An Idle Vacation in Scotland – Part 1

22 12 2006

22-31 December 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9 | Part10


Without walking up a hill or climbing a peak, I have had one of the best views of England this morning. Within a few seconds after taking off from Luton Airport, some magnificent views of Bedfordshire were obtained from the air, from the comfort of a cushioned window-seat. This is the lazy man’s way of travel without missing out on the wonders of the world in which we live.

There has been a great deal of fog lately. This was seen in a new dimension from the air. I could describe it as an ocean of clouds but the closest metaphor would be a “desert of clouds”. This too is an approximation. The fog was low on the ground and hung with remarkable uniformity. Such uniformity cannot be found in clouds which occur at different altitudes in different shapes and sizes. The fog was stretched out towards the horizon in shallow undulations. I could see nothing except this rolling cover of whiteness smoothly spread out as sand dunes in a desert. Who could have guessed that below them, an apparent nothing, is the fallen domain of mortal life?

I had only a few days to plan for this trip. All attempts to settle on a fixed itinerary failed. The difficulty has been getting accommodation. The idea was to spend a day or two in Glasgow before moving on to Oban. From Oban, it would be easy to take a ferry to the islands of Mull and Iona. But getting accommodation on the Isle of Mull turned out to be impossible. Websites list scores of places but almost all of them are closed for the winter. Even those that are open, are closed for the week from Christmas to New Year. Worse still, these places advertise themselves as being open all the year round. When I called, I found out that my phone call had been wasted. The Tourist Information Centres are of little use. They are precisely what they say: a centre where information is collected and distributed. They are unable to process information. They are unable to advise tourists. One wonders about the use of such centres when all such information is available online.

Planning has been so poor that I had no idea what to expect or see in Glasgow. I had no map. I had no list of attractions to consider, their opening times or how to get there. Planning to such details is important on a short trip, to make the best of shorter winter time. I thought I’ll get some details at the Glasgow International Airport. There was a carousel of brochures and pamphlets but it had much more of Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland. Glasgow was little represented. Either Glasgow had nothing for the tourist or it had a greater fame that needed little advertising.

Where planning is weak, information must be gathered by interaction with locals. Imagine the first travellers to further lands and continents. They would have had no benefit of tourist guide books. They would have learnt everything at each step of their journeys along uncharted paths. The very idea of travel would have been new. Discovery of another culture through the lens of one’s own would have been the essence.

In London, even if you are new to the place, you merge almost immediately with the crowds. Each one mind’s his business. Perhaps, to volunteer help to another is seen as intrusion of privacy or even recognise the incapacities of another. In Glasgow, a tourist is recognised. Interaction is a lot more casual. The refinement of culture that stiffens social interaction in London is absent on Glasgow’s streets. Help came to me without even asking. When I stepped out of Hillhead subway station I began studying a map to find my way to my accommodation for the night. I was accosted by a passer-by. Initially I was sceptical. I thought he might be a tout or demand some payment for giving me directions. Later in the day, I was trying to find my way to the Burrell Collection. I tried to find it on a map I had picked up at a subway station but it wasn’t even marked on it. Two women who passed by enquired of my destination and gave clear directions to it. In the evening, I was approached by a young guy who first said “namaste” and a few other polite words in Hindi. He then said something in his local tongue. He translated this Celtic saying to mean “I embrace the God within you”.

But Glasgow has its rough and ugly side too. One does not have to go to the suburbs or council estates to sample this. Gangs congregate near the main shopping areas. Guys start hollering for apparently no reason. This might be excusable if they are drunk or it’s late into the night. But I saw such behaviour at noon while the streets were packed with people. One feels threatened in such company.

I did two things today. The first was a visit to the Botanic Gardens. The second was an evening performance at the Royal Concert Hall.

The Botanic Gardens at Glasgow contain two national collections: the National Tree Fern Collection and the National Collection of Begonias. I learnt a great deal here from its vast collection of trees and plants from diverse and distant parts of the globe. Begonias have asymmetric leaves whereby one half of the leaf is bigger than the other. Male and female flowers are separate but are to be found on the same plant. These are plants flourishing in Glasgow, so different from their native climates, even in the depth of winter. This is because man here has controlled even nature to the basic elements of soil, soil acidity, water, humidity and temperature. The plants are kept indoors in glass buildings. They are watered frequently. Water is carried by porous pipes that drip constantly. Some pipes carry sprinklers as well. Central heating is a mighty expense.

