing and sailed to the state of William Penn. Jimmy Scott then joined the Pennsylvania Line to battle British Redcoats during the American Revolution.

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1822 painting of writer-historian Sir Walter Scott

Coincidentally, my plane landed on July 4, which is America’s Independence Day (also my birthday). In England, some call this “Treason Day.”  Really, everything is a circle.

But I discovered both the English and Scottish were exceptionally friendly, bending over backwards to help a stupid Yank with train and bus info, directions, money confusions, etc. They all noticed my hayseed accent and were curious where I was from. To avoid apologies and embarrassments due to recent events, I just said “North America.” Fortunately, they didn’t push for details.

The highlight of my trip was spending time with my granddaughters, Avi (22 months) and Rory (4 months). But I did manage to sightsee some. Here’s a wee bit of my travels in the land of clans and kilts.  And I promise, there will be no photos of kilts or bagpipes here.

MILNGAVIE (pronounced “Mull-guy” per the original Gaelic): the Scottish love their dogs, and I saw more dogs here than anywhere I’ve ever been, and they’re all very well trained. Hikers also flock to Milngavie, because the 96-mile West Highland Way, one of the UK’s most popular distance trails, begins here. I met hikers from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, California, Seattle, and elsewhere. Early one morning I met a local man named Chris, who was doing a one-man protest to save an old English phone booth (“phone box”) from being removed. He explained that, in Scotland (or maybe just Milngavie), authorities won’t remove or destroy anything if at least one person shows up each day to protest. (Does that include living things like trees?) Anyway, I think that’s a great law.

Chris in Milngavie

Chris, rescuing red phone boxes in downtown Milngavie

The center of Milngavie, like many towns across Europe, is a brick walkway for pedestrians. Lots of quaint shops and cafés, including Fantoosh Nook, where Holly and I ate lunch one day. My friend Neil…Yeah, Another Blogger…visited Edinburgh recently and mentioned Cullen skink, which I sampled while at the Nook. It’s a smoked haddock and potato soup that has a bacon flavor. I loved it…a far cry from Campbell’s New England clam chowder. Thanks for the tip, Neil, you blogger you.

Along the West Highland Way, just north of Milngavie, I visited Mugdock Park. The park is named after Mugdock Castle, which dates back to at least 1376, and was in use until the mid-1600s. It was the stronghold of a clan named Graham. Parts of the remains of the castle were rebuilt over the centuries, but the main tower is original. When I visited Jamestown, Virginia a few years ago, my mind was boggled to think that, just under my feet, there rested relics and bones dating to 1607. But 1376?? That’s beyond boggling.

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Mugdock Castle in Milngavie

GLASGOW: along with Edinburgh, Glasgow is one of Scotland’s two major cities. Both have their merits. Edinburgh is definitely more scenic, with its storybook architecture. But it’s also rampant with tourists. (Tourists spend quid, which help local populations, but we also taint exactly what we’re drawn to.) Glasgow, on the other hand, is more of a working city, and the Scaw-ish brogue is more evident here. It’s said that Edinburgh is where you want to visit, but Glasgow is where you should live. Not sure this is 100 percent accurate, but it might come close.

I spent a half day with Holly and Avi in Glasgow. We visited Kelvingrove Park and University of Glasgow. Both were impressive, but I have to be honest and say that the main delight was pushing Avi on the swing, and holding her hand while strolling across the university grounds. That grandparent thing is for real. Next time, maybe Avi won’t be along to absorb my attention, and I can soak up more of this vibrant city.

Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

Avi and Holly at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

EDINBURGH: one day I took the train from Milngavie to Glasgow to Edinburgh and enjoyed a rare hot and sunny day in this historic city. I exited Waverley Station in Old Town, and the first thing I saw was a massive blackened spire piercing the blue sky, towering hundreds of feet above Princes Street. With Ohio Yankee naivety, I initially thought the spire might be part of a castle. Then I got closer and discovered it was a monument to my “cousin,” Sir Walter Scott. It’s the second tallest monument to a writer in the world.

Speaking of Mark Twain, the bard of the Mississippi River used to, if I recall, ridicule Scott’s penchant for high romanticism. And maybe that’s why I never read him (Scott, that is). Does he really deserve such an impressive monument, even if we are related? Alfred-e-newmanMaybe one day I should put down Mad Magazine and read Ivanhoe.

Then, across a valley, I spied Edinburgh Castle, the centerpiece of the city. It sits on a rocky promontory overlooking much of old Edinburgh. It’s exact date of construction is unknown, but it may go back to the 12th century, and human habitation on Castle Rock dates to the 2nd century AD. It was the site of numerous military sieges from the Middle Ages until the 1745 Jacobite rising. Kings and queens, royal intrigue, crown jewels…you name it. I refer you to Wikipedia for a full history.

I walked all around the perimeter of the castle, and up to the front entrance, but the heat and locusts (tourists) made things too claustrophobic, so I declined joining a tour.

