O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Maybe some people are just born with the deck stacked against them, and no matter the good intent of their efforts, nothing can change anyone’s bad opinion of them. Take poor Janet, from the late Elspeth Barker’s only novel O Caledonia. A clumsy, bumbling child with frizzy hair and no social skills, even her own family found her unpleasant company. When the poor girl was murdered at age 16 in the family’s highland home, despatching her body and being shed of her was their one concern.

Only her pet jackdaw was left to mourn, dashing himself against the castle walls.

” She recognized in herself a distaste for people, which was both physical and intellectual; and yet she nurtured a shameful, secret desire for popularity, or at least for acceptance, neither of which came her way.”

– O Caledonia

O Caledonia is an absolute joy of a novel, smoothly flowing, at times poetic, with a nasty satirical bite. Like Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Barker makes merry with gothic conventions, while taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about silly young girls whose heads have been turned by books.

Though the story begins with a murder, this is neither mystery nor thriller. Strange as it sounds, the poor girl’s death isn’t the point but, rather, the culmination of a series of events starting from her birth and ending in her premature demise. The young misanthrope was never long for this world, a point the novel drives home very effectively through scene after dire scene featuring a not always well-intentioned Janet. In one particularly hilarious scene, while her mother drives them to the dentist her younger sister – the literal golden child of the family – inexplicably falls out of the car. Grabbing the door and pulling it closed, Janet’s only thought was, essentially, oh god, I hope I don’t get blamed for this. Then, when instead of going out for tea and cakes they turn around and take her bruised sister home, Janet is frustrated and resentful.

Not a pleasant girl, granted, but still not sure she deserved a stabbing. Call me irrational.

As the oldest, Janet’s robbed of any hope of parental love as a series of increasingly adorable, perfect children are born. Fed up with being occasionally expected to help out, when charged with bringing her baby sister in from the rain Janet grabs the infant by the head, dragging her out of her pram then through the mud by whatever limb she managed to get hold of. Inevitably, she was punished, and rightly so, but no effort she made ever paid off, so why even bother?

I could see her point.

Barker does show some sympathy, allowing her one consoling friendship with cousin Lila, a fascinatingly eccentric, witch-like character whose continued residence at their inherited home, Auchnasaugh, comes as a requirement stipulated in the will of the uncle who granted her family the property. A hermit who may despise people even more than Janet, Lila nevertheless welcomes the girl into her dark and strange little cottage on the grounds of the castle – at least for a while, but nothing good ever can last for the poor thing.

“Vera (Janet’s mother) had hoped, when they first came to Auchnasaugh, that Lila might wish to help with the children; she visualised her as a cross between a doting and quaintly dotty aunt and an eccentric family retainer, who would know her place but find fulfillment in a modest share of their family life … Lila had countered by dropping cigarette ash in the baby’s cot and providing a steaming bowl of daffodil bulbs cooked in parsley sauce for the children’s lunch, claiming that they were onions.”

– O Caledonia

Elspeth Barker was a journalist and book reviewer whose life bore a striking similarity to her main character’s. Raised in Drumtochy Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, like Janet’s father, Barker’s also used their home to house a preparatory school for boys. It’s not a stretch to imagine young Elspeth whiling away her time in books, though I certainly hope her family didn’t despise her and the boys weren’t as nasty.

Drumtochty Castle, Elspeth Barker’s childhood home

O Caledonia set the bar high for my reading year and I hope it’s a sign of good things to come. It’s earned itself a perfect 5/5 and I’ve already shifted it to the re-read list.

Fans of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle would probably love this book. Speaking of, I should re-visit that one, too.

The Scottish Highlands setting really sealed the deal for me, as if I wouldn’t have loved the wretched, book-obsessed anti-heroine in any environment. I just wish Elspeth Barker had had time to write more novels, and I’m keen to track down her book of essays and reviews, Dog Days, which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere – believe me, I’ve been checking.

Like Janet, I’ll keep soldiering on, despite being an incredibly irritating human being.

Daily Scotland: Excursions to Haddington, East Lothian and Dean Village, Edinburgh


Haddington, East Lothian


Life’s been challenging for Chris and me this past week. Outside forces have been exerting a lot of negative energy, leaving us two anxiety-ridden insomniacs walking around like yawning zombies. The onset of autumn hasn’t helped. Shortening days coupled with cold winds and driving rain don’t improve the mood.

But then it’s Scotland, not Fiji. Get. Real.

I’ve been struggling with the excruciating SCOTUS hearings and subsequent confirmation of the Dishonourable Brett Kavanaugh – revealing so much misogyny and perversion entrenched in our justice system it staggers. I’ve insisted “this is not my country” whenever there’s been a racist or misogynistic event. Two years on, I may have to rethink that.

The mid-term elections on 6 November will be pivotal. If the country comes out against the Trump administration, hope lives. If not, the fight continues. It will swing back. The problem is rectifying the damage done will take a very long time, healing the rift between left and right the biggest hurdle.

We are a nation divided, indignation fueled by fury.

We took full advantage when the weather cooperated with brilliant sunshine last Tuesday. Yes! Sunshine in Scotland! Chris suggested a side-trip to the village of Haddington, East Lothian. Just twenty minutes-ish outside Edinburgh, it’s a pretty little place to spend an afternoon – longer if you search out all the historical sites.

For Chris, who’s powered by music, it has a used record shop. For both of us, used books and other fun things from a myriad of charity shops then a quick bite at a quaint little café called Diggory’s. If you happen by make sure you mention my name. They’ll have no idea why, but my ears will burn and I’ll know you care.

Try the paninis!


