After the silence and natural wilderness of Shetland, coming into Edinburgh was a stimulating, beautiful and culture-rich experience from the get-go.
Built on hills and filled with glorious Gothic architecture, Edinburgh is a city of slender very tall church spires; slate roofed turrets topped with finials; stepped facades; all stone buildings with rusticated quoins. It’s surrounded by serious mountains, has a vast castle and a most beautiful Royal Botanical Garden. I spent a whole day there amidst the huge trees, the amazing flower beds, and the 12 glass houses filled with exotic jungle plants. There was even an art exhibit featuring paintings of strange “Weird” plants–carnivores mostly–simply beautiful. Art is everywhere in Edinburgh city as well–from a sweet little Cindy Sherman show to a 200 year collage retrospective to the amazing National Museum housing everything from crystals to dinosaur skeletons, fine tapestries to African masks.
But art wasn’t my goal here–the crazy wonderful plethora of music, dance, theater, burlesque, cabaret, circus, serious drama, comedy and busker art that completely overwhelms the city all of August was. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the breadth of activity day and night here–the Royal Mile is filled with stages where guitarists, singers, acrobats, storytellers, fire jugglers, dancers, mimes, theatrical players and all manner of processions go on hourly all day long. All the pubs–of which there must be thousands– have live music all day and til 3am. On the Mile one is barraged by people handing out flyers for every kind of show imaginable–the statistics are stunning: in venues from churches, to dive bar basements, formal exquisite vintage theaters to hotel conference rooms converted to stages, to caves–literally a warren of caves on Cowgate host many shows– the Fringe offers 3841 shows in 323 venues with something like 68,000 total performances throughout August.
The Festival, meanwhile, which started the madness in 1952 to bring tourists to Edinburgh goes on at the same time, offering more formal arts–ballet, opera, full tilt musicals, modern dance in more far flung venues and with higher price tags. Ironically the Fringe was originally on the outskirts of the Festival but now it overwhelms it.
Still, I absolutely immersed myself in the arts here. I saw 28 shows in seven days–for real–and I danced nearly every night as well to a great cover band playing at the Royal Mile Pub just a few doors down from the great Hostel I stayed at –the Royal Mile Backpackers.
So what did I see and what would I recommend?
Of the Festival I saw
–The Scottish Ballet doing an elegant abstract dance story based on Arthur Miller’s “Crucible” sensual amazing choreography, moving brutal story of Salem witch hunts–excellent
–“Peter Gynt”–three act musical based on a Norwegian folk tale retold by Ibsen, about a liar self-promoting braggart who sails through life most obnoxiously and successfully (and referencing Trump) The music and sets were great–the dancing too and the last act when Peter has to pay the piper he is revealed not so much as evil as profoundly mediocre–Excellent
–Kalakuta Republic”–another abstract dance performance, this time based on the music and activism of Fela Kuti; amazingly acrobatic and powerful choreography–Excellent
–“Silent River” story of Aborigines and colonizers of Australia–sound didn’t work for me–probably was good
–“Roots”–a most innovative performance by 1927–hand drawn animation from great drawings that somehow had live faces on characters from the Fat Cat to fishermen, vignettes based on obscure and magical folk tales–terrific show
–“Kinnalik–These Sharp Tools”–a dialogue with singing and luscious videos of northern Canada between an Inuit storyteller and a Toronto singer
–“Amadou and Miriam and Blind Boys of Alabama”–classic bluesy gospel
I spent most of my time at the Fringe and saw an amazing variety of performances, mostly wonderful, most an hour long
–“Trump the Musical” however was stupid
–“The Trial” a one woman show about transsexual bullying–well done
–“Melanie Branton”–a spoken word show– autobiography of a middle aged very sensitive poetical women–excelleny
–“Improv Actually” okay
–“Voices of Lions” a boys choir singing angelically in an old church–acapella renditions of sacred music to Queen–great
