10 October 2006


from millennium wood, with the rowan and its golden berries in the foreground, duart castle, seat of the clan maclean

castle grounds

this time, there was no hurry. the day was fine as we approached duart, which stood, as ever, against the greyblue sky and the greyblue sea. i watched a distant ferry - the same in fact we would board later this day - passing the lismore lighthouse on its way to oban. i headed for millennium wood to document each sign, so that i could tell my kids how to get here. with the mighty ancient duart and the sea complicit in my enterprise, and with lindsay listening to my rambling stories in the confines of her car while driving the tedious labyrinthine mull roads, i was anything but alone. i was in fact surrounded with home.


the trip crossing again the ross of mull, back toward duart castle, presented another spectacular side to the landscape, literally. random waterfalls spilled out of mountainsides, a lone white house against a vast green backdrop stood dramatically for something human interrupting the primitive, raw, wild plains and wetlands framed by shrouded mountains. we spotted shore birds indigenous to such regions. at one point i thought i spotted a marbled godwit. we passed by pheasant just a few feet away, and possibly a great blue heron. old moss-covered stones stacked, without mortar, formed what they call dykes, and they stretched for miles, a story in themselves. these stones had already stood for ages, and no technology could possibly improve them. it's just the way you stack them that keeps them together, still standing all these years later. it keeps going around in my head, this scene, and will not fade: its relevance and strength, its simplicity and its power.

09 October 2006

on staffa


08 October 2006


it was a very short ride across to iona, but we only had fifteen minutes to move the car and return to the ferry. lindsay flew up the hill to the car park and i proceeded with the cases to the queue for the ferry, composing a fantastic appeal to the ferryman to wait for lindsay. of course i didn’t need to use it. soon we were underway in the warmth of a cabin, arriving ready for fishnchips, a lager, and a good bed. iona is a much smaller island, and wild with history and ruggedness, thick with ancient meaning. the nights are dark against the sea, and even the morning was wetter and colder than usual. this all goes with the idea of something enduring millions of years, which left me suspended someplace between metaphor and actuality. oh wait. the smithy, of course.


as our boat landed, a fishing boat was unloading its day’s work, case after case of russet crabs. to think of it. these guys had been on that same sea all day. i wondered if they too had heard the sirens singing.


on the way back to fionnphort, the wild grey sea gave urgency to the feel of that boat on those waves. homer again, specifically, these stanzas of the siren song:

"Sea rovers here take joy
Voyaging onward,
As from our song of Troy
Greybeard and rover-boy
Goeth more learnéd.

"All feats on that great field
In the long warfare,
Dark days the bright gods willed,
Wounds you bore there,

"Argos' old soldiery
On Troy beach teeming,
Charmed out of time we see.
No life on earth can be
Hid from our dreaming."

goodbye hello

i knew that my leaving staffa would not, after 59 billion years, change staffa. but staffa had surely changed me. something hearty and ancient touched me there, is with me still, like the roots of that rowan tree, spreading in my consciousness, seeking nourishment, absorbing the remaining light, making preparations for whatever the storm brings.


climbing to the plateau on top of staffa, truly the top of the world, i remembered the golden-berried rowan in millennium wood, i could imagine circe and the cyclops, as well the siren song of skylla and kharybis, and knew, despite the detours, that i too would make it to ithaca. even the grasses laid down flat by the wind struck me as almost too much of a metaphor, showing me by their example that giving in to the wind was better than fighting against it. welcome, home.

the deep

these articulations were not lost on me. in fact, the idea that we were allowed to cross the stones with only a handrail, and sometimes not even that, added to the wild freedom i was beginning to taste. and so, exploring our way along the length of the island, we came to the heart of it, the deep and dark and mysterious fingal's cave. you stand there listening to the breath of the atlantic, and think of odysseus, distracted, seduced, enchanted, delaying his return to ithaca by ten years, and you finally get it. it felt like the beginning of the world.