Clock tower, Haddington


Jane Bailie Welsh Carlyle

I didn’t read about the history of Haddington until I got home that evening. Turns out it has a lot. Walking in the main shopping area, I saw a plaque commemorating native daughter Jane Welsh Carlyle, woman of letters and wife of writer Thomas Carlyle, but didn’t follow through tracking down her birthplace. We both had plans later in Edinburgh so didn’t have the whole day, but her house was right there on the high street.



I’ve not read Jane Carlyle’s famous  letters, but was force-marched through an excerpt of Thomas’s excrutiating famous Sartor Resartus as an English literature undergrad. Virginia Woolf was a big fan of hers, and I’m a big fan of Woolf. She admired Carlyle because the woman pulled no punches:

I do think there is much truth in the Young German idea that marriage is a shockingly immoral institution, as well as what we have long known it for – an extremely disagreeable one.

Jane Welsh Carlyle, not particularly fond of Thomas

Haddington’s also where John Knox – minister and leader of Scotland’s reformation – and misogynist extraordinaire – was from. A ruined castle and churches, medieval bridge and connection to Mary, Queen of Scots are a few other things we missed. But then it was a let’s get the hell out of here and forget our worries for a while outing.

Chris’s cappuccino – much prettier than my Diet Coke

It was off to Edinburgh after lunch, for me pretty Dean Village. It took some doing finding an access point, since a lot of it’s pedestrian only. Poor Chris found a good spot to dump me through a lot of trial and error. Walking there is a lot different than driving, and he’d never driven. He’s a good egg.

Until the 19th century a separate village within Edinburgh, for 800 years a mill town, it’s now a staggeringly expensive, trendy place to live. Easy to see why:


Dean Village on the Leith


Still a few roses in bloom.



Have I made you sick with jealous loathing yet? If not, here you go!:

Dean Village is filled with wanderers, locals and bloody tourists. Chris dropped me  around 4 or so when it was largely deserted, so I had a relaxing meander until it got too dark for decent photography. My one regret is I didn’t make it to the cemetery before it closed. I won’t talk about the why until I’ve been there. It has to do with artsy, literature-related stuff and this post isn’t about that.

Pretty much a perfect day, overall. Stress? What stress. For a few hours it was possible to forget all about it.


Happy Christmas Eve.

Quiet in my house this Christmas Eve. In the oven baking is a frozen beef and stout pie, in the fridge a six-pack of Stella Artois – an appropriately light drink with such heavy food. It smells wonderful, and suits my resistance to anything resembling actual cooking. This year, especially. Yes, okay, every year.

Whatever. Shut up.

My kids are scattered to the winds. My daughter is celebrating her first Christmas with her girlfriend in their tiny, animal-filled apartment (two cats and a dog…), my sons with their father’s family. My boys will come tomorrow, bringing tidings of great cheer and eating the massive amounts of food I bought. As for my daughter, she’s splitting holidays with her virtual in-laws. Plans are to get all of us together next weekend for presents and even more food.


You’d think I was feeding an army


Here’s hoping.

I’d imagined a very different Christmas for myself this year. For a fleeting few months, there was the very real possibility I’d be settled permanently in the UK, strolling through an Edinburgh wearing its magical holiday lights and decorations. I’d have missed my kids like crazy, but Scotland’s in my marrow still.

What’s ironic is it’s nearly impossible getting them all together now. They’re growing up and out, in separate directions. They’re not gone yet, but I can see the reality they soon will be. When they are, I’ll need the practice so I can stand alone.

I’ve chosen this single life for myself – for now. I left The Impossible Scot, came home from the UK. I can handle difficult people. I like snarky curmudgeons, find them endearing. What I cannot bear is constant confrontation, harping and bickering. I am a gentle person. It takes a lot to rile me to anger.

But once you do, I have teeth. Especially if my children are there.

I found out the Scot has obsessive issues, wounds from the past now barely concealing fury, outbursts of extraordinary intensity. He mistook my amiable personality for weakness. That’s a huge mistake. It takes far more strength to hold back from anger, to accept another person’s bad or merely irritating behavior and just let it go. You can anger or hurt me: I digest it in a moment, turn back around with a smile, and it’s gone.

Holding onto grievances is pointless.

Angry outbursts are not strength. They’re the exact opposite. Anger rots from the inside; lashing out at others is a misguided attempt to make them pay for hurts others have given.

I wish I could have been the healer, wish I’d have been able to step out far enough to see and understand in the moment. It’s become a great anchor, this regret. Until I stop grieving, let go of the niggling feeling the story’s not over, until I heal, I’m best on my own.

Man. Christmas sure brings out sentiment, doesn’t it.


Enough sentiment, let’s eat!


Part of healing is finding a new sense of direction. This is why I need 2018 to be a huge year, to eclipse 2017. I’m keeping Christmas small partly because I’m putting lots of time and energy into kicking 2018’s ass in advance.

I’m plotting and planning.

Hoping and dreaming.

Once that’s in place, I’ll be taking action.

I like this quiet Christmas Eve. Being alone doesn’t equate to loneliness. I have lots of people in my life, when I choose to socialize. I have my kids, great people I work with, I’ve joined and re-joined groups devoted to interests I share with others.

Loving alone time does not mean you hate people. Writing and reading are largely solitary pursuits. People like me require periods of solitude. It has nothing whatsoever to do with feelings about other people.

Well, most people.

I’m planning a trip to New Orleans next month, to help calm the wanderlust and get out of Chicago for a while. Unrelated to my big life plans – as far as I know, because life has had a remarkable ability to shock me – NOLA is a place of sultry, edgy beauty with strong ties to a specific part of American culture. It’s also home to strong echoes of the American literary past.

I hope I can make this trip happen. I’m already itching to get somewhere else.