–“Henry Box Brown”–one of my absolute favorites–a 15 member cast of slaves and plantation owners singing and dancing the sad story of slavery and final escape from it–superb
–“Sex Shells”–good cross dressing singers, not much more
–“York de Soleil”–the title a come-on–the actual performance ok comedic skits
–‘”Here Comes the Tide; There Goes the Girl” a very odd Cal Arts play about a crazy girl who tries to drown herself and others and has sex with a dolphin–ok
–“Well, that’s Oz”–a dreadful rendition of Oz with a foul mouthed cross dressing Dorothy–another odd Cal Arts show–terrible
–“Woyzek”–drama based on classic story about an unfaithful wife and jealous husband–good
–“Divet”– fantastically funny drag show wherein the three Finnish actor/dancer/singers impersonate the songs of everyone from Tina Turner (with walker) to Dolly Parton (with crazy swinging boobs) to Gaga and Beyonce–fabulous
–“Painted Corners” a sort of comedy about lost love–ok
–“Hamlet”–serious and in Shakespearean English–the perfect short version–well done
–“Exposing Edith”–Edith Piaf’s life story interspersed with great versions of her songs –good
“Modern Maori Quartet” three comedian singers from New Zealand–ok
–“Forest” a stunningly beautiful abstract dance play with exquisite videos about the beauty and devastation of forests–Excellent
–“One Night with Freddie”–a rollicking rendition of Queen–great
–“Kaye Hole”–a drag cabaret with some crazy acrobats and a boy covering himself with shavomg cream and flinging himself into the man sitting next to me!!
–“Atomic Saloon”” a crazy Western Saloon based cabaret with slutty cliched characters and amazing muscular acrobats–good
–“Back to Black” Great singing of Amy Winehouse’s songs and some of her story–good
So that’s it–I recommend both the Fest and the Fringe heartily and can’t wait to return–GO!! It’s a great time to visit Edinburgh
A Week in Shetland
Sailing twelve hours on a wonderful ferry from Kirkwall Orkney brought me to Lerwick, the capital city of the almost countless Shetlands Islands, most uninhabited, some with populations of 30 (Fula) or 60 (Fair Isle). The gannet population of 13,000 breeding pairs on Noss exceeds the number of people on all the islands put together.
So you come for the landscape, for the fact that Shetland is the farthest north one can go in the UK; and you may come with expectations. Mine were that the islands would all be wild and full of cliffs. Actually much of the islands are filled with sheep and farms on rolling green hills much like Orkney but the hills are taller, the crofts fewer, and towns are few and far between, not to mention smaller—three or four structures may warrant a village name.
And the capital Lerwick is similar to Kirkwall but a bit more elegant–three story Victorian homes on hills with views and sweet little gardens in front; a cobblestoned “main” street filled with lovely shops and music venues; an exquisite harbor; and my favorite–the Lerwick Flower Garden that offered the most extraordinary bouquets of color and fragrance imaginable.
And there are cliffs—magnificent ones—filled with breeding sea birds in the National Park on Unst, the northernmost Island. It is here, also, that some very fine gin is distilled at Saxavorn; and where two continental plates have collided and created a myriad of rocks from serpentine to granite at Norwich Beach; and where wool is spun into such fine yarn that it is knitted into lace.
Farther south lies an exquisite “tumulo” beach attaching the main island to St Ninian’s Isle where a treasure was found and where there are the ruins of a Viking church. At the southernmost tip of Mainland Shetland is an amazing archaeological site—Jarlshof—encompassing structures from 3500 BC to Viking brochs to medieval farms. The best preserved Iron Age broch of all, though, is located on the wild and uninhabited island of Mousa. The broch is a round, three story, windowless structure resembling a nuclear silo that was built by a chief 2000 years ago to signify his power. Inside the double stone walls are spiral staircases to each floor which I climbed to understand the interior—a massive commodious space for an extended family. The broch sits on a cliff with nesting stormy petrils flying about. And the mile hike around the island to this structure is filled with seals and sheep and sea bird colonies.
Shetland is your land if you want peace and beauty, lovely landscapes and wild wilderness.
