Archive for ‘Scotland’


“No one could find me on their own, I’m off the beaten track…”

American Halloween may be the most medieval of holidays, even if the omnipresence of New World pumpkins obscures its already murky traditions. Most people carve jack-o’-lanterns, for example, without wondering why the heck they’re doing it. The curious can look to Irish folklore, to a tangle of tales about a scoundrel named Jack whose evil deeds keep him out of Heaven but whose tricks sufficiently infuriate the Devil to bar him forever from Hell. With nowhere to go after death, Jack roams the earth, his path lit only by the glow of an ember in a hollowed-out turnip.

Between the eighth-century inception of All Saints’ Day in Rome and the pre-Christian celebrations of Samhain, I see no harm in presuming that the jack-o’-lantern tradition is medieval too. And so last October I turned to my more sensible half and asked her: “Why doesn’t anyone carve turnips anymore?”

As it turns out, Old World jack-o’-lanterns are weirdly easy to make. Cut off the top, scoop out the brains with a melon baller, and use one of those cheap little mini-saws—they’re sold every autumn as pumpkin-carving tools, although they’re nigh-useless on the real thing—to turn a humble, bulbous root into an eerie little sentinel.

We found these—the largest turnips I’ve ever seen—at a roadside produce market out here in the Maryland boonies. The taproots add unexpected spookiness, and the skin is thick enough that you can hang them with a head full of tea-light without worrying that they’ll break and fall.

Should you suffer pumpkin withdrawal, you can easily give your lantern the traditional jagged leer.

So why did lantern-carving immigrants from the British Isles turn in their turnips for all things cucurbita? Some people have suggested that North American turnips tend to be smaller than their New World cousins, and thus harder to carve, but I don’t think that’s it; rather, pumpkins have one clear advantage over hollowed-out turnips. Carved pumpkins can survive with their dignity intact for days or weeks if the weather’s right and squirrels don’t get into them—but our Old World jack-o’-lanterns lasted only two or three days before their little faces wizened into unrecognizability. A damned soul wandering the night for all eternity needs better visibility than that. On the other hand, turnips are faster and safer to carve and much less messy, so we’re happy to light them along our porch as tokens of fleeting glory, retelling a legend the centuries never quite quenched.

“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“Holding their own, last orders commanding attention…”

Some of us are so busy spotting medievalism in the modern world that sometimes we need to stop and notice the moments when the lack of it is literally remarkable.

Three days before Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence, the Wall Street Journal ran a curious piece by foreign affairs writer Bret Stephens, who harks back to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Stephens suggests that the Wilsonian emphasis on national self-determination backfired, leading people around the world to the perilous realization that “nations are almost endlessly divisible into smaller entities.” Wilson and his advisers (some of whom were medieval historians) did get it wrong when they cobbled together a doomed Yugoslavia, but Stephens believes that when smaller countries go it alone, they may become dangerous, poor, corrupt, or insignificant.

The point is interesting and debatable—but Stephens’ conclusion is inarguably weird:

Some Scots may imagine that by voting “Yes” they are redeeming the memory of William Wallace. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is as a vote for medievalism over modernity.

Memo to wannabe Bravehearts: The 13th century wasn’t all that fun.

“Medievalism over modernity”! That might seem like a fair way to talk about a referendum that was almost slated for June 24, the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a key moment in the medieval fight for Scottish independence.

The thing is, I followed the news surrounding the referendum, which was actually held on an otherwise unimportant date in Scottish history. I browsed the “Yes” websites and sat through the videos. Knowing that European nationalists love to dig up and reanimate their shambling medieval ancestors—benignly in countries like Finland, malevolently in places like Germany and Serbia—I kept an eye out for William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other heroes hauled from the pages of Sir Walter Scott.

I saw economic arguments, anti-nuke and anti-English rhetoric, sentimental appeals to independence, and other pleas—but outside of news articles reporting on Scotland’s history of pre-1707 independence, I saw nary a trace of sword-wielding medieval warriors. I don’t doubt that in recent weeks, somebody decked out in costume and kit spoke glowingly of Scotland’s medieval glory, and I hope readers will send me examples—but overwhelmingly, the “Yes” side rooted its arguments not in some politicized dreamland of castles and kings, but in the here and now.

The press has been keen to emphasize that separatist movements in Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, the Crimea, and even Venice were watching to see what the Scots would decide. I assume there was interest in Wales and Cornwall as well. I suppose it’s possible that these movements will conclude that the “Yes” campaigners failed because the Scots didn’t sufficiently use their medieval heritage to inflame nationalistic pride—but if so, that won’t be Scotland’s fault.

As a distant, disinterested observer, I had no opinion on the outcome of the referendum except to note that the Scots set a worthy and decent precedent: asserting their identity and affirming their independence while keeping their medieval forefathers silent and snug in their graves.