without delay, we were off south and then westward, crossing the ross of mull, to a place called fionnphort, where small ferries carry passengers to iona, and even smaller boats carry the intrepid to staffa, an island formed by the heating and cooling of volcanic ash, such that perfectly constructed hexagonal columns formed. the sea continues to hollow out caves in them, most notable of which is fingal’s cave, which inspired mendelssohn’s hebrides overture, also known as fingal’s cave.


an homage to velma jean* on the occasion of a rowan tree, planted for her on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, 26 September 2006.

the ancient ones declared that with both of your parents gone, then there is nothing between you and the sky.

it came so fast, the nothing.

unready for parentlessness, and stepping onto the soft ground, i wanted to sing that first taste of Joyce again – “Amen, so be it. Welcome, O life! I go for the millionth time to encounter the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” – but i could never get the voice right.

i think of you, mommy, and your growing up with an outhouse and how that might have affected your view of the world, putting a heavy coat on over your nightgown, stepping out into the frigid night with shoes too big, and a little fear, perplexed that your little-girl body invaded the dream, forcing you out into the darkness, stomping all over your cloud as if it were nothing. and then to come back inside to the cold smell of a fire gone out, and sheets nothing like the warm ones you left. it made you a fighter, didn’t it. and there’s you all whipsmart, canning peaches with a taste of sunshine in them, throwing a barbecued crab feast in the driveway, and making the best damn pickles that lady ever tasted.

the ruin is fragile now, and charred. more of it blows away with every breath, and when you take a step, you fall straight through to the beginning of things.

with this tree, the earth gets busy on a new batch of life, and a piece of the empty sky fills up again. with this tree, back to your roots, my love. it might seem dangerous to plant a tree in such ground, but i have heard it said that out of the ashes a golden bough will spring, and rock us all a-bye.

amen so be it. welcome o life. i go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

*b. 27 July 1922, d. 16 January 2006. wife of Fred and wife of Gary; mother of Janet and Judi and Don; grandmother of Scott, Danielle, Jennifer, Clancy, Sarah, and Gary; great-grandmother of Benjamin, Brandi, Amber, Casper, Ida and Hazel.

the tree

we drove straight through to duart castle from calgary, arriving desperate for the loo (the coffee and haddock, no doubt - my mother would appreciate this detail). in the gift shop we met andrew, who, again thanks to lindsay, had been my contact with mull, with duart, with clan maclean, and complicit in this whole enterprise since february. it was andrew who obtained permission from the chief to plant this tree on the grounds of the castle in millennium wood, it was andrew who recommended alec and cynthia, and it was andrew who actually put the tree into the ground.

but i am getting ahead of myself. the tree was in its pot just outside the gift shop (we had walked right past it). so off we go then, our wee procession: andrew, lindsay, and me, through the gate to millennium wood, down the path to the rightmost fork and across a footbridge, to the spot selected. the hole had been properly dug. lindsay and andrew tugged at the pot and extracted the tree for planting. janet held the tree straight while, andrew returned the unearthed soil around it. once planted, andrew joined lindsay on the trail, and janet read the homage.

it sounds simple and straightforward, and it was, but it was also weighty and moving – of course it was that – and because it was so solitary and so singular in purpose, because the words fell mostly on listening leaves and grass, it was also, for the one spoken of, mostly a homecoming, not just to scotland and to the seat of the macleans, but to earth, and the nearby sea she loved so well. even now as i write this, other exquisite moments are hurrying away almost as soon as they arrive, and so are to be cherished, even when they are spent honoring the thing that’s lost.

the day

we rose the next morning to another glorious day – i still marvel at the knotty pine shower, luxurious water pressure, and the extraordinary clean i felt in that place. breakfast was already underway in the dining room, and in addition to the cereals and yoghurt and juices along the sideboard, one actually selected breakfast, so without hesitation, lindsay and i both ordered the most delicious smoked haddock with a poached egg on top, gallons of coffee, and get this. for the toast, a tiny wee dish of marmalade. it was a perfect meal, and a proper start to what would for me prove a quite historical day.