The Orkneys are 70 islands (only 20 inhabited) filled with sheep, small crofts and rolling green hills to the north of Scotland. Locals say “Dig anywhere and there’s probably archaeology” and this is why I came back—to work!! For two weeks I spent most of my time scraping dirt away from an Iron Age structure in the newest trench at the Ness of Brodgar. Amazing to me how meditative and silent this work is and how much I loved doing it rain or mist, sun or gale force winds, all of which probably presented themselves every day.
The Ness is an absolutely spectacular site, unique from every other Neolithic site in Britain and possibly even Europe as here lie many finely crafted large buildings from 3500 BC. Just 10% excavated with at least 27 structures, what’s thrilling is to see the level of architectural design and finish that these long alcoved buildings have—perfect right angled corners; plumb walls; masonry of a higher quality than Bronze Age brochs (three story towers found on Orkney as well) and the Iron Age wall I worked on.
I was there primarily to write an article about the Ness; but the way I wanted to do it was to experience archaeological digging first hand. Scraping is easy and exciting when anything turns up—I found cow bones and a tooth—but shoveling dirt, carrying and wheelbarrowing it to the “spoils heap” is heavy work. We had seven hours’ actual work time, two 15” “Tea Breaks” (this is Britain after all) and a 30” lunch made rather delightful by two local fellows who showed up daily with goodies — Lamb and aubergine pie; fresh broccoli, tomatoes, apples and lettuce; ice cream; an hors d’ouerve platter of cheese and crackers; brownies; rice crispy treats; and even freshly baked blueberry muffins.
I did write the article about the Ness which I hope to publish. It was like doing a term paper complete with primary source interviews and a lot of reading and note taking. I think I got a fresh appreciation for what my students have to go through when they write papers as it’s been a really long time since I’ve had to write one.
On my days off I took a couple of hikes on different islands. Rousay has beautiful hills and wildflowers all around fabulous cairns (tomb mounds). One was a rare two-story tomb; another was a chambered tomb for maybe eight people; and the third one was an astounding 108 foot long, 12 foot high gargantuan chambered tomb built right by the sea. Next to it was a Bronze Age broch and an excavation of structures being threatened by rising seas.
On Hoy I saw (through a telescope) a huge “baby” white tailed Sea Eagle nearly toppling out of its nest above the oldest rock cut tomb in Britain. Then I walked up the cliff, Hoy having the only cliffs in the Orkneys, to see “The Old Man of Hoy”, a tall stack of red sandstone standing next to a sheer cliff filled with nesting sea birds.
My other free time was spent listening to Orcadian Celtic music at the Reel, a really sweet little venue for accordion and fiddle players. The place has free concerts most nights and has such a welcoming vibe that I went almost nightly and got to know the folks who ran it.
My sweet little Peedie Hostel was right by the sea so I watched ships and fishing boats move in and out of the harbor every day while I made my food. It was right in the very small and lovely town of Kirkwall with its 11th century Gothic Cathedral and it’s stone buildings with step pitched roofs and sometimes turrets.
I made some new friends there as well— Bruno from France who teaches English in Marseilles; Ivy from Surinam who is traveling all over the UK; and Vere, a wild New Zealander on an around the world trek that has included climbing Mt Everest, taking Ayawasca for spiritual enlightenment, and visiting the Egyptian pyramids with a healer. She is a stunningly beautiful half Scot, half Maori who sold her house and is really on a flight to a new life.
A community created in the 70s a bit like Esalen, Findhorn is located on the shores of the Moray Firth in far north eastern Scotland. It offers “An Experience Week” wherein one is immersed in the values and lifestyle of its 300+ residents. Its main goals are Co-Creation with Nature; Inner Listening; and Love in Action, ideas based on guidance from spirits that helped its founders transform sand dunes into a nearly self-sustaining vegetable gardens and a community of buildings varying from a stone built wavy windowed sanctuary to hay bale structures, from modified trailers to wooden barrel houses all surrounded by flowers.
