“Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness.” (Ecclesiastes 10:17)
Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown
10:00 pm in Blackburn, Scotland
Bonnie and I left the beautiful city of Newcastle upon Tyne on Thursday morning. We caught the London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley train, passing through alluring green or freshly tilled reddish-brown fields interrupted by burghs similar to Blackburn. Back-yard clotheslines sagged with laundry taking advantage of the warm sunshine. Beyond, the North Sea stretched into the haze. Occasionally, we passed ancient ruins or still-used remnants, which I’d love to learn about someday.
This year, I arrived in Edinburgh and environs with a sense of belonging I had not known in past visits. Earlier this year, my twin had explored the ancestry of some women who had married into our well-documented Brown family line. We knew our branch of Browns had arrived in America in the late 1600s and, a few years later, had settled West Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Leslie’s online investigations this year revealed surprising, old, deep roots in Scotland. Although Leslie and I had greatly enjoyed our day in Edinburgh in September 2009, our sense of its history was not then enriched by this new knowledge.
Can loyalty and affection be transmitted through DNA? I would like to think so.
From Waverley Station in Edinburgh, we easily found and hopped aboard the fetching ScotRail train that stops at Bathgate en route to Glasgow and other points west. The train skirts the solid rock base from which Edinburgh Castle, originally built by King David I in the 12th Century, still exercises its skyline reign. The train then passes through green fields punctuated by the distinctive oil shale bings left over from deep-coal-mining years.
After half an hour, we eased into the new Bathgate railway station. From there, we caught the local bus to Blackburn. The driver helpfully sorted out our unfamiliar coins totaling a pound 30 each. We checked in at the Burnview B and B.
In the spirit of kairos, we let go of most agendas except blogging (or, in Bonnie’s case, watching many episodes of Downton Abbey she’d downloaded on her iPad), checking the forum, foraging for food and drink, attending Mass, walking, and getting enough sleep.
In some ways, these days have resembled those of the beautiful horses we were happy to meet a mile or so down the road at the Equestrian Centre beside Blackburn House – the original manor, dating to 1772, which was refurbished from dereliction in the late 2000s. Gregarious animals, horses mostly live to eat, drink, socialize, run and jump, roll, and sleep – often standing up. A pretty young stable hand, a college student, was kind enough to introduce us to several of the horses, describing their equine idiosyncrasies and imparting husbandry lore. We met and admired Iris, a sturdy dark-brown mare with a glorious long tail, nearly 17 hands, an avid jumper, identified as a “Welsh section D” breed – familiar terminology here but heretofore unknown to me. Listening to the contented munching; gazing into incredibly kind, large, knowing, dark eyes; stroking shaggy winter coats; breathing with a horse as she got to know me; dodging teeth when he nuzzled and nibbled searching for possible food (turns out I had an apple in my pocket) – I remember so well the days Leslie and I daydreamed of living in a stall and tending horses as our life’s work. “Wild Horses….”
Back to the present, I have learned that the traditional Scottish breakfast – small portions of thick bacon, haggis, two other kinds of sausage, fried egg, roasted tomatoes, toast, fruit juice, and tea – keeps me going until dinner with no hunger pangs. I’d rarely eat this at home, though!
Walking outside on mostly sunny days, we inhaled friendly pastoral wafts of cow and sheep manure blowing from the extensive green pasturelands behind the Burnview and the Posh House.
The local B and Bs are seldom full, and are perhaps often empty, so our occasional patronage supports the local economy – which, we hear, has languished since the Bathgate tractor and truck plant of British Leyland Motor Corporation closed in 1986. The Happy Valley still serves as a pub of choice for working men and fewer women. Clientele of other pubs in the area likely serve a stable constituency. The Qualifryer Fish & Chicken Bar still maintains an irregular schedule. The immigrant owner of the Chinese take-out, who lives in the tidy dwelling above his family business, sweeps the sidewalk and entryway before evening opening hours. Blackburn Connected (the library and free computer site) still serves as a daytime educational and social hub.