the further away i get from this day, the more i shake my head in sheer wonder at lindsay’s impeccable planning for our time there. the idea of our going first to tobermory, then to calgary, and then, or rather at this point, retracing our route back to duart castle, even now strikes me as absolutely brilliant, to say nothing of the necessary advance bookings and arrangements. small wonder that the whole trip took on a seamlessly carefree character, all because of her investing so much thought and preparation.

night on mull

back in our elegant room, we changed for dinner and wandered out into what seemed more a living room, not someone else's, but our own, complete with handcrafted crescent-shaped coffee table evoking the shape of the beach, still with remnants of its bark. we were a little early for our reservation, so we picked up books from the shelves, and the one i was reading again referenced that clan maclean of mull, a subject which continues to captivate me.

the host, matthew, brought us a glass of wine while we perused our books (no hurry - very un-new york), and later led us into the dining room, which was lit exclusively with candles and a fire, giving off a warm glow to the dark wooden tables and chairs. six tables? eight? no more. yet each were contained in individual, occupied worlds, and spaced in such a way that their boundaries were in tact.

the meal proceeded with the same elegance and panache i was by now growing accustomed to, the pinot noir complementing the goat cheese tart and perfectly dressed green salad, as well the wild salmon and haddock gratin. i wish i could recall the meal in more detail, but the ambience subverted my efforts to do so. we lingered in that dining room a long time, i think largely because it was so comfortable, conducive to finishing fragmented conversations, and starting new ones, synapses firing in all directions. or could it be that i just didn't want this day to end? perhaps.

crawling into the 300-count sheets that night, i tried to write down what we'd done so far. it was my first attempt at that, and not too successful. what i realized was this incredible sense of fullness, and that there really was no way to properly document a return to one's metaphysical and genealogical origins - no way to depict the stirrings in the soul that frequently brought with them unmitigaged lachrymose joy.

still, i persist in the attempt.


setting out on the nature trail punctuated with the work of an artisan, beginning with a mosaic entry depicting the beach and calgary bay, we knew we were on a curious circuit, a combination of wild raw nature and, for once, careful, intelligent human intervention.

i want to tell about this trail to calgary bay and the wild blackberries we ate along the way, the wall of fuschia in full bloom, the handcarved birds in the trees. i would like somehow to depict the dark green forest against which was set this wide crescent beach of white sand, but i get concerned this will begin to sound like a travelogue and not the odyssey it was. ahwell. nothing to be done.

the expanse of white sand, framed by tall beach grass on the approach, and outcroppings of rock at the shore, provided a compelling foreground to the sky, now full of pre-sunset drama with colours and clouds performing like cello and orchestra, singing farewell to the sun again. you can't help thinking how many thousand million days like this one have taken their leave, only to return in a few hours all wet with hello. it's impossible to think of it as ever stopping, even with death, especially when the darkest starless most stormy night is still supplanted by morning.

calgary bay

from my new york apartment, recalling these events on mull seems like recalling a dream. yet it was not a dream (i have witnesses), and its impact continues to inform what joyce so precisely calls “the smithy of my soul.” as a matter of fact, most of the time on mull, i kept thinking about the earth at its unspoiled beginnings, which indeed rendered my own beginnings more stark in relief, now in harmony with the gulls and the crabs, the beach and the rocks and the sea, indeed, a blooming into some sort of remembered existence i had forgotten. or at least left behind.

on the way to calgary, we stopped at dervaig to see the mull little theatre, which lindsay had often talked of visiting. we had just missed their last performance by days, and now the theatre was closed as such, with plans to re-build another, larger facility. the end of an era. oh but what a lovely little wooden structure it is. impressive in its simplicity, though i neglected to photograph it (why is that?), this building reminded me of the something original i had first envisioned when embarking on things theatrical, almost out of ancient greece, evocative and singular, magical and real. no wonder i couldn’t photograph it.

we checked into the most elegant hotel i have yet to visit, with its whitewashed walls, its cozy rooms and hallways and the sudden delight of a small detail like a handcrafted light fixture or candlestick, or a pine-paneled shower that brings in the whole outdoors, much the same way the deep window sills and french windows bring the mull sky right into the room.