It was nice taking this time to write a post on a major holiday. It feels luxurious I had the time to spare. I’m already at work composing my 2018 reading plan post. That’ll take a few days, but that’s okay. There’s another week left of 2017.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Live, from Scotland!


Edinburgh Castle, as if you didn’t know

Coming to you live from Bonnie Scotland. I’ll be reviewing for UK publishers and venues through the next few months, up and running here at Bluestalking. You’ll find me at the Edinburgh International Literary Festival in August, attending events, standing very close to authors, reading and buying books, enjoying the roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowds.

I’m getting settled in my new situation, setting up my digs.

Since I’ve been here I’ve attended the Boswell Book Festival, and am currently reading the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction Shortlist, in preparation for attending the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, Melrose, for the presentation of the award.

Exciting stuff!

Meantime, I’ll be bringing you all the British – particularly Scottish – book info I can fit into my schedule.

Slàinte, and all that.

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst


  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins; 1St Edition edition (1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002570068


How long have I had this on my TBR list? Can’t say for certain, but through at least a decade, and ownership of two physical copies of the book;  I own so many books I couldn’t find the blasted thing when I eventually decided it was time to read it.

However long, it was worth the wait.

If not for the Stevenson family, the coastline of Scotland – as well as much of its infrastructure – may have looked drastically different today. For it was RL Stevenson’s grandfather, Robert Stevenson, whose hard-headed dedication to protecting the lives of countless sailors lead him into becoming the pioneer of lighthouse engineers, the self-trained expert who made engineering into a field respected enough to be taught in universities.

Before Robert Stevenson, the course of study did not exist. Of course engineering existed: craftsmen and stonemasons, architects and designers built things of great wonder and beauty. What they did just wasn’t considered something to be formally taught.  Not until a force came along that shifted people’s thinking.


Robert Stevenson 1772 - 1850

Robert Stevenson 1772 – 1850


Previous to Stevenson’s arrival on the scene, there was little interest in or even incentive to build lighthouses on the coast of Scotland, despite the hundreds of sailors who lost their lives being drowned or crushed in the process of circumnavigating the shoreline. What’s shocking is the reason: there was money to be had in plundering the wreckage of those hundreds of ships, fishing out the cargo and robbing the sailors. Not just that, many sailors who survived the wrecks were drowned, intentionally, by nefarious thieves who didn’t want witnesses to their heinous acts surviving to tell the tale.


“By 1800, Lloyds of London estimated the one ship was lost or wrecked every day around Britain; between 1854 and 1879, almost 50,000 wrecks were registered. The figure is probably ludicrously low.”

– The Lighthouse Stevensons


Scotland wasn’t blessed with many trees. Thus, wood from these ships smashed apart on rocks unseen, or ships blown into the shoreline during furious gales, made perfect building materials. It was such an irresistible source of revenue, ministers excused parishioners from services when a ship had run aground. Many preached this was God’s own will, manna sent to the needy.

What it took to turn all that around was one very stubborn man with lots more ambition than experience or even knowledge. One man who stood up against the committees holding the purse strings, who didn’t back down in the face of resistance.

And, ultimately, the ship owners themselves stepped forward. They had had enough.


British Lighthouses

British Lighthouses

Once he was given funding, the fight against the elements alone was enough to make a lesser man turn and run. The force of storms in the waters off Scotland more than once tore apart his early efforts to build. The work of a full year was blown completely off its moorings, workmen left clinging onto steep stones, or huddled together in ships gathered around the building site, in a desperate bid to save themselves.

Fresnel Lens - developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Fresnel Lens – developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Most sailors ” … did not expect to live beyond the age of forty.”

The elements seemed insurmountable. Stevenson started over – over and over again.

The stone used to build the lighthouses had to be cut with extraordinary precision, lest the mighty waves crashing against them blow them to smithereens. Tolerance for gaps between each piece was infinitesimal.  And then the lights themselves, going through trial after trial trying to find the one technology that could withstand the rigours demanded of them.

Robert Stevenson, and his sons after him, traveled the world studying lighthouse technology, taking notes and figuring how they could adapt the work of others to their own projects.


Skerryvore Lighthouse - 1838 - 1844, Alan Stevenson

Skerryvore Lighthouse – 1838 – 1844, Alan Stevenson


Yet, not all Robert Stevenson’s children were equally blessed with his skill and determination. Alan Stevenson was born a dreamer, a sickly child whose first love was poetry. A classical scholar, he was gifted musically, and later became an early champion of poet William Wordsworth. Eventually buckling down to the family business, Alan would remain the bane of Robert Stevenson’s existence, just as later Alan’s nephew Robert Louis Stevenson would present the same challenge to his own father, Thomas. Himself sickly and a dreamer, we all know how RL Stevenson’s career turned out.

In my opinion, he did okay for himself.

RL Stevenson did try to mold himself to the family business. For several years he studied engineering, attempting to put aside his passion for writing. He even produced a paper, “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses.” However, it clearly showed he had no promise as an engineer, no passion for the work. Nothing about it was original or particularly creative.


“On being tightly cross-questioned, I owned that I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession.”

– RL Stevenson


To give him his due, however much Thomas Stevenson disapproved of his son’s choice, felt heartbroken his child would never join the long line of engineers, he never broke with him. Though he would later become frustrated with RL’s agnosticism, he kept up a correspondence. He never allowed their differences to divide them.

And though he’d go on to travel the world, leaving his family behind, Scotland would never be far from RL Stevenson’s heart. Neither would he feel anything but respect for the remarkable accomplishments of his family.

He would move away, sail the seas, living in Samoa and Hawaii, travelling the length and breadth of Europe, visiting the United States more than once.  In the South Seas he’d raise his own family, a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe living amongst the natives.