A Bromeliad

A Bromeliad

While I had been living in Hampshire, I had in my room a plant which never flowered, although the landlord claimed it produced a huge central flower once in a while. Through the year, the two leaves of the plant dried and dropped on the outer edge of the stem. Soon after, new leaves started to grow from the centre. These were smooth, spineless and long, tapering gradually to the tip. Today I have a fair idea that this might have been a vriesea, which is a type of bromeliad. Bromeliads have thick fleshy leaves that bind tightly around a central stem. Water is funnelled by these leaves and it gets collected in a central reservoir. This could be seen in many of the bromeliads in the collection. Pineapple belongs to this large family.

Singapore is famous for orchids, of which there are innumerable varieties. Even its national flower is an orchid. Today I have seen an orchid plant like never before. Hugging the ground, an orchid plant has fleshy stems which store water. These appear almost like baby bananas. The spongy roots absorb water and minerals.

There is one specimen of what is called a “cycad”. These are often known as “living fossils” as they have existed for millions of years virtually unchanged. They are survivors from the past. Among the modern survivors is the “Australian bush”. This plant has apparently no leaves but in reality the leaves are wrapped and rolled up against the stem. The stems grow in thick formations and keep a low profile. All in all, the plant core is protected from bush fires, helping the plant to survive and flourish.

Greenhouse at the Botanic Gardens

Greenhouse at the Botanic Gardens

There is a whole lot of other wonders I can list but it will suffice to mention that the variety in nature is impressive. This is something I have realised more than once in my travels. With every day, man discovers something more about nature. What is new to us is as old as nature herself. Nature may appear to us as chaotic, it may even be chaotic, but at the core of its framework there is an order. But this order is not rigid. It is varied, flexile, adapting and dynamic. One way for humans to perceive this order is to make out the patterns nature creates – the veins on a leaf, the arrangement of leaves around a central stem in a Bromeliad, the ribs and curves on sea-shells, the curve of a meandering river… Many of these exhibit this order with mathematical precision, often in terms of well-known constants such as the pi, the golden mean, Euler’s constant, among others.

I ended the day with a concert of Christmas carols by candlelight. It was one of those concerts where you cannot sit back and relax: you are expected, though not compelled, to sing along. It was one of those occasions where people applaud even for a bad rendition but it is really in human nature to indulge in self-praise. I did not sing, of course; and so I had the benefit to frown where they went wrong in note or timing. For most part, it was still a beautiful concert. The orchestra was dressed in period costumes, complete with elaborate white wigs. They played many wonderful Christian pieces. Unlike the serious and purposeful air of an evensong in a cathedral, the pieces were light, joyful and full of festive moods by which we like to celebrate Christmas. This was aided by the orchestra rather than the more sombre sounds of the organ. Yet the pieces at today’s concert retained a religious import. The audience was not alien to the real meaning of Christmas. People sang with joy. People sang without referring to the printed lyrics. People sang as if they had waited for this all through the year. Perhaps, they applauded not for themselves but for the great joy that Christmas brings.

This is not the first time I have attended such a concert. I am now familiar with some of these popular festival songs, their meanings and their musical qualities. I will always remember the first time I heard “O come, all ye faithful”, performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Today I have enjoyed a number of beautiful pieces (as presented by Raymond Gubbay) of which I make a list to serve for future enjoyment:

  • God rest you merry, gentlemen
  • O little town of Bethlehem
  • While shepherds watched
  • Once in a royal David’s city
  • O come, O come, Emmanuel
  • Away in a manger
  • Good King Wenceslas
  • O come, all ye faithful
  • The twelve days of Christmas
  • Hark! the herald angels sing

Although we recognize that Christmas has been commercialised a great deal, there are many who remember it for its origins. Even in a commercial context, the joy that Christmas brings is not out of place. I observed the streets teeming with people, with their shopping lists and bags. The general atmosphere is of happiness and giving. I overheard more than once, friends or relatives discussing what to get, not for themselves but for someone else. Parents waited around or joined their children on brightly lit carousels in George Square. People of all ages had fun and laughter skating on a temporary ice rink. Some took pictures. Some lingered around and chatted. The cold of winter with its grey clouds and early darkness went unnoticed. Everyone was at peace within and with each other, while the memorial to the 200,000 citizens of Glasgow from the Great War stood by the side in satisfied silence.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8 | Part9 | Part10




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