We were a group of 17, 2 men and 15 women, from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Brazil, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Switzerland and three from the US, many young, some middle-aged and a few older and led by two very loving older Scottish women who, along with guest healers, shepherded us through angel meditations, sacred dances, and spiritual “games” that opened our hearts and led to revelations, tears, and much loving support.
Afternoons here we participated in “Love in Action” which meant preparing food, doing home care, or, in my case, working in one of the myriad gardens—of vegetables or flowers. Weeding became an absolute delight; getting my hands in the dirt and marveling at the weeds’ tenacity evident in their extraordinary roots gave me much joy.
Every work session, every meal, every spiritual exercise, was preceded by and closed with a “tuning in” involving meditation, holding hands in a circle and a blessing. This made the community close and loving no matter what we were doing.
We lived at Clint Hill, an 1850s Victorian sprawl of a mansion surrounded by flower gardens and endless kelly green lawns. Ceilings were high with elaborate moldings and the dining room was exquisite with windows overlooking the gardens, royal blue seats and a lovely red green and blue floral carpet. Food was vegetarian, healthy, and fresh from our vegetable garden.
All was not work and meditation however, as we had excursions, one to the gloriously deep, mist-enshrouded and completely wild Findhorn River gorge, where rushing waters plunged over granite boulders and were surrounded by old growth forest, lichen dense and moss enfolded trees skirted by ferns and buttercups-the perfect Scottish experience.
Another day we went to the beach on Findhorn Bay—quiet, foggy, a beach with low waves bringing multi colored pebbles onto the sand, skirted by heathered dunes, and frequented mostly by gulls. I walked miles along the shore gentle waves caressing the sand and then along horse pastures and through a forest and gardens back to my next “Love in Action” afternoon.
What I remember most is the kindness of everyone and their willingness to listen, to help and to take the time to just to be present and support each other. My Findhorn Experience Week gave me a light that has warmed my heart and given me hope.
Had no expectations when I rolled into this Port town half way on my way to Scotland but I was thrilled to find a city that was small enough to be walked all over and beautiful enough to be really explored.
My accommodations at the Arena House were a fantastic deal at 15 £ a night for a private room with the TV! From there the first thing I did was walk to Matthew Street, an absolute jungle of pubs and live music venues . I went into the Uber-touristy— jammed with people from all over England as well as some from the US and France—Cavern Club where, from 11 am daily, a succession of guitarists led the crowd in shouting out Beatles tunes in ecstatic glee. “Hey Jude” “Love love me do“, “Here Comes the Sun”! And for six hours we did love each other, dance together, hugged and sang sang sang. I met Dorothy and Mark, madly in love, from Somerset, Michael Lynch, a comedian from Scotland who’ll be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, Paul and Charlotte from York, and Sheena and Pat from Wales who rescued me from the flirtations another Mark, a somewhat toasted handsome Physics teacher and widower from Liverpool.
The Cavern Club really is a mire of low ceilinged brick tunnels way down a spiral stair to an underground labyrinth where illegal whiskey was once brewed. Its walls and ceilings are covered with signatures and pictures of famous musicians who’d played there like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Who and of course the Beatles.
I returned a couple nights later and Mark and Dorothy were there and greeted me like best friends Singing here and at Rubber Soul, another pub, to live good singer-guitarists was a total joy and free to boot.
During the day I am immersed myself in culture. Explored the Slavery Museum with its really an incredible collection of Nigerian art and artifacts that revealed how highly cultured and developed the slaves brought through Liverpool were. Sadly this was the center of the slave trade and that story was told with great sensitivity. I took in the hundred or more works of Keith Haring at the Tate and then was most moved by “John and Yoko” at the Museum of Liverpool—immersive with photos, videos, letters, a replica of their Bed-in” for peace—and best of all, a karaoke sound booth where anyone and certainly me could sing “All we are saying is Give peace a chance” and Imagine”—amplified like a star😀😀
The weather was a perfect 70° and sunny making the beautiful harbor and the old brick piers as well as the three story Victorian homes throughout Liverpool look amazingly inviting. The city is a maze of roads mostly only for pedestrians—and you can walk for miles on the waterfront of the Mersey River in which I sailed on a “Dazzle” boat painted all over like a Peter Max cartoon—actually a way WW1 boats were camouflaged.