No matter how far he traveled, he didn’t forget where he came from.


“I shall once more lie in bed, and see the little sandy isle in Allan Water, as it is in nature, and the child (that once was me) wading there in butterburs; and wonder at the instancy and virgin freshness of that memory; and be pricked again, in season and out of season, by the desire to weave it into art”

– RLS – Memories and Portraits


RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860

RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860


Dhu Heartach - Thomas Stevenson - Later used by RL Stevenson in novel 'Kidnapped.'

Dhu Heartach – Thomas Stevenson – Later used by RL Stevenson in novel ‘Kidnapped.’


Most of The Lighthouse Stevensons goes into great detail about the building of the major lighthouses produced by the family. And when I say great detail, I do mean GREAT. It’s fascinating if, like me, you love the romance of the lonely, windswept lighthouse, imagining what it would be like to have risked life and limb building them. As much as you may believe you can imagine how it was, the reality is, I guarantee it, much more violent and stark.

Not only was there the weather to contend with, the day-to-day raw fear. There were also occasional mutinies, times when workers who had had enough threatened to walk out as soon as they were back on shore, if their salaries were not raised. The Stevensons did not suffer any threats. If a man threatened to leave, he was fired. This was nothing to take lightly. Marooned on a potentially lethal piece of rock in the middle of the sea for months at a time, there is no margin of error for a man who may decide to turn on his crew mates.

Then, there’s the life of the keeper. A dangerous and grueling profession, it requires sometimes months away from all society. At the mercy of the weather, these early keepers of the lights were oftentimes left longer than originally planned, because no ship could approach to bring them back to shore.




Against the elements, the strongest of men are powerless.

But what a romantic notion, being a lighthouse keeper. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its appeal. I wouldn’t mind trying the lifestyle, at least the solitude and living on a rock away from civilization.

Just maybe not off the coast of Scotland.


Bell Rock Lighthouse - Off Angus, Scotland - 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson - Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.

Bell Rock Lighthouse – Off Angus, Scotland – 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson – Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.


If the reader finds no romance in waves crashing over the shorelines of Scotland, and stories about the fortitude of men who will stop at nothing, even risking their lives for the sake of creating these magnificent structures, this may not be the book for you.

Likewise, a desire to know the back story of RL Stevenson is great incentive to read The Lighthouse Stevensons. It will leave you understanding much more about the writer, where he came from, how he bowed out of the tradition of his family for a life in books and letters. Truly, this is a fascinating work reminding just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the making of the lights and how one family left its indelible mark on the face of Scotland and the world.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson


“Say not of me that weakly I declined

The Labours of my sires, and fled the sea,

The towers we built and the lamps we lit,

To play at home with paper like a child.

But rather say: In the afternoon of time

A strenuous family dusted from its hands

The sand of granite, and beholding far

Along the sounding coast its pyramids

And tall memorials catch the dying sun,

Smiled well content, and to this childish task

Around the fire addressed its evening hours.”

– RL Stevenson


meanwhile, back in edinburgh: Part the 1st

Dusk, over the Atlantic

Dusk, over the Atlantic

As I was saying, I flew to Edinburgh on the spur of the moment, staying nine days from the end of August through early September. In my earlier post I covered the generalities: the whys and whats and wherefores. I went because I could, because I had the time and the freedom and the money. I went for the Edinburgh International Literary Festival (which expanded to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a bonus) and out of love I’ve nursed for Scotland as close to all my life as it interests me to relate.

What makes this remarkable isn’t just that I upended my life and left; it signaled the end of one very, very (very) long married phase and the beginning of the rest of my life.

Dull. Let’s get to the fun bits.


Appin Guest House, Edinburgh

Appin Guest House, Edinburgh

I have no reason to lie to you; the trip cost a fucking fortune. Nervous breakdowns are expensive. I’ve been using the bank statement listing all my foreign transactions as note paper; I can’t bear turning it over and facing reality. I know what the plane cost (ouch) and roughly the hotel (oucher). Food, cab fare, festival tickets, souvenirs, beer… Not like I can return any of it for a refund or would even want to.

Note paper. All note paper.

Flying into a European city at the height of its festival season (books, the arts in general, the military tattoo and films: four separate affairs) without having pre-planned to do so, at a time when hotels are booked to capacity, is nothing short of foolhardy. In any case save duress, this would be a very bad idea. Duress, in my case, meant if I didn’t get the hell away I would risk losing the last bit of my goddamn sanity.

I had all of two hotels from which to chose, two with rooms available so late in the festival season. One was a guest house/B&B  so expensive it gave me a nose bleed, the other a mansion far out of the realm of reality even if I’d knocked over a bank. Because I’m too pretty for prison, I went with the nosebleed, a beautiful little B&B – Appin Guest House – off Dalkeith Road, in a residential area to the southeast of central Edinburgh. I was by Arthur’s Seat, not far from the Palace of Holyrood, the walk to the Old Town roughly half an hour to forty minutes depending how many wrong turns I took and how many distractions.

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Now, the B&B was expensive but it was ungodly amazing, like walking off the streets of 21st century Edinburgh straight into the Edwardian era. Have you seen that horrendously saccharine time-traveling film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour? Something something in time? That but without the gagging, a sort of time warp, space/time anomaly, timey wimey wibbly wobbly thing. Step outside and I’m a tourist in rumpled, not fresh as they could be clothing, dragging luggage. Step inside and my high-fashion silk dress squeezes me into a perfect hourglass, lace-up leather boots with sharp toe ringing on the floor, all topped with a hat nestling my well-coiffed hair – as opposed to flat and somewhat frozen locks on the one side, from resting it against the wall of the plane, sticking straight up in front because Edinburgh’s more than a little bit windy.