Edinburgh Castle_Weller concert

Paul Weller and others: appearing soon at a castle moat near you!

Instead, I was drawn toward a threatening looking man standing in a café doorway, just down from a makeshift stadium in the castle esplanade. He had a shaved head, was clothed entirely in black, and had muscles on top of tattoos on top of muscles. I walked up to him and joked that he must be the Castle bouncer. But he said (in thick Cockney) that he was security for a concert later that evening. I asked who was playing.

“Paul Wella.”
Paul Weller? Yeah, I love him! The Jam and Style Council!”
“Ass roit, mate. Stoyle Cancel.”

I couldn’t believe an ex-punk rocker was performing in a collapsible stadium sandwiched between a former church (now ticket office) and the Edinburgh Castle gates. But I guess that’s life in the 21st century. I later asked about tickets. There were only six left, priced at 60 pounds apiece. It was time to move on.

I left the locust swarm in Old Town and strolled downhill, away from Castle Rock, across several blocks to 136 Lothian Road. The premises are now occupied by a pastry shop, but in the early Sixties it was The Howff, one of the top folk clubs in Great Britain. Pete Seeger, Brownie McGee, and Archie Fisher played here, and Bert Jansch had a regular residency.

The Howff_Edinburgh2

The Howff (with inset of Bert Jansch)

Jansch is an acoustic guitar legend, a Scotsman, and one of my musical heroes—he directly influenced Neil Young, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Nick Drake, Al Stewart, Donovan, and many others—so it was cool to see the place where he first earned a reputation. My side trip here might strike some as strange, but little musical connections like this always get my juices flowing. (Wait till I discuss my trip to Liverpool.) Besides, I got to see a quieter side of Edinburgh that most tourists never see.

My search for an oasis in the locust swarm took me to St. Cuthbert’s Church, at the foot of Castle Rock. This quiet cathedral may date to 850 A.D., which makes it the oldest building in Edinburgh. The burial ground here is filled with noteworthy Scotsmen and women, and, since real estate is at a premium here, some are buried under more “important” people’s tombs (monuments).  Hey, just like life!

I climbed back onto Princes Street, then crossed George Street to a tunnel-like lane called Young Street. Here, far from the madding crowd, a cool breeze pulled me along, past discreet shops and businesses that one would overlook if not for a modest plaque mounted next to a narrow doorway. I expected any second to see a Scottish version of Scrooge, Marley, or Cratchit emerging.

Oxford Bar_Edinburgh

The modest “Oxford” Bar, on modest Young Street

I was half-tempted to wet my whistle in the scrunched The “Oxford” Bar (the quote marks are part of the name). It’s a pub established in 1811, made famous in Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series of novels…which I also haven’t read. It’s also a hangout for Edinburgh policemen—and secret agents, since Sean Connery supposedly quaffs here (although I wonder how many Scottish pubs make this same claim). But I had a mild headache from the whiskey and Brewdog Punk IPA that I’d earlier tipped on High Street in Old Town, so I kept “strolling down the highway.”

In my next installment, I’ll conclude the rest of my Edinburgh visit, discussing High Street, aka The Royal Mile, and the World’s End…which is Close.

Edinburgh Castle 2

Monolithic Edinburgh Castle, from foot of volcanic Castle Rock

Bright Flower at Woodstock: An Interview with Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band

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It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!

The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.

woodstock crowd

Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.

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In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”

One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.woodstock poster3

The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.

In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.

Here, then, is longitudes interview with the Rose of Woodstock.

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longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?

Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.

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“The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” Rose is in center, clutching the tree branch.

longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?

Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.

longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?

Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.

longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?

Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.

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The Incredible String Band. L to R: Mike, Rose, Licorice, Robin

longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?

Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.

longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?

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Mike and Robin, Scottish mystics and gifted artists, pictured on “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”

Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.

longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?

Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?

Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.

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Rose, with McCartney bass on her lap

longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?

Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.

It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.

longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?

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Backstage, probably soon after arriving at Max Yasgur’s farm on Friday, August 15, 1969 (Photo: Epic Rights, Inc.)

Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.

“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”

longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?

Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.

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Rose, in sheer chiffon dress, during ISB’s set at Woodstock festival

We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.

longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?

Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.

longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.

Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.

longitudes: Steve Winwood was impressed enough by your bass playing that he wanted you to play on one of his albums, I’m guessing with his band Traffic. Why didn’t you accept his offer?

Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.

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Robin, Liccy, and Rose, onstage during Woodstock. (Note Robin’s harlequin pants and his guitar paintings.)

longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?

Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.

longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?

Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.

“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”

longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?

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Liccy and Mike, scattering brightness at Bickershaw Festival, near Manchester, England, 1972 (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.

longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?

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Manager Joe Boyd, Rose, Mike, Liccy (Photo: Joe Boyd Collection)

Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.

Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.

longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.

Rose: You’re welcome.

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(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)

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