We noticed some beautifications: a small neat garden at the corner of Bathgate-Blackburn Road and Main Street; a few other old buildings being refurbished; the Margaret Cottages 1905, further west along Main Street toward Whitburn, with freshly painted trim and attractive window treatment. Bonnie pointed out a row of newly planted trees in the downtown area near the Happy Valley and The Mill Centre. A new two-storey house behind the police station shows few signs of activity although it is immaculately maintained.
Occasional small signs posted along sidewalks read:
(Scotland) Act 2003
Please be a responsible dog owner
and CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG
if it fouls in any public area.
You are breaking the law if you don’t.
West Lothian Council
The sign includes a visually and nasally evocative graphic. Alas, despite other enhancements locally, some village dogs seem not to have learned to read since my last visit.
We discovered that people, including families with children, can now enjoy dinner out in Blackburn. Actually, they can enjoy simple but satisfying pub grub along with their favorite beverage. An area restauranteer and his wife have spent the last four years carefully refurbishing The Crown Inn, a 100-year-old establishment on the old road from Edinburgh to Glasgow, which re-opened in December 2011. (According to tradition, one night the king stopped there for dinner and lodging.) The personable manager, who grew up in Blackburn and lives upstairs, introduced us to the owner, who lives somewhere in West Lothian and frequently visits each of his establishments in the area. We felt ourselves to be welcome visitors – and easily identified curiosities.
Three years after Susan’s worldwide fame began, our American accents remain day-to-day rarities. Wherever we go in West Lothian, every accent in the air sounds like Susan’s – except when we joined a handful of Susafans for Saturday dinner in Bathgate and Sunday Mass in Blackburn. The dire prediction of Blackburn being overrun with tourists has proved a dark fabrication. Graceland stays in Memphis, Tennessee; Dollywood, in the Great Smoky Mountains. Susaland exhibits few obvious changes, except for positive ones initiated by locals.
Tonight while awaiting our last-evening dinner – toasted tuna paninis – at The Crown Inn, a white-haired gentleman we had not met called across the room from his barstool: “When are you going back to California?” Which means our quiet presence here has been notable, not routine. He joined us at our table, and we all enjoyed a lively educational hour.
Nearby Bathgate dreams of resurrection as a West Lothian cultural magnet. The historic Steelyard and adjacent Bathgate Town Centre have been renovated, with a Wi-Fi zone enticing visitors not quite ready to disconnect from the wider world. According to a council member, “This area will be known as Saint David’s Square as it lies outside Saint David’s Church.”
(This Saint David may or may not be King David I – a saint according to some sources – who was a notably pious and well-educated son of Queen [Saint] Margaret of Scotland. He reigned as King of the Scots from 1124 to 1153. During his long mostly peaceful reign, he initiated significant favorably regarded changes now characterized as the Davidian Revolution, with effects still experienced today in Scottish civic, cultural, and spiritual life.)
The Bathgate Regal Community Theatre enjoys similar renewal. Its website announces:
Regal Project 2012 is about engaging the community in an exciting venture to promote the facility as a major community arts venue. We are keen to provide new opportunities that will involve people of all ages who have an interest in the Theatre and the arts. We are particularly keen to hear from people who would be willing to volunteer a few hours of their time each week to make this project work. If you feel you could bring something to this then please come along to our meeting on the 19th January 2012 to discuss it further.Later reports laud a “huge response” – a fact my theatrical airplane companions from Oregon would delight to hear.
We have returned to the Burnview B and B, and our friendly hosts have phoned a taxi to pick us up at 5:00 am.
I feel anticipatory homesickness for this quiet, simple, beautiful place where I have experienced rest and curiosity. Far from killing us (unless maybe we pry too deeply into sensed cultural undercurrents), curiosity keeps our minds and spirits alive and engaged with our surroundings and its dwellers.
Until next time, sweet Blackburn, Deo volente.
“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)