The floors of the hotel were marble, broad stairway showing gracefully well-worn wood, crystal chandeliers hanging from coffered ceilings, tastefully muted tartan carpeting throughout and general gob-smacking splendor. Fresh from navigating the streets of Edinburgh, dragging my worldly belongings behind bumpity bumpity down cobble-stoned streets, reaching that foyer I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the floor. And this before I’d even experienced their Full Scottish Breakfast.


Foyer, Appin House

Foyer, Appin House


Grand ceiling, Appin House

Grand ceiling, Appin House

Many more photos of Appin House here on Bluestalking’s Tumblr

The absolute silence of the place was a bit spooky. I’d forgotten hotels in Europe aren’t like those in America, they all but close down for several hours between breakfast and check-in time. I knocked on the “Employees Only” door, receiving no answer. I strained my ears to hear even a whisper of human noise, even the scurrying of a mouse. The quiet was almost oppressive but there was a chair to rest my weary bones, an outlet to charge my phone and little else I wanted aside from that. Half a sandwich from a New York layover sufficed for lunch with water from the Edinburgh airport.

I could wait ’til Doomsday, if need be. Communication with the outside world re-established, weary self safely and warmly ensconced in a luxurious setting frankly too good for me, it was time to start texting bragging pictures home.


Edinburgh Castle, In Yo' Face

Edinburgh Castle, In Yo’ Face

Eventually, it was the maid who came along to save me, tsking both that I’d had to wait so long and also that the gardeners had left the front door unlocked, allowing me to come inside in the first place. I’ve never received such a warm and assuring, flustered and disbelieving welcome before in my life. Welcome! And how did you get in here… ? Oh, and your room isn’t ready, did I mention that?

My room hadn’t been cleaned but she took care of it in less than an hour, while I sat unmoving in the foyer, alternately texting madly and cackling at the consternation of friends I’d awoken at an ungodly hour back home in Chicago. For all I cared she could have repainted and tiled the walls, while she was at it. I had Facebook! Twitter! Text messaging! Pictures I’d already taken! THE WHOLE DAMN INTERNETS!

But breaking eye contact with my phone screen long enough to – with no small degree of annoyance at the interruption – look up at her antiseptic-smelling self hovering above me, I fell in love instantaneously. As the clouds parted, she handed me the key. “You must be so tired,” she said, in the way soothing, ethereally beautiful angels must, at the point of our death. I’d been bright-eyed and more than a little manic-looking, eyes evolved huge and staring wide from gazing at the flickering blue screen in the almost dark, but her eyes were so kind, her raw need to see me rest so urgent. Pulling the charger plug for my phone from the ancient socket in the wall, cord whipping behind me, I charged up the stairs into my newly-cleaned room, peeked to see that there was in fact an en-suite bathroom (it’s Europe, you can’t take these things for granted) and threw myself into sheets so white and starched I thought I’d never crawl out again.

The angel left quietly, soft clouds caressing my cheeks in her wake. To sleep, perchance to awaken and shower before nightfall. “Sleep, my precious… Sleep.” she whispered.

Three minutes later I heard her above, vacuum roaring away. My angel.


Room 6, Starched and Ready

Room 6, Starched and Ready


Thinking back, I’m not positive I ever once set out in an intentional straight line from the hotel to central Edinburgh. Lie: I did but never made it without streets changing names and buildings popping up where they hadn’t been the day before. Greyfriars Cathedral alone must have gone poof and re-assembled itself in a different location a good dozen times before all was said and done. For one solid day it was there every time I turned a corner,  like some sort of twisted-ass Harry Potter wizarding trick. I could set out with it at my back, make a beeline in the opposite direction, then find myself smack in front of it again in half an hour without having made a turn.

It was not rational; it bent the laws of physics in half.

It got to the point I found myself ecstatic to recognize places I’d gotten lost previously. It’s not that I remembered how I eventually managed to get where I was going from these points. Rather, I was disproportionately gleeful I came to find streets I hadn’t meant to be at least once before. If I’d been anyone else tagging along with me I’d have ripped off my head, shoving the map down my neck as blood spurted from my arteries like a sprinkler. On my own, I just slapped myself on the back – a bit too sharply, at times -laughing it off.

In my peripheral vision, Greyfriars stood sentry, biding its time.


Couldn't find it again if I had to

Couldn’t find it again if I had to

So, I spent these first couple days wandering, getting my bearings and memorizing every line of Greyfriars Church. I had no agenda save book festival events a couple of days hence, leaving fate to take me where it would. Putting a foot out the door each morning, I had no set plans. I picked a direction and followed my nose, which also seemed to pop up in unexpected places several times an hour. My map and smart phone were in my backpack for emergencies but the only real need I had of them was navigating back home at the end of the day. Because, well, they weren’t going to get me anywhere I actually intended seeing, anyway.


I do not know

I do not know

I floated through the city, embracing my own discombobulation, getting lost cutting through dark alleys, taking photos of details.


Damned if I know

Damned if I know

Uphill and downhill… Up and down, each up more steep than the downs, I swear to God. Defies all laws of physics. Or geography. Or geological who’s it.  But you cannot tell me it’s not so.

Cowgate - this one I figured out

Cowgate – this one I figured out

Thank goodness for those huge breakfasts on subsequent days. I didn’t need to eat all day, not until dinner.

So I walked.

And got lost.

Walked some more, got tired, sat, got up and walked. Found a pub, had a pint.

And walked.


Sword Swallower - Fringe Fest

Sword Swallower – Fringe Fest

Finding myself in Princes Street that first day, I blended with the crowds watching street performers.

And cringed along with them.



Found myself in the square in front of St. Giles Cathedral.