06 October 2006


we landed at craignure and set out for tobermory, but almost immediately ran across something called fishnish balmenach, a name i recognized as the location of the nursery – alec and cynthia to be exact – which had supplied the rowan tree, having delivered it to the castle the day before. we went in and had tea and homemade shortbread, and best of all, right there in their own garden, i saw for the first time, a full-grown golden-berried rowan tree.

off we went, then, for tobermory, this wee seaside town with a 100-year-old clock in the town square, next to a cart selling the most delicious chips to be had. they were potatoes, folks. but getting there – getting there required some of the most skilled driving and concentration imaginable. bad enough driving on the wrong side of the road all the time, but on mull, there is very little two-lane traffic. instead, one lane suffices, with intermittent “passing places” – the rule being - well, there are no rules, other than heaps of courtesy from both sides in order to avoid crashing into each other, with lots of waving when finally the maneuver succeeds, and no crash occurs. lindsay was spectacular in all respects (she has a fabulous wave, too), especially considering how often these little turn-outs were required.

so. tobermory at last and a lovely wander around the wee bay. it was all quite enchanted, including a museum hosted by an older, wiser resident, gracious and knowledgeable. even there among the geological and the military, i found something on the clan maclean, which seemed a kind of welcome. i also found a pair of wellies in tobermory, filling such a void in my wardrobe that i continued to wear them the whole of our time on mull.

the position of this wee community beside the bay, with its fishing boats and piers, naturally recalled my childhood in newport. in fact, the topography of mull, to a large extent, mirrors familiar stretches of the oregon coast, but unspoiled and wild, sans billboards and grand tourist-targeted enterprise. plus of course it’s an island, so there’s lots and lots of coastline.

mussels & whisky

this wee boat - can you see it? - was sighted off the ferry between oban and mull. the trip from glasgow to oban had been spectacular, with views of loch lomond and other lochs along the way, and winding roads through forests just at the prelude to fall. approaching oban, we stopped for petrol, and right inside the station, we were able to buy a bottle of famous grouse, a glass of which we would enjoy before dinner at calgary bay.

in oban, we queued up for the ferry, then took a walk along the waterfront looking for coffee. we found much more than coffee: freshly smoked mussels, plump and delicious – not in the shell! – and drizzled some tangy sauces to have with our coffee while we waited for the ferry, which did in fact appear, majestically, coming round the point.

on the top deck of the ferry there were plenty of chairs and not many people. the sky was magnificent all day, telling a thousand stories with clouds breaking up, then re-forming and moving on until one of those breaks occurs, sending a shaft of light cascading to earth. usually such a sight evoked for me the day my father was buried. this time, though, two distinct shafts of light came out of the thunderhead onto the sheen of the water, and i couldn’t help thinking not only of fred, but also of velma.

the odyssey begins

starting this blog is an attempt to capture the experience in scotland into some sort of container, and at the same time sort it out in my head, and, of course, to invite comments.

i went to scotland to plant a rowan tree on the isle of mull in memory of my mother, who passed away in january. when i first had this idea, i pictured a lilac tree any old place on mull. however, lindsay, a dear friend in glasgow, contacted the tourist board there, which led to duart castle, the seat of the clan maclean. and thus it began. begins.

05 October 2006


at life's defining moments, it becomes necessary to sort through them, like the contents of a long-neglected trunk in the attic which, all that time, held essential clues to the present. such was the leitmotif of a recent trip to the isle of mull, where my gloom was overtaken by scotland's luminous, ever-changing skies.