Spent a day at Speke Hall a wood framed wattle and daub manor house built in 1530 and used to protect Catholic priests when the Crown wanted them all assassinated. It was filled with heavy dark furniture, stuffed game and bronze sculptures in vitrines and a massive kitchen filled with pots and copper pans, butter churns, spatulas and spoons, crock pots and blue patterned crockery all arrayed beautifully on shelves. The Hall was surrounded by rambling gardens and lovely ordered and walked vegetable and flowers gardens.
I also took a train up to the Lake Country and saw Beatrix Potters home and garden. It was an intimate cozy home filled with her treasures and her drawings of dear little Peter Rabbit. Among the many flowers on the path leading to her home were tiny bronze hedgehogs set out with phrases to give Joy to children visiting. The tour included a sail on a lake and rides through steep wooded hills—so very lovely.
Back in Liverpool I got on a Hop On Hop Off bus and surprisingly found myself exploring the Anglican Cathedral in great depth being shepherded around by Terry keen to show me every nook and cranny of this 19th century but Gothic style cathedral that was really a gift from Lord Derby because he donated money for the land it’s built on. Its glory really is the Mary Chspel with its chandeliers and beautiful beautiful Stained -glass windows. I took a tour of aNstional Trust property—a photographers home as well so I could see all the accoutrements of a middle class 1950s family
Liverpool reminds me rather of Chicago both are unheralded really delightful places to visit
The people I met and partied with made Cornwall ever more lovely. I stayed at the Blue Dolphin Hostel in Penzance run by a super friendly surfer Matt. He spent daily time with all of us helping with all sorts of information but just chilling with. Amazingly it was at this backpackers hostel (£19/night) that I met a long travelling (two years) San Franciscan, Bland Cannon, and we hit it off immediately spending much of the next ten days together–we even got tattoos at the same time–his, a Celtic spiral and mine, the Golowan Festival logo–arm-linked dancers around St Michael’s Mount, the ancient beautiful castle we visited together in the rain.
Best part of my Cornwall visit was the GOLOWAN FESTIVAL, a 10 day long fest full of live music –Celtic, folk, rock, New Orleans jazz, even hard punk–in the streets, the pubs, the theaters all over Penzance. People costumes in wild colors and every man woman and child wore flower crowns in their hair–really!! Even spike red-headed totally tattooed Bland. Indeed having tattoos all over the body is typical of all ages here.
The main events started with a completely silly Mock Mayor’s Contest. A buck-toothed, powdered wigged and crimson robed elder presided with incomprehensible garble; then he and his rubber baseball bat-bearing courtiers brought and and often pummelled offstage a crazy series of contestants, There was a chunky pseudo Greek Senator trying to speak sense to an absolute rabble of a crowd swilling beer and hollering boos and throwing biscquits. A wizened old fisherman, beard to his waist, wearing rags babbled that he had nothing to offer us in the eway of leadership. A girl in a demure milkmaid’s dress blessed us all then took off her outerlayer to reveal a hoop skirted dress covered in buttons. She received a bundle of yays but at last lost to a paired of Wall Street suited seagulls throwing French fries out to the crowd.
Golowan culminated on Mazey Day with every street filled with partying people, pop-up clothing, balloons and henna shops, and food stalls filled with shortbread, cakes and Cornish pasties. Best of all was FIVE separate parades going from 11 on, up and down the main street of town, each having brass bands or rock bands marching them along. The first was the dignitaries and posh of the town–the real tux and tails mayor with his black velvet hooped skirt lady and a funny tartanned old Leprecaun were joined by the seagulls and followed by lots of well dressed couples with chunky bronze necklaces, as tacky as Trump would wear. Then three parades followed, filling the day with ~green~ floats and banners, fish and bees, butterflies and birds on sticks and made of recycled plastic bottles, used umbrellas, and hand-glued papier mache. There were huge bees, a crepe papered gorilla, a forest of trees and a great whale whose stomach was filled with trash carried aloft . What was so cool was the parades were filled with children and families and all the costumes and props were home made.