St. Giles Cathedral


I gawped up at the architecture.

Still St. Giles

Still St. Giles

Gawped some more.

You guessed it

You guessed it

A bit more.



The cathedral was emptying out for the day, whisper quiet as I walked around taking photos. Just me and a handful of other tourists.

Interior, St. Giles

Interior, St. Giles

St. Giles, Interior

St. Giles, Interior




One last look, before they closed for the day.

Outside again, dusk had begun falling, travel weariness dead on its heels. All the early excitement walked out of me, I started coming back down. I dreamed again of starched sheets, dreamed of dreaming on starched sheets.

Just as I’d begun drooping, the Fringe Festival was revving up. Actors and comedians and singers passed out handbills to lure in well-fed and watered tourists looking for entertainment. At any given time I must have held thirty advertisements in my free hand. Not sure why but grabbing papers from strangers became almost giddying,  all those hands stuffing things at me at once, elevator speeches chattering full force. I found that manic smile on my face again.

Crowds don’t usually amuse me, much less crowds popping out with hands. Must have been over-exhaustion making me slap happy. It got to be a game: how many papers can I grab?! I must have all the papers! GIVE ME ALL THE PAPERS.

So many venues, so much to see and quite reasonable. Dirt cheap, most of it. Had I not enjoyed so much free sampling on the streets earlier I may have been tempted, myself, on the first day. But I was growing exhausted.


Fringe Festival - 2015

Fringe Festival – 2015

And evening was coming on quickly.

Human Statue

Human Statue

Performance artists posed.

Fringe Event Posters

Fringe Event Posters

And all the posters and posters and posters glued everywhere.

St. Giles, Square

St. Giles, Square

Buildings grew dark as street lights began to glow.

A Close

A Close

And while the excitement of the revelers was palpable and alluring, gearing up for a long night, I’d just flown in from the States. Already awake more than 24 hours, I hit a wall.

Hungry for the first time since that hours’ old sandwich consumed at the B&B, dinner was another cold sandwich from a shop. Quick and easy. The forty to fifty to three hour walk back was exchanged for a cab.

Day one – a mere late afternoon and evening – was done. The next would be my first full day in the city.  What little energy I had left I’d use reading that guidebook I packed, to research what I hadn’t made time to before, leaving in such a rush, and study a map more for ornament than anything. Then shower dust and sweat and the palms of dozens of people I’d brushed from Chicago to New York to Edinburgh, falling asleep on sheets ironed by an angel.

Grateful I’d fought against every excuse to not, yet came, anyway.

Back to Edinburgh.


Night falls on Edinburgh

Night falls on Edinburgh


’round edinburgh in nine days: preface

Edinburgh: City of Eternal Rain

Edinburgh: City of Eternal Rain

“Adventure should be part of everyone’s life. It is the whole difference between being fully alive and just existing.” ― Holly Morris


If my Grand, Impulsive Excursion to Bonnie Scotland were a book, it could best be described as pitch perfect, the work of a writer at the height of her powers and, that perennial favorite of mine, readable.

It was a solitary endeavor, a lone wolf journey abroad made by a newly-single woman with an abiding love of a good, cold stout served up at a dusty, dimly lit pub and a post-divorce chip on her shoulder the size of, well, a really big chip. And yes, it was a little scary going it alone, thanks for asking, though not so much as it could have been had I not just last year flown to Ireland on my own. My 2014 trip proved I can rely on myself, plan and execute a solo vacation and not at all blend in with the locals because who am I kidding, I scream American from five miles away even in English-speaking nations.

I’m a strong woman who can handle herself, a perfect candidate for solo travel. I also enjoy my own company more than that of most others. Disagreements with myself are few, seldom resulting in violence. At only one point in the trip did I become so aggravated I stopped speaking to me, a brief period which flared and subsided as quickly as it came. I bought myself a drink, we laughed, it was soon forgotten.

Ah, the memories!

Edinburgh isn’t just awesome and beautiful, full of history and bagpipes and beer and whisky and beer but also a mecca for all things arts and literary. A  safe city for a woman alone, during my nine days there not a single murder was committed: not in Edinburgh, in Scotland or the entire UK. Meanwhile, back here in the USA not only were there violent killings in the Chicago suburbs but my very own street was staked out by a SWAT team, shite you not. So, for those considering a trip abroad but concerned with personal safety, shut up and go, for fuck’s sake. Quite whining. You’re more likely to be harmed here than there.

God bless the NRA!

In fact, the closest approximation to a traumatic situation I encountered was a man urinating proudly and profusely through a wrought-iron fence near the Sir Walter Scott monument. Despite his vigorously healthy stream, at no point did I feel endangered. In fact I envied the man, as I do all of his gender, his possession of equipment enabling urination while standing up, in a set direction no less, a feat nary a female could accomplish without impaling herself and making a huge mess. And if that’s the worst that happened to me I count myself lucky.

Ostensibly, my official “reason” for flying over was to attend the Edinburgh International Literary Festival, that most deservedly lauded celebration of books and authors and books and authors, coupled with a deep love for Scotland I’ve enjoyed more than half my life. Abroad on a student ambassador program at the tender age of 18, I proclaimed to no one in particular, “This is where I will spend the rest of my life!” Then promptly didn’t, because hey that’s how 18-year olds are, dramatic and pretty well powerless.

Not that I didn’t give it a noodle. I entered college with every intention of studying abroad a semester at Edinburgh University and would have, too, had my then boyfriend (now ex-husband, IRONY) not popped a diamond on my finger as a sort of insurance policy I would not dump him and hook up with a man in a kilt. And how’d that work out for me. Believe me, not a year goes by I don’t regret that.

