The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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Over the Sea to Scotland – Part 3

The Best of Scotland – A Braw Tour

It’s been more than three weeks since I posted Part 2 of this little “Scotland Plus” travelogue and more than a month since returning home. Life intervened, but I’ve been wanting to complete the set, so here we are.  If you’d like to read the other entries, click for Part 1 and Part 2.

The tour provided a rich itinerary, lovely scenery, accommodations ranging from comfy to pretty darned luxurious, exposure to local culture (including whisky and music), and a chance to sample delicious Scottish fare. Here are some of the highlights. I’m letting some of the photos I like best guide the content here. They’re all from an iPhone 8 Plus, by the way.

The tour (Rick Steves’ Best of Scotland, highly recommended) began with an evening walk around Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town (“new” meaning 18th Century in this context) and a pub dinner. The next morning, we tackled Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the city and looks impossible to reach (but isn’t).

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Edinburgh Castle

Tours of  Edinburgh these days include quite a few references to Harry Potter: After all, this is where Harry first came to life in J.K. Rowling’s imagination. Grassmarket  may have inspired Diagon Alley, character names came from headstones in Greyfriars Kirkyard and so forth. (The other popular culture reference one hears frequently is to the TV and book series Outlander, which has clearly been a boost to Scottish tourism.)

On then, to Culross and St. Andrews, the fascinating Crannog Centre on Loch Tay,

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Loch Tay

the welcoming Dewar’s distillery at Aberfeldy, a working sheep farm,

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Culloden battlefield, Urquhart Castle, the prehistoric burial site at Clava Cairns, Brodie Castle with its gazillion daffodils and rooms full of living history; through Glencoe

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Glencoe

to Oban and eventually the Isle of Iona via CalMac ferry and the Isle of Mull;

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finally, along Loch Lomond, on to Stirling Castle and a beautiful farewell dinner overlooking the Edinburgh skyline.

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All of it to be cherished, none of it to be missed. So many thanks to our wonderful guide Anne and all our tour companions. Sláinte!

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Over the Sea to Scotland — Part 2

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From York, we were soon back on the train, this time for a brief stay in Edinburgh before an overnight trip out to Deeside. We were driven around by Your Tour Scotland (thanks very much, Don), so we were able to visit spots both on and off the beaten track, including on Day One a ruined abbey at Balmerino and another spectacular ruin, Dunnottar Castle (say duh-NOT-are) on the North Sea. Dunnottar is dramatic and windblown, so we followed our visit there right up with a warming lunch at the Marine Hotel in Stonehaven. Have you ever heard of salmon skink? I Here’s a recipe I found for salmon cullen skink, which is the same idea. Cullen skink is ubiquitous in Scotland, more or less a chowder made with cod. The Marine Hotel serves salmon skink in a bread bowl. Definitely one of the best meals I had on this whole trip!

Our post-lunch stops included romantic and mysterious Burn O’Vat and a ruined medieval church and churchyard, which was used until much later, at Tullich. We ended the day in Ballater, a lovely town with the River Dee running through it, overlooked by the Cairngorm Mountains.

Yes, it had been a bit cold and occasionally wet up to this point, but overnight the weather shifted and the morning brought both sunshine and warmer air. Yay! The scenery was beautifully on view for our Day Two drive along the river and visits to Crathie Kirk and churchyard near Balmoral (though not the castle), the villages of Balmoral and Braemar (home of the Highland Games, and the lovely, lyrically-named Linn O’Dee.

In more detail, the British royal family worships at Crathie Kirk when they are at their Scottish home, Balmoral Castle. One interesting person buried in this churchyard is John Brown, Queen Victoria’s faithful Scottish attendant brought to boisterous and rough-hewn life by Billy Connolly in the film Mrs. Brown, with Judi Dench as the queen.

Apparently, Queen Victoria herself was fond of the Linn O’Dee. Easy to see why, since the river flows rapidly through a picturesque rocky gorge at this point. In Scotland, a linn is exactly that —  where a watercourse has cut through a shelf of hard rock creating a narrow steep-sided cut through which the watercourse runs.