The last parade–Men and Maids– was led by a brilliant Celtic band and a strange and wonderful horse character on stilts, covered in black rags, dancing over the cobble stone streets and sporting a big horse skull that clacked in time to the music. This band led a Serpent Dance all over town and hundreds of people danced around and after them, snaking among each other laughing and loving the day. I danced too and downed some Cornish ale for ten hours–a whale of a day to remember!!
A most magical peninsula extending out of the farthest southwest of England, Cornwall is a land of rolling emerald green and tawny wheat fields bursting with kale, and courgettes, carrots, tomatoes and waving acres of grain, each field separated by quite untamed hedgerows–stone and earthen boundary mounds that are overgrown with Queen Anne’s lace, dandelions, morning glories, blackberries and puff ball conifers. Single tract serpentine roads, complete with careening double decker buses, thread through the farmlands out to the rocky outcrop at Land’s End where granite cliffs meet the Atlantic and where winds reach 60-80 mph.
A mile north is Sennen with its Caribbean colored sea rolling into a lovely white sand surfer/swimming beach and where you can climb up a proper hill to have the best view of Land’s End, far from the retail circus that crawls all over that site.
The countryside finds villages of stone row houses nestled among the farms.
Beauty abounds as well in the many gardens that grace cities like Penzance and St Ives– the National Trust has preserved a 25 acre estate grounds filled with meandering forest walks full of 20′ high rhodedendrons and majestic oaks and hydrangea and streamside gardens with every color imaginable–magenta foxglove, white daisies, bluebells, all with grazing butterflies and bees, birds singing in the sweet air.
My favorite garden full of a jungle of exotics and many of her sculptures surrounds Barbara Hepworth’s studio/home in St Ives. From a 20′ high geometric bronze to lovingly carved organic wooden pieces, their interior concavities brushed with gold leaf, Hepworth imitated, in elegant abstract form, the ocean beaten shapes of the Cornwall coast and the enigmatic piercings of ancient menhirs (Neolithic stone monuments) and the stone circles found all over the county–in fact Cornwall has the most Neolithic sites in all of Britain.
There’s art here as well. Tate St Ives had a show of sensual paintings and drawings by the Lebanese artist Huguette Caland. And for most of one sunny day I participated in a performance piece: “Another Hurling of the Silver Ball” wherein hundreds of townsfolk gambolled in procession from the highest point in St Ives, through a skate park and into a soccer field where tribes of young uniformed school boys bumped the 10′ high ball back and forth between goals, often being knocked over amidst gales of laughter. We all then followed the ball into another park where a formally costumed Celtic band played for a dance around and around the ball. The ball ended up suspended above the Tate rotunda with its artist playing an obscure digital sound piece created by beating on the ball .
In and out of London but it was really splendid. First off I saw two fantastic plays: “Sweat” about some factory workers losing their jobs to “downsizing” and the owners pitting friends against friends—see it— and “The Lehman Trilogy” about generations of the originally German Jewish immigrant brothers and their rise to power and wealth—all roles played by three excellent actors, script like a Greek play poetic poignant —also brilliant
Toured Brick Lane looking for street art with my Slovakian friend Jozef.
Stayed with my oldest friend—Anni Klaus—in her beautiful home, a rose covered Victorian full of art and color. She generously fed me daily feasts.
The Isle of Wight Fest was rainy muddy and the friendliest fest I’ve ever attended It’s an amazing music festival with two stages and a complete midway in the middle as well as of course lots of food. Danced in the front to Fatboy Slim, loved
Bastille and the many cozy little stages with deejays—Smirnoff, A Pimms picnic enclosure, an eco oriented cider garden. Everyone was tarted out in crazy 60s clothes—color, bell-bottoms, mismatched patterns, lots of tattoos and all ages dancing and greeting me, welcoming me no matter where I was. Best fest ever
I’m leaving June 10 for a spectacular sweep of the U K. Check for biweekly posts and have great summers all my friends