Worse, to this day I still do not know for certain what Scottish men wear underneath their kilts. Suspicions, yes. Verifiable proof, no, despite having visited during a particularly windy week. Hopes dashed, I default to a firm belief it gets pretty windy under there.

Och, lad, tell me true!

Och, lad, tell me true!

Sadly, many literary festival events were sold out before I arrived. Things had been going on full-swing a couple of weeks before I showed up and though I bought tickets online before I left pickings were quickly growing slim. Let this be a lesson for anyone planning to act on impulse. Always pre-plan your unexpected adventures.


Ian Rankin interviews Stuart David

Ian Rankin interviews Stuart David

I wound up attending only two events: a Michael Frayn talk about his new compilation of tiny plays, Matchbox Theatre, and an Ian Rankin discussion with singer-songwriter Stuart David – of Belle and Sebastian – upon publication of his new biography, In the All-Night Café: A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian’s Formative Years. Though I had tickets to see Denise Mina, I’d exhausted myself walking around that day and couldn’t bear the thought of dragging arse back to Charlotte Square. Instead, I stayed in my hotel room watching really bad British TV and eating takeaway fish and chips, followed in short order by horrendous indigestion and a bad case of insomnia by saturated fat.

All in all the trip was, technically speaking, amazeballs.  Ireland and Wales last year, Scotland this… Which was the better trip? The trip would have to go to 2014, since my daughter was with me and if she reads this she’ll be really pissed off if I don’t say that. However, which city is better? God  I‘m sorry Dublin but it’s Edinburgh. Purely Edinburgh. Just remember I love you, too.

So I have loads of pictures to share, as well as a strong possibility of anecdotal bloviating. I’ve prefaced my adventure here and will continue telling my story in subsequent posts. Hope you’ll tune in.

Speaking of Ian Rankin and Scotland (and travelling the world)

Was just going about my business, la di da, when this came through my FB feed:

25 Reasons Why Scotland Must Be on Your Bucket List

– boredpanda.com

I’ve been to Scotland, let’s see… one, two, three times and found it staggeringly beautiful but I’ve never seen any of the sites photographed in this article.





God, my heart just stopped beating.

It isn’t that I don’t love my own country and know we have beauty spots but holy mother of god. I have less interest in what’s here but that’s normal, isn’t it. Do people who live near these sites in Scotland know how fortunate they are? Would any trade for life in the Chicago suburbs?

No, really, would they? Because I have a nice house on half an acre I’d trade in a heartbeat, once my heart starts beating again.

I love rugged countryside, not snow-topped mountains. Areas of tropical beauty, like the Appalachians and Smoky Mountains (named for a near constant haze), leave me breathless but Ireland and Scotland specifically offer what’s most to my taste, rocky and mostly treeless hills and mountains, overrun with heather. In this country we really don’t have that. I take that back. Some of our western states are similar in look but not climate. They’re hot, dry and dusty. Gorgeous for their austerity but too hot by far.


“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trod. The good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. However, as the state of mind in which we are, generally gives the coloring to events, when the imagination is suffered to wander into futurity, the picture which now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one. Entertaining as I do the most confident hope of succeeding in a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”

– Meriwether Lewis (Lewis and Clark expedition)



wyomingThe Grand Tetons, Wyoming

What gets my blood pumping are castles and abbeys and lochs/loughs, history often bloody and filled with major figures history often knows little about, adding to their mystery and potential for new discoveries. I love myth and legend, druids and fairies and shape-shifters, knights, ladies, monarchies… I cut my teeth on Robin Hood and the Tales of King Arthur, both of which my late brother patiently read to me as a child, teaching me to read by alternating pages, helping me stumble along until I learned to read proficiently. He was obsessed with history, as is my older son, who shares my brother’s middle name. My son’s university major? Teaching of History with a minor in languages. Is it coincidence he shares my brother’s name and proclivities? I wonder.

So when I see photos like these of rugged Scotland, castles and lochs and brilliantly colored autumnal mountainsides it reminds me what I haven’t seen and more than likely never will. I recently had a taste of the beauty of Ireland and Wales, and long ago the beauty of Scotland. It all just leaves me wanting more.

I hope my children carry on their wanderlust and see more than they could ever hope. Two have been abroad, my daughter most extensively (studying in Wales for a semester, traveling to Italy, Ireland and Paris) and my youngest is awaiting his turn with as much patience as can be expected. My older son has been to Italy to meet family, planning to study abroad in Italy, maybe Siena or Florence, and will certainly travel to Rome and Venice. He’s already made his lifetime travel list: starting in Portugal and making his way east, visiting Ireland and the UK then looping around for the rest of Europe, bit by bit, over his vacations.


siena3Siena, Italy


I’m fortunate to have been where I’ve been, seen what I’ve seen. As a family we’ve seen almost all 50 states, all contiguous but one of the Carolinas (South?). Hawaii would be nice but I’d rather see Alaska. Traveling as we did, by car, is rare these days and can be mind-numbingly dull. Ever driven the width of Montana? We have and it made us so slap-happy we celebrated all the tiny towns along the way as if they were the gilded streets of heaven. Because there is nothing else in Montana, at least via the West-East highway we took. There was one town sign I still wish we’d have stopped to photograph. It said something like, “Home to Six Nice People and One Jerk,” with photos of all. Funny, of all the states it’s Montana that comes to mind first. Because we made misery so funny, I guess. Misery being a staple of our family vacations.