Braemar is another one of those appealing, higher-elevation towns with mountain air and a river (the Dee) running through it. We were not there long, but it was fun to note a tongue-in-cheek sign in the local butcher shop:

“locally caught” HAGGIS’s ‘sold here’ take One home!

For more about haggis, click here. It does actually taste better than it sounds.

Edinburgh

We arrived back in Edinburgh looking forward to a couple of  free days before our Best of Tour Scotland was due to start. We spent our first day in the city walking through Princes Street Gardens and exploring the Royal Mile. One of the very photogenic places on my to-see list was the Writer’s Museum just off the Royal Mile. The museum honors three great Scottish writers, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As a matter of interest, it is hard to overestimate the importance of Scott’s legacy just as it is hard to overestimate the importance of whisky to experiencing Scottish culture. (More about that in Part 3.) Just be aware that the Scott Monument in Edinburgh is the largest monument to a writer in the world. And he was a historical novelist. Just saying.

Shopping was also involved in getting to know Edinburgh, since Scotland features loads of tempting cashmere and wool items such as shawls, scarves, hats, and gloves. And I never stop looking at books. I often take photos of those that intrigue me because I know I can’t carry them home. I did buy a crime novel set in the Highlands, though — His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I’m well into it now and it’s pretty bloody entertaining so far, too.

The next day we found time for an outing to Rosslyn Chapel, now widely known because it features in the ending of The Da Vinci Code, but nevertheless an important and unusual structure in its own right, and in the ownership of a single family since 1446. We had fun traveling to the village of Roslin and back by public bus, which allowed us to see more of the city as well as suburbs and countryside. In the evening, we took in another photo op in a stroll through Dean Village, finishing in time to meet up with our tour.

More about that in Part 3!

 


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Over the Sea to Scotland — Bookended by London with a Stop in York (Part 1)

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Loch Lomond

Travelogue time! Even though the UK had a late spring this year, it was a joy to spend three weeks on the other side of the pond, mostly in Scotland. To keep the narrative digestable, I’ll post about the trip in parts. First up, London and York.

London

I love London and was so happy to be back in my favorite area, Bloomsbury. I was able to check a few things off my to-do-this-time list. (I never get to all of them.)

On our one full day in London, we walked around St. Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. Later, after a pretty much obligatory pilgrimage to Foyle’s flagship store on Charing Cross Road, I dipped into the National Portrait Gallery. I had a particular reason for wanting to see works by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and then I just happened to stumble into a bust of him. Well, not literally.

By the way, during this trip I was reading Judith Flanders’ mysteries featuring Samantha Clair. They’re so engaging. Sam is a realistically rounded character — an accomplished introvert of a book editor who maintains a tangential, acidic, and astute inner monologue that I just love. I like her copper boyfriend Jake, too. Sadly, I finished the last current volume, A Cast of Vultures, on the plane home, but there’s a new installment coming soon. Pre-ordered.

York

OK, back to the travelogue. The next day, we took the train from Kings Cross to York. While waiting for our platform to be announced, we enjoyed watching youngsters and not-so-youngsters having their pictures taken as they pretended to board the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9¾. About two hours later, we were in the walled City of York. Since my first visit last year, York is one of my favorite places in Britain. Though it was cold, I was just glad not to be rained on so that it was possible to walk part way around the walls. York Minster dominates everywhere — which as one of the largest gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe, it is entitled to do. The interior is alternately fascinating and awe-inspiring, with overwhelmingly beautiful expanses of stained glass and a serene octagonal Chapter House. To top off coming back to York, I returned to the warmest of welcomes at the same place I stayed last year, the delightful Parisi Hotel.

Next up, Edinburgh and the Deeside. Watch this space!

