When I tell people I study Scottish Literature, they probably get some image of crazy writers on a Hebridean surf-drenched rock, calling out Hugh MacDiarmid poems to the wind with their throats still searing from a single malt whisky. A couple of weekends ago, I am happy to say the reality did not disappoint.
Every year or so, the Scottish Literature department takes a bunch of students out to the nearby Isle of Arran. Arran is easy to get to from Glasgow – you could theoretically get there and back in a day. In order to enjoy the trip without the stress of making one of 5 daily ferry sailings, however, you should spend at least one night there if you can. Three Scot Lit staff, 22 undergraduate students, myself and my fellow PhD pals, Kirsty and Sandy, met outside the University of Glasgow at 7am to get the bus to Ardrossan, which takes about 90 minutes. From there we sailed on the one of the now familiar CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) ferries to Brodick. It’s only a 55 minute ferry, and though the sea looked pretty rough, it wasn’t that bad once we’d left the seemingly constant high swell of Ardrossan behind.
From Brodick it’s another half hour or so on the bus to the other side – the windier side – of the island to Blackwaterfoot, where the wonderfully 1970s Best Western Hotel was our home for the next three days.
We launched pretty much straight into presentations. Each of us students, all 25, were tasked with giving a 10 minute presentation on ‘an aspect of Scottish literature or culture that interests you”. It was a suitably eerie first session, with the devil, gothic, necromancy and beheading all on the table. In the second session we discovered a forgotten First World War poet, Joseph Lee and Sandy gave a heroically concise history of verse translation in Scotland, among other gems.
Dinner introduced us to the surprisingly epic standard of dining at the Best Western Blackwaterfoot. Three huge courses later (completed by a Bailey’s and Nutella cheesecake I would travel back to Arran for) we dragged our sated selves back to the seminar room for the film. One of the professors, my former supervisor, gave an academic introduction to the film, because when you enter into the world of academics, it is no longer possible to watch films without analysing them in their historical and cultural context. The film was a new one to me, a great 1980s Scottish comedy (of course) called Restless Natives, in which two young Scots hold up tourist buses in the highlands and become local legends, apologising as they relieve the thrilled American bus-loads of their cash.
By the next day the storm had begun to intensify a bit, but it was still at about normal island level of wind and drizzle, if the locals and ventifacted trees were to be believed. Kirsty started us off with the Gorbals boys and we stayed in Glasgow for most of that session including two on Alasdair Gray, until it was my turn to speak about Harry Potter. Yep, Harry Potter. Most people, including Scottish literature scholars, are surprised when I say that around 10,000 words of my thesis are dedicated to Hogwarts, but that famous institution is located in Scotland after all, the first book of the series was written on a Scottish Arts Council grant and Rowling donated one million pounds to the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK. So she certainly deserves her place in my PhD on writers an the independence referendum. Plus, I got to spend the summer re-reading Harry Potter.
As the presentations drew to an end, one girl began a passionate discussion with her talk on ‘chavs’ – I’d define it for non-UK readers but the result of the discussion was that the word is both offensive and impossible to define. One of the final talks was on The Incredible String Band, a 1970s Scottish folk/psychedelic group, the last remaining member of which Sandy and I had seen performing at Celtic Connections just a couple of weeks earlier.
The afternoon was a chance to get out and explore Arran a bit further, and we were all going to visit King’s Cave – the cave where King Robert the Bruce is said to have seen the spider that inspired him. The weather wasn’t amazing but drizzle and a bit of wind wasn’t going to put people from our latitudes off! So we blithely set out across the stormy beach, Sandy regaling us with Hugh McDiarmid poems in the building storm – very atmospheric, especially the Eemis Stane! When we reached a certain point about half the group decided to go back before the storm got too intense. Unfortunately that included all the people who actually knew where they were going, but the rest of us didn’t quite appreciate that as we persevered.
When we got the the end of the beach we spent some time searching for something that looked like a place medieval kings might enjoy some bug-watching, but without result. By this time the wind had built quickly into a gale that I later learned was gusting at over 100kph. We hadn’t really noticed with the wind behind us, but turning side on the rain came into our faces like little bullets so we all had to hold various items of clothing over our eyes in order to see where we were going. As we couldn’t find the cave and it was quickly becoming quite dangerous to even be outside, we decided to turn back and put it down to a classic Hebridean experience. It took a long, long time to get back against the storm, but eventually we all trudged in, completely soaked through. It took about 10 minutes of standing in the shower before I could feel the temperature of the water, but I do love a good storm!
After another impressive three course meal, we began a short open mic session. Ella, an Australian exhcange student I was happy to inform of the cricket score, started us off with an incredibly moving rendition of ‘And the Band played Waltzing Matilda’. I have never been so moved by any ANZAC remembrance as I was by this one on a little island off the cost of Scotland. I then joined her for our duet of the Crowded House classic, ‘Better be Home Soon’. It was a joy to be singing again, and one of my favourites from home as well. Sandy perfomed a small section of ‘The Tempest’ in honour of the whistling we could hear even over the singing, and he was followed by a Joseph Lee poem, a fast-paced Gaelic song and the song of a Spanish region one of the other exchange students was from. The others all stayed up into the small hours, but Kirsty and I were both feeling a bit average so ended up in our shared room watching ‘Jurassic Park’. This uncharacteristic behaviour had us wondering if the ghost of Mrs. Doyle was haunting the teacups in our room, a theory supported when I just about blew out of the window in order to see how strong the gale had become.
Fortunately, by the next day the wind had abated and we were able to enjoy the day without too much fear of getting stranded. We began with a slightly hungover version of Call My Bluff, a game where you have to guess which of three definitions of a word is the correct one. They were all obscure Scots words of course! Probably my favourite was ‘tipsie dipsie’, which sounds so much like one of those innocent granny-type phrases Scots is famous for, but in fact refers to a violent altercation!
After lunch we left our Blackwaterfoot home for the last time and set off on a bus tour of the island. Whichever way you looked there was beautiful island scenery, and we also got to check out a ruined castle and, most excitingly, my first ever proper Scottish standing stones! The Machrie Moor standing stones are in several circles and because the weather had washed out a lot of the track we could only see the first one, but it was still extraordinary. They’re about 4000 years old and mark a burial site, but we still don’t know what they were used for originally, as the circles are older than the burials.
I had imagined Arran as a little one town island, with a few paddocks and a nice coastline, but in reality it was much larger and more varied. There are around half a dozen settlements, surrounding mountains high enough to still be capped with snow, pine forests, and deer and sheep farms, even the occasional Highland Coo. It’s been inhabited since the Neolithic era, so the whole place is what Kirsty would call a palimpsest of historical memory. It’s well worth the short journey from Glasgow, and if you can, bring a couple of pals who can quote Scottish poetry when the weather gets rough!