I’m the most traveled of all of us, by far, having seen most of Western Europe, from Sweden south to Italy, Ireland east to the former Yugoslavia. I saw the Queen of England and Prince Philip in Dundee, Scotland. I sat on the patio of the Houses of Parliament in London, with a P.M. who took me to tea because I’d been a teenage ambassador once. I saw the first President Bush’s limo stuck in mud in Denmark, at a 4th of July celebration. In Austria I climbed in a castle where Richard the Lionheart had been held prisoner. I’ve seen Stonehenge, Glamis Castle (Macbeth), the Matterhorn, parts of Moorish Spain, canals of Venice and Bruges, Belgium. The home of Anne Frank and red light district of Amsterdam, a Lego village in Rotterdam. The Mona Lisa, statue of David and Sistine Chapel, The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen and the Eiffel Tower.

If I die tomorrow I’ll have been better traveled than most people on earth. So how can I complain?

Oh, I still can and do. Justifiably, not really. But it doesn’t stop me. Two more kids left to study abroad mean two more chances to justify flying over to visit. And if one settles overseas? Please let it be Ireland or the UK. Please please please.

Save a room for mom, kids. Or a key and I’ll house sit. If you have any hesitation I’ll blog, in great detail, every little thing about your births and how uncomfortable my pregnancies were.

No pressure.



Reading Ian Rankin

 Ian Rankin – The Complaintscomplaintsrankin

I love Ian Rankin’s novels about hard-boiled detectives. His work is well-written and addictive. These are page-turners with main characters you love more as they change and evolve throughout the series. They’re smart and fast-paced and I’m glad his older series is so huge or I’d die a little waiting for his next novel, which is scheduled for God knows when. I’d ask, but I’m pretty sure God ain’t talkin’ anymore. Haven’t seen a burning bush in ages.


Right now Rankin’s on pause, on a year-long-and-counting period of not writing, following the tragic and premature death of his great friend, Scottish novelist Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks, for his science fiction titles) from cancer, at the age of 59


The death hit him hard, a sharp slap to the face. We all come up against that sometime but usually our grief and ripped to shreds insides aren’t as public. Imagine grieving deeply while the world’s watching, your fan base stifling you via good intentions.


Or perhaps not always, perhaps impatience as well:   “When are you going to get over this and start writing again?!” .. Assholes are inevitable


I follow him on Twitter, where he’s very active – and interactive – very funny and, alternately, very serious. Imagine that, a complex writer. Huh. The other day I asked him which series he’ll come back to once he starts writing again. His response:




It’s just past the one year point of Banks’s death (June 9). If I’d paid attention and known that, I wouldn’t have asked that question at this time. Usually I’m more jokey and upbeat. Goofy and stupid, the usual me. The minute I decide to ask a semi-real question I’m foot in mouth.


Been doing a lot of that lately. The more I try to explain, the worse I sound. The more honest, the more I alienate. The more I alienate, the more desolate am I.




But anyway, I’m trying to catch up with his Malcolm Fox series before he publishes another novel, though it could just as well be a Rebus as a Fox. Considering I haven’t read any of his new series – though I’m still not caught up with Rebus, admittedly – I may as well work on finishing off Fox, as it’s only three books.


As is de rigeur for the hard-boiled detective, his protagonists are divorced, have had serious drinking problems they continue to fight and are crusty on the outside with a soft, chewy nougat middle. All are womanizers of a sort. They look more than they touch but they do occasionally pick one to have a few not too explicit tumbles And they’re not completely over their exes just yet, a romantic twist that keeps them from settling down and being happy with pretty much anyone. Which is good, we don’t want that to happen.Nothing shuts down interest like a hero who overcomes depression to become monogamous.




The appeal to women is obvious: the troubled man, grizzled and lined but still roughly handsome, hurt and in need of solace – though he wouldn’t admit that. Let me mother you! Hold you close to my breast and… Hey, what’s that you’re doing? Oh, well. Okay. That works, too.


I wonder if the appeal to men is imagining themselves as Malcolm Fox or Inspector Rebus? You know, I never thought of that before. The short path to getting laid is turning into a jaded detective! BRILLIANT! I’ll just rumple up my shirt a bit, untuck it and add a tie – askew, so a woman can reach up and right it (yessss!!!). I’ll wad up my suit, dirty my shoes and leave off shaving a couple days. Use a few drops of Scotch for cologne. And don’t forget, ladies, danger is my middle name…




Both genders appreciate the pacing, smart and complex plots. As for violence, it’s there but nowhere near the grisly crap on TV. If you’re like me and a bit squeamish, skim a paragraph or two ’til you’re past the worst. He’s not a writer to describe in macabre detail or I wouldn’t read him. In the Malcolm Fox series, Fox is in police internal affairs, referred to as “the Complaints.” In other words, when cops go bad he comes in. So he’s not well-liked and must tread lightly, lest his presence set off alarm bells within the force. He can’t come into the cafeteria and plop down next to just anyone, in other words. Not without them suddenly finding they’ve forgotten a meeting and must leave right away. It’s not easy being Malcolm Fox. But it’s damn easy reading him at break-neck speed. Slooow, girlie. Slow.


Scotland’s Favorite Author


Rankin’s newest distinction, brand new actually, came just last week: ..

The veteran crime writer came above the likes of Robert Burns in a survey of thousands of readers across Britain to mark the final week for entries to the National Young Writers’ Award. The creator of Inspector Rebus said he was taken aback at the recognition, describing himself as “thrilled” at the accolade, which was a “complete surprise”, and he encouraged young writers looking to follow in his footsteps to enter the competition. The results of the survey also revealed a love among Scots for the late Iain Banks, who came fourth in the poll. The rest of the top five was dominated by seminal figures from Scotland’s literary history, with Robert Louis Stevenson coming second, followed by Arthur Conan Doyle. Robert Burns was in fifth position.

– The Scotsman
















Photo: Lisa Ferguson


Congratulations, Ian Rankin. Keep hanging in there. We’ll wait.