 


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Mexico

Ever been on a Road Scholar tour? No, me either, but that’s how I got to Mexico when a friend came up with the idea. We spent some time on our own in Mexico City and then joined others to explore San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. I left a piece of my heart there, where I’m still dancing the Mexican-style polka, drinking wine and margaritas, eating delicious food, and where my senses are awash with color and deep sentiment for Mexican landscape and Mexican people. I need to practice my Spanish and go back.
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More photos to come, I think, but for now I will leave you with this stunning view of Guanajuato.


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Travel photo update

My last blog post mentioned traveling to Kauai and New Mexico, but I never posted any details or photos. The details are getting a little hazy, but in the interests of continuity, here are a few photos.

Kauai

I do recall spending a lot of time at beaches (especially at sunrise) and shopping the sunshine markets, and drinking coffee.

New Mexico

Flew in and out of ABQ with a friend and met up with a new friend from the New Orleans trip but we spent most of our time in and around Santa Fe. I still feel bowled over by small towns like Madrid (MAD-rid) and Cerillos, the Sanctuary at Chimayo, Taos Pueblo, and the vibrancy and inclusiveness of Santa Fe. And oh, the cottonwoods!

 


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Fire house cats

I have been neglecting the blog in favor of editing these days. Also, it is too cold to even think about sitting in the Blue Chair. Are you on Instagram? I post once in a while, but you can just follow accounts if you want. Every now and then during the day, I check my Instagram feed to take a break or make myself smile. The best part, if you ask me, is following fire house cats like Killer in Bed Stuy. Baby goats are a close second. [Updated.]

All photo credits to @station57cat on Instagram


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Just a little bit brighter

IMG_4573How can we cope with the news during the holidays? Somehow, all of the sad, dangerous, bitter, and mean-spirited things that get reported day in and day out seem to resonate a little more deeply at this time of year. Over on Facebook, a friend mentioned how movies can take us out of ourselves and remind us that love is still, actually, all around. Great reminder. At her suggestion, I sat down last night and watched Love Actually, which is one of my two favorite movies to watch at Christmas. It’s still funny, warm, and sweet — and it’s currently streaming on Netflix, too.

My list of favorite “Christmas movies” is short. But I can think of a few other DVD’s that might brighten your day or mine.

My Other Favorite Movie to Watch at Christmas

My Favorite DVD to Watch at Christmas That Isn’t a Movie

 A Few Movies Guaranteed to Make Me Laugh Out Loud No Matter How Often I See Them

A Couple More Feel Good Movies

This is a short and pretty idiosyncratic selection, but maybe one of these suggestions will make you smile or comfort you this season. Remember, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I’d love to hear what you like to watch over the holidays!


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Be a poet even in prose

DWJournalI dawdled at Orca Books for a while on Friday before meeting a friend for lunch and, on a whim, I bought a slightly battered little book, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. A stamp and handwritten note on the flyleaf revealed it had been purchased at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1970. At the time, it cost 45 p. I am enchanted  by it, and inspired. The first few pages of Helen Darbishire‘s engaging introduction, written in 1958, have me in tears. What better source for learning how to describe; describe nature, the natural world, and landscape but also people. She could sketch a character or a first impression indelibly in only a few lines. I bought the book without much investigation because it was cheap and because these early journals are close in date to the period I’m writing about — 1798 and 1800 to 1802. Isn’t it lovely to indulge in an inexpensive little whim and have that whim so well-rewarded? Dorothy did not want to be an author. She did not see herself as a poet. As Miss Darbishire wrote, she was a poet in prose:

There is something . . . that imagination does, the simplest thing, the central thing. It pierces through the familiar surface to something nearer to life itself than what we ordinarily see.

There is only one known portrait of Dorothy, a sad one made when she was quite old, and yet she lives. Not only through her own vibrant words, but in her brother William’s poetry — some of which is clearly sourced from her journals — and in Coleridge’s, too. And from the tender regard both men had for her. “[H]is exquisite sister,” Coleridge wrote, and you have to credit his perspicaciousness: “[H]her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!”

William Wordsworth was speaking more generally in the following quotation, but these journals are so beautiful, so captivating, that he could easily have been writing of Dorothy:

Of genius in the fine Arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature.

