Célidh without a Camera: Edinburgh

My train window was a wide frame.
My train window was a wide frame.

Edinburgh, Scotland
November 10, 2012

Dear Fellow Traveler,

What do you do when you’re apparatus-less?

On Friday night (the 9th), I stayed over at my friend’s flat in Manchester. At four or five the next morning, I was to join a group of other UC Mancunians heading over to Edinburgh for a UC Education Abroad Program Thanksgiving Dinner on Saturday night. We went to sleep around one or two AM for a few hours (once interrupted by a blaring fire alarm), woke up rubbing our puffy eyes, and waddled out to the street where a taxi waited to take us to the station.

We arrived at the station and waited outside in the cold on the platform waiting for our train in the yet dark wee hours of the morning–and then it hit me. I left my digital camera batteries charging under my friend’s desk back at her flat.


There was no way out of it. Without the battery, my digital camera was a useless shell. I was powerless to bring it back from the dead and command it to take once-in-a-lifetime images for me to savor forever. No digital memories of Edinburgh for me. The reality formed itself in my head and took a nice, comfortable seat. I talked to my friend and she graciously offered to send it to me by mail the next week because I’d be heading to Amsterdam the next weekend (God bless her, she was super busy with schoolwork, too). But still, no camera for Edinburgh.

The train arrived and carried us off to blackness or dreamland as we dozed off one by one. I decided to think about my camera later and nestled my head against the window, drifting off to sleep as well.

An hour or two later, I awoke to a magical sight. The train was pulling away from Lancaster, and it was yet the purplish haze of before-dawn. A quiet and slow river flowed away from under the train, guided by lampposts and empty rain-slicked streets. Lamplight mingled with the lone headlights of a car on the glistening asphalt. My instinct was to capture it… oh right, my camera was useless.

But the beauty of the view stirred me to remembrance. Unexpected happenings don’t have to arrest my joy. No camera. Ok. Accepted. Closed door. What other doors are yet unexplored? I took a glance at my journal and pen. Nothing’s stopping me from sketching the darn view!

Instead of letting my camera capture the image and remember the colors, I let my own mind process the image and draw it on paper. I’m no professional visual artist, but I didn’t care. I drew not on assignment but to be touched by the visions rolling outside my window.

As the lavenders and faded blues lingered in the sky, I was wowed by lone farmhouses hidden in the nooks of hills–their golden-lit windows and wispy chimney smoke the only signs of warmth in the cold English morning. Sleeping sheep dotted the green hillsides, framed by fences of hedge and rock. One sleepy town centered around a medieval spire on a hill, a magic mist strangely lacing through the streets like an incantation–not blanketing it completely like mists usually do.

When the train pulled into Edinburgh Waverly, the dawn had turned into bright day. I couldn’t believe what I had seen outside my window in a time window when most are asleep. As we walked through the streets of Edinburgh to our hostel, ogling Romanesque arches and stone castles atop grassy cliffs, I decided to buy a disposable camera instead and let my visions of Edinburgh be at the mercy of cheap film. My heart opened to adventure yet again, I marched with my friends to the tune of bagpipes and headed into the city center.

In high school I wrote about how the people reflect the land (or is it the land that reflects people?) For some length of the journey from Inchon Airport into Seoul, you can see hillsides covered in what looks like a harmoniously homogenous mass of trees. As if each tree was conscious of “the way things are” and unwilling to explore the view from a different perspective. The redwoods of the American West Coast, on the other hand, strive to outgrow their neighbors. Ignorant or indifferent when they find their roots tangling around fallen trees, sucking the marrow from a hollow trunk.

A few years later, I now recognize these metaphors as the generalizations they are. But if lands reflect the people, the craggy cliffs of Scotland, standing stalwart and proud, seem to reflect the Scots of old, at least. “In love and life I have no fear as I am born of Scottish blood. -MIL” This quote (whose authorship is still a mystery) lined the bar behind us as we ate our Scottish breakfast in central Edinburgh. No shame, no fear. Their stony castles stand atop hills unabashedly–perhaps the same dauntlessness makes Scottish men not mind mind a sharp Northern breeze through their kilts.

After our Scottish breakfast (think an English breakfast–eggs, sausage, baked beans, tomato, mushrooms, bacon/rashers, toast–plus haggis… the haggis smelled like kimchee, had a grainy texture, and tasted allright), we walked up and down the Royal Mile to the Edinburgh castle, down a side road to Elephant Cafe of JK Rowling fame, tasted some strong Scotch whiskey, and returned to the hostel to freshen up for the dinner and célidh that night.

All gussied up and ready to go around 6 in the evening, we arrived at The Hub event centre by vintage 50’s red Routemaster bus. Filled with loud and rowdy American college kids, the enchanting bus took us through Edinburgh by night, driving by the castle atop a hill lit by floodlights. Upon arrival, we poured into The Hub and was shepherded to the second floor overlooking the dinner hall below. Waiters served scrumptiously sweet blackberry and mango drinks while we took pictures and watched a Thanksgiving dinner buffet line being set up downstairs. When the call for dinner came an hour or two later, all the college students rushed downstairs and played musical chairs for a good twenty minutes trying to sit with as many friends as possible (“but we have spots here!” “awkward… somebody just sat down in your spot.”) They released us table by table for Thanksgiving meal and dessert, and we gorged ourselves on turkey, green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, pie… you know the drill.

Fortunately for our figures, the tables were cleared after dinner and the hall was transformed into a célidh dance floor while the Scottish band warmed up their instruments. If you’ve ever seen Pride & Prejudice, think of the Meryton Ball scene when Kitty and Lydia prance around happily and Lizzy sees Darcy for the first time. A célidh is somewhat like that. A country gathering for young folks to meet and dance. The short, white-haired Scottish band leader scurried hurriedly up and down the dance lines of students, placing and teaching us before every dance. I believe there were five dances total. One of them was a slow partner waltz, and one was commonly known as the Virginia Reel. Later that night, I tried to remember the steps to the best of my ability and record them in my journal… if you look at the picture you can tell my memory was not quite perfect…

Country dance scribbles.

Country dance scribbles.

Country dances, I think, are much more social and fun than modern dances. Instead of grinding with one (or maybe a few), you get to meet almost everyone in the whole hall by the time a country dance is over. Not to mention all the spinning and jumping around makes you giddy with excitement. Stomping, spinning, stepping, whirling, prancing, laughing. Changing partners, running through tunnels, shouting together. What’s not to love about a country dance? What I loved most about that night was that everybody was enjoying it too. People would improvise and add modern twists to traditional side shuffles. They weren’t unwilling to hold hands with someone new and spin them around in a circle. Nobody thought it was dumb or backwards, everybody was having a good time skipping around. (Was it the California chill-I’m-down-for-anything-ness? oh, UC kids, you make me miss California).

Even now, I still can’t believe I experienced the chaos and cheer of a Scottish célidh. That my feet stepped in patterns I’ve only seen in films. I really wish you were there too, laughing and letting loose, feeling the sweet fiddle and the Scottish drum.

I guess that’s enough story for tonight. Perhaps next time, I’ll write to you about our climb up Arthur’s seat on Sunday.

Wishing you all the best.


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