Around this time two years ago, I was Writer-in-Residence at Stirling University in Scotland. I had been awarded the Charles Wallace fellowship, and I was to stay in the University for all of three months, interacting with the Department of English, attending conferences and seminars, reading from my work and generally having fun.
Actually, my time was pretty much my own. I could sit in my flat in the University hostel and work on my novel or sit in my office in the English Department which had a computer and three walls lined with books. Through the window I could see a courtyard with bushes and wild flowers and the occasional duck, blue, green and brown, which perched itself on a high wall and supervised my writing with a proprietary air, then flew down and waddled around the courtyard. I never managed to see it flying back.
Living in the University can be a bit lonely, because everyone else is involved in pretty much the same thing, that is academics, and you’re the only one who’s doing something else, that is writing a novel. So, except for the conference and the seminars, and the occasional outing (once to a small village with an ancient town hall where we listened to a singer from Malawi belt out his native music), I didn’t have much contact with the staff and students. Which was why I made three trips to London during the three months I was there.
Let’s start at the beginning. At Edinburgh airport, a Department chief met me, holding up my novel for identification. The drive from Edinburgh was surprising mainly for the stretches of unspoilt landscape and the mind-boggling number of castles that we passed. When we reached the University, the loch was frozen over so that the ducks walked rather than swam on it.
I soon discovered that the cold was one of the strongest differences between Chennai and Scotland. In Chennai you couldn’t wait to take everything off. Over there, you kept wanting to add on layer after layer of clothing. Indoors, the heaters kept you warm but your fingers were occasionally startled by static electricity as they lingered on metal banisters or a freshly ironed piece of cloth. Early one morning, I landed from London and walked across from the airport to catch the train that would take me back to Stirling. The railway station was sort of attached to the airport. The platform was deserted. There was a strong breeze and the temperature was six degrees. Freezing and distracted, I realised that I didn’t even know which train would take me back to Stirling. There was no one to ask.
It was a rather different experience in Mallaig.
Every place has its own stories and storytellers. Travelling through parts of Scotland, it becomes clear that the looming crag and sudden blue bay, the picture-book fishing port, the scenic little village and dour highlands are waiting to give up their tales to the curious traveller. I take a train to Mallaig, which is a small port and fishing village. It is also a doorway to the famed Isle of Skye. On the train, most of my co-passengers are tourists or hikers, this being a Sunday. Some of them get off at a station and walk. Later, after conquering mountains or vast green plateaus with their hats and walking sticks and little haversacks, they’ll be back to board the train when it returns.
Large picture windows of sheer glass on the train make it easy to see the extraordinary scenery that rushes past. Enormous, craggy, green-brown-grey mountains block the sky. All at once, a sharp blue lagoon thrusts itself into your vision, so beautiful that your eyes hunger to hold on to the delicious moment. At times you travel through vast stretches of unfathomable, green forests that run on and on. On our return journey, the ticket examiner rushes through compartments, shutting the top ventilators. On being asked why, he smiles: “Forest fires!”
Mallaig is ruled by seagulls. They are all over the village, and their cries permeate your soul as you walk down the little roads, looking up at the quaint cottages poised on steep-looking slopes, the quay from where you can see the passage to the Isle of Skye and the many ships that are docked and waiting for their next voyage.
I see a little restaurant that advertises the country’s best fish and chips. I’ve already seen that claim on the Internet. I haven’t tried this most famous English food since I landed in Britain. I get myself a takeaway and sit down on a bench, along with some of my earlier co-passengers, eating the piping hot delicacy.
It is the hottest day I’ve spent in the UK. I am soon streaming with sweat. I think almost fondly of that freezing morning in the railway station. But I also begin to think of Chennai and home. And, somehow, the heat and sweating feel much more bearable, turning the whole experience into a rather nostalgic one.
Stirling is replete with history. This was the most important town during the many battles between England and Scotland, the last bastion of the Scots. It is the town of William Wallace, made famous some years ago in India by Mel Gibson and his Braveheart, and is also associated with the legendary Robert Bruce---yes, he of the spider and the “try, and try again” spirit. As I walk out from the University I can see the Wallace Memorial rising up like an accusing finger, though on some days it simply disappears, eaten up by swirling white mist. There are cobbled streets and ancient buildings in the town that hum with history. You expect a horse carriage to come at you any moment.
There is the court building, the prison building, and the one called Tolbooth---where many spine-chilling events are reputed to have taken place---a cold black building with modern interiors, where conventions, meetings and music shows are held. I attend two meetings of the Stirling Writers’ Group here. During the second one, they listen as I read out my poems and some excerpts from my novel.
Less than three miles from the Stirling city centre is Bridge of Allen. I walk with a friend, who is a PhD. student at this time, down a charming riverside path called Darn Walk. It is a very narrow pathway that goes on and on, and we have to stop at one point because a big horse has thrust its head from above a fence into our path. The head looks enormous because the path is so narrow. My friend who loves horses keeps patting and talking to it, but finally we have to bend low and get away. They say this path has been used since Roman times. The three-mile walk to Dunblane follows the river and brings you out at Dunblane Golf Course. We didn’t go so far, but we did stop by the small cave by the riverbank on the way, which is associated with the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ll find these places come alive as you read his swashbuckling tale, Kidnapped. People say this was also the origin of Ben Gunn’s cave in Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Scotland abounds with strange tales and legends. My friend said she saw a weeping ghost one evening as she walked home in Bridge of Allen. And then there is a ghost who comes to meet his lover near a loch, which has a murder story behind it. There are also ancient stones that are said to have magnetic or communicative powers, and they “talk” to each other across the land.
Another strange thing that happened to me was the ceilidh. This is pronounced Kay-lee, and is a dance with smart Scottish music and men and women dancing merrily and energetically in a whirlwind of fun. I participated in one of the dances, and the pace was fast and furious and terribly exciting and enervating, and it was over all too soon.