Notes from a niseach

Visiting the tribes

During the month of August, I spent some time in – what could easily be – the Up Helly Aaer’s idea of Heaven.

This version of Valhalla can be found beneath the pavements and streets of York – a city at one time apparently known as Jorvik and the largest Viking settlement in the British Isles. Step and be strapped into a carriage and you are lowered down below the bright and jingling shops of the modern Coppergate and into the world as it was all those centuries below. We see the local blacksmith hammering at his forge; a butcher preparing meat; a waxwork crafting leather. Fish – from the nearby river Ouse, perhaps, or the ocean – are hung out to dry outside a fisherman’s cottage.   

And so the merry-go-round goes on. The sight of a “young” Scandinavian maid, St. Ulrika Johnson the 1st perhaps, impels you forward; the smell of a defecating man (hidden from our eyes, fortunately!) repels and makes you long to turn back. There are furs, fruit and vegetables. Echoing, too, are the sounds of squabbling chickens, sheep and goats. The vexed and quarrelsome voices of various Vikings and their visitors bickering over prices launch their own assault on our ears. This, we remind ourselves, is the tongue of most of our ancestors, yours and mine, and it is incomprehensible to the modern listener. Since that particular Tower of Babel has fallen, it is babble to us all.

It is not that long till our visit to this lost time is over. We step out to see contemporary men and women dressed in the costumes of that age. One spins thread from wool. Another hammers a coin of the realm, transforming it into an amulet that bears Odin’s image, perhaps. They speak and explain what they are doing, using – thankfully – modern English. Children cluster round them, drawn by the combined spell of actions and words. It is only the likes of me that slips away quickly, not pausing for a moment by the souvenirs and booklets. Quite simply, I have had enough.

It is difficult to know why I feel this urge to flee. I went there some 15 or 16 years ago and enjoyed the experience. Perhaps my haste to escape is because such historical re-enactments have become almost commonplace since the occasion of my first visit. I have seen it elsewhere: the Annie MacLeod Experience in New Lanark, for instance, and now the format seems a little tired and hackneyed. Perhaps, too, there is too much of the unmistakable whiff of money-making about the entire enterprise (cram them quickly into Jorvik; rush them quickly out; empty their purses, wallets and pockets en route.) Perhaps, too, it was always like this and I am simply becoming old and cynical as the years progress.

Whizz forward a few days, however, and, without the aid of any carriage apart from a northbound train, I emerge in another type of heaven. It is a Tartan Tir Nan Og, land of the ever young, and it takes place in Holyrood Park. Again we are in a place of absurdity, a Neverland organised not by the ghost of Michael Jackson but by Messrs Salmond and Windsor in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh. It is a day too when it would be easy to believe that the heat is going directly to our heads. There is that rare sight – endless sunshine in Scotland. It also seems to be conjuring the most phantasmagorial, psychadelic people in existence. They flock everywhere, wearing the most fascinating array of colours known to man. A woman goes past with a lurid tartan plaid wrapped round her, clearly feeling the cold in – what is to our mind – steamy sub-tropical temperatures. An elderly man strides past in plus-fours, woven from weird, luminous herringbone tweed. Another has a clutch of feathers adorning a black beret, complete with a clan-crest badge. The sheer extent of the plumage decorating his head would put the average Shetland bonxie to shame, threatening to waft him away off the cliffs at Hermaness.

All around us there are other signs of extreme Scoto-euphoria, tartan mania. It is in evidence in the whirl of kilts, the skirl of bagpipes, the way American men and women come around and try to sign you up for lifelong membership of the MacSporran clan. In the distance, I can see a caber being tossed, a tug-of-war taking place, the Red-Hot-Chilli Pipers reeling and rocking on stage. In a moment of madness, I even allow myself to add my signature to a list circulated by the chieftain of the Murray family. The blood must be strong, for it is clear on this hot afternoon that my head is considerably weaker.

And then life becomes even more surreal. I stand in a queue behind the unmistakable form and shape of Rabbie Burns. Looking resplendent in his customary brown frock-coat, black leather boots and tight white trousers, I can hardly bear the suspense as I watch and wonder what he is going to order from the snack-bar in front of us. A tankard of the landlord’s finest ale, perhaps? Haggis? Neeps and tatties? Whisky? . . . No. Incredibly, when he opens his mouth to speak to the harassed woman behind the counter, I hear him declare:
“A cup of coffee and a cheeseburger”

Like that day in Jorvik, I experienced the urge to flee. This time, however, I simply retreated to the Gaelic tent put in place for the Gathering. Within its shelter, there are signs of sanity. The only tartan seen is on display by Sandra Murray, the Queen’s Scottish dress designer, and a few representatives of the Harris Tweed Association. They show handbags, dresses, coats and hats made out of the material, far more subdued and muted than the ones decorating our distant American cousins in the world outside. In there, too, we listen to songs and tales, swap smiles and stories with people I have known for years. It is lovely once again to be in the giant-sized shade of old friends like Ryno Morrison, a fellow-Niseach and a man, too, whose roots are just as Nordic as the average inhabitant of the Northern Isles.

Yet as we sit there, we are conscious, too, that this day, despite its fantasy elements, is in its own terms a successs. Laura Macaulay of the Harris Tweed Authority tells us of how many orders she has made that day, often made by these flamboyant Americans in their tartan plaid. A similar glow emerges from the tents that sell Talisker whisky, Scottish salmon, the country’s finest foods. With the numbers that passed through Holyrood’s gates that day, this was an excellent business opportunity, a way of putting Scotland and its products on a worldwide map. One can only wonder why, for all its tartan absurdities, Shetland failed to avail itself of it, taking the chance to display a few “horned helmets” among the folds of plaid.

Donald S Murray


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