At the end of this month Tony Blair is stepping down as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of his legacies will surely be his attempt at “devolution.” The United Kingdom is made up of four nations, England (by far the largest, most populous and culturally and historically dominant), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (many have died both disputing and defending this characterization of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, a history far too complicated to sort here). Devolution is an attempt by the Parliament at Westminster (the UK Parliament) to return power over local affairs to historical local parliaments in the constituent nations. Hence, there is a Scottish Parliament at Edinburgh (Holyrood is where they meet), a Welsh Parliament in Cardiff and the on again, off again (although I have high hopes that it is permanently on again) Northern Irish Parliament at Stormont.
Recently, the Scottish National Party became the largest party represented in the Holyrood Parliament. The main plank in the SNP’s platform is that the Act of Union of 1707, which joined Scotland and England under the same Parliament (the Kingdoms of Scotland and England had been united for a century before that) at Westminster should be repealed and Scotland should be an independent nation within the European Union. Currently, the SNP is governing as a minority government.
The point of this post is not to examine the merits of the SNP’s platform (snooze) but rather, after spending a week in Scotland, I can see why there is a major move toward separation. Scotland truly is different country than England. It looks different, feels different and even smells different. Let one example stand for the heart of the Scottish character.
After spending two days in Edinburgh (more below), we drove up to the Highlands. We were staying in a little town called Dulnian Bridge which is just north of a place called Aviemore. Aviemore is something like a Scottish Jackson Hole. Aviemore is the hub of the Cairngorms National Park (the largest national park in the UK) , whose centerpiece is the breathtaking Cairngorm Mountains, and it acts as a sort of a jumping off point for the various outdoor/extreme sports one can engage in in the Highlands (other than whisky drinking). Just outside of Aviemore is a typical Scottish loch known as Loch Morlich. Loch Morlich has a number of easy hikes around its rim and, given that our boys are 6 and 3, we need easy hikes. Not surprisingly, on the afternoon we set out to hike the rim of Loch Morlich, we were at the tail of end of two days of torrential rain.
The storm we were experiencing was not at the level of a NorEaster, but it wasn’t much less. We had a lot of wind, it was very cold and the downpours were torrential, even for the Highlands. The newscasters were predicting flooding in the region, which is very unusual because the Highland peet is like a sponge, and my sons got to have a snowball fight in a blizzard at the summit of Cairngorm Mountain on 29 May!
The hiking trail we were taking commenced on a beach of the Loch. This beach acted as the central location to engage in water sports on the Loch. On the beach we noticed about 15 kids, aged between 9 and 14, in wetsuits. They had kayacks and parasails with them. Apparently, they were all about to take a lesson. After a few minutes they all, with their instructors, headed into frigid waters of Loch Morlich for their kayacking lesson in the middle of a Scottish gale. I guess if you wait for decent weather to take a water sports lesson in the Highlands you will be waiting a long, long time.
I have seen London shut down for two inches of snow and my English friends have themselves twisted with paroxysms of worry because we may get more than five days of 90 degree temperatures here in London this summer. Oh yes, Scotland is a different country.
Before, discussing Edinburgh and the Highlands with specificity, I want to share a general thought on travelling with children in Europe. Now that we have been here in London 9 months, and have had a chance to do some exploring around both the British Isles and the Continent, some general rules of travelling with small children in Europe are emerging. I think the most important one is that children do better in the smaller, “secondary” European cities, like Verona, Galway and Edinburgh, as opposed to the principal tourist meccas and therefore, these cities are exceptional gateways for introducing children to European cultures. I think this is so because these cities are truly lived in, tourists quickly assimilate into the fabric of daily life in the place and are not confined to the overwhelming historic centers. We have also found that the people in these cities are raising children themselves and are far more tolerant of the children of tourists.
This could not be more true in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a GREAT city for kids. There is a medieval castle which dominates the entire city scape, there is a huge public park at the base of the Royal Mile, the Scottish National Museum is geared toward hands on exhibits and the city has created one of the best science centers, called Dynamic Earth, for children I have ever seen. Even the Hard Rock Cafe in Edinburgh caters to kids. Finally, I’m an old Bronx boy, and have spent a lot of time over the years in the Bronx Zoo. When my older son was born, we quickly becames members of the Bronx Zoo and we have since been to a lot of animal parks throughout the US. I never thought I would say this, but the Edinburgh Zoo rivals the Bronx Zoo in both variety of creatures and kid friendliness. Also, as it is built on the side of a mountain the adults get a great workout pushing the kids through the zoo.
What does one say about the Scottish Highlands, spectacular scenery, great local food and all the whisky you could want. A little slice of heaven, in my view. To give you an idea of the character of the Highlands let me indulge a little fantasy. I know that recently, so-called “alternative history” novels have been hitting the best seller lists. You know the type, what if Napoleon hadn’t invaded Russia or JFK not gone to Dallas. I thought of a doozy while travelling in the Highlands. What if Hitler had invaded England in 1941 instead of Russia? I pictured Churchill and the British Army, after having quit London, holing up in Edinburgh or even further north in Inverness. There is simply no way that the Germans, like the Romans and even the English before them, could have smoked out all resistance to foreign rule in those hills. I pictured Churchill having to offer an end to the partition of Ireland to Eamon de Valera, much as he offered post-war independence to India, in exchange for Ireland abandoning neutrality and agreeing to be the jumping off point for a US led invasion to liberate England. It would be an interesting read.
All and all, Scotland is an experience I will not soon forget.