She was a great walker, along with her brother and Coleridge. In 1818, when she would have been about 46, she climbed Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England at just over 3,200 feet) with another lady, a maid, and a pair of local guides. She never married. She fell ill from about 1829 and eventually her mind grew frail as well.

As ever, all we have is now.

Dorothy Wordsworth on Wikipedia.

Dorothy Wordsworth on The Poetry Foundation website.


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More writer events than you can shake a stick at

Yes, there are more literary adventures available than you might think down here in the state capital, which is after all a college town times three. Here’s what I’ve been able to take advantage of lately and I’m feeling SO fortunate.

At the end of September, I took up a week-long writing residency at Holly House, which is a retreat center for women “of all creative talents” on Arcadia Point in Mason County. Holly House is maintained by a small jewel of an organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. The cottage is a 40-minute drive from my house, but a whole world away. This is a solo operation and nature, nurture, beauty, and peace abound. I wrote, slept, read, walked and came home renewed and full of gratitude for the opportunity.

A few days later, Jess Walter, author of  Beautiful Ruins and some kick-ass short stories, spoke at Saint Martins University in Lacey. An SRO crowd filled the hall and Jess’s long-time friend Jim Lynch introduced him with love and laughter. I continue to be delighted that writers like Jess are showing up — right in my neighborhood! — to charm and inspire readers and writers. One of his messages to writers, echoed by Liz Gilbert (more on her shortly) is that you don’t necessarily need an MFA to be “A Writer” and that starting a writing career with $30,000 in debt is probably not a great idea. This is the second annual talk in SMU’s Les Bailey Writers Series and last year’s speaker Brian Doyle was also terrific.

It’s not a literary event per se, but whether it’s Spring or Fall, Olympia Arts Walk is an unmissable Olympia cultural phenomenon, so I didn’t miss it. There is always plenty of energy, lots to look at, and you are bound to run into someone (or many someones) you know.

Although Seattle is a little beyond local, I did head on up to the big city to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person last week. Her new book Big Magic has so many terrific things to say about creativity and living a big life. I’ve been listening to her practical and encouraging Magic Lessons podcasts for several weeks and got my hands on the book as soon as I got back from Holly House. God love her, she is OUT THERE on a few things but that’s kind of the point. She puts herself out there in a way that convinces you she’s fully alive and that she wants you to take every opportunity to be the same. My goodness, can that woman communicate — novels, podcasts, talks, photos, and her one-of-a-kind, worth-joining-for Facebook page.

The very next night, there was another cool local event, a book signing for my friend Russ Cahill’s novel of ancient Hawaii, Kolea. I never did get to talk to Russ because friends, friends-of-friends, and new fans were all lined up to get books signed. Now he’s off on a research trip to Yosemite for his next book, living the writing life.

Then the following evening (this is three nights in a row, folks), Timberland Regional Library (one of the best regional library systems imaginable) launched its new anthology, Timberland Writes Together, which builds on the success of its program Timberland Reads Together. No, I’m not one of the 15 writers included, but my friend Meagan’s story “Going Without” is in there. You can download or borrow the anthology from the library (of course), or buy it online, and discussions and panels centered on this project are scheduled in Thurston, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor, and Lewis Counties. I’m so impressed that TRL has taken this project on and fascinated to learn how much writing has been going on around here. Even more than I had suspected!

According to my calendar, more bookish adventures are waiting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I got this post written and now it’s back to the WIP.


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Northern light, blue skies

Here are a few photos from around Drøbak and Oslo. Chalkboard signs are ubiquitous in cities and Melkesjokolade is ubiquitious in Norway. I come from berry country; fresh Norwegian strawberries will meet or beat ours. And the waffles I get when I’m in Drøbak can’t be bettered anywhere.

On July 22, I flew to London from Oslo, leaving behind not only family and friends in Drøbak but the pure Norwegian light and lucid blue skies. I miss the people, light, and color still.  A few odds and ends posted for you. Soon, I’ll write about London and Oxford. With photos, of course!