Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Oban Adventure

Entry from 28 April 2007 (completed 2 May):

For this week’s Saturday Adventure, we took the train to Oban, with Mick and his 3 daughters. Helen was out of town hanging out with some of her friends, and Mick contacted us earlier this week to see if we might want to do something with him. We had been trying to figure out what to do with regard to the West of Scotland, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

So Diane, Cristina and I got up early and walked down to the Hyndland train station about 8 in the morning. Diane was skeptical that Mick would actually be able to get his kids organized to make it there, but there he was waiting for us on the platform, big smile, looking wide awake and with all three kids in tow. As usual Shula began screaming as soon as she saw me, so Mick decided to take bets on how long she would continue to cry under conditions of prolonged exposure to the Feared Stimulus (i.e., me). Much to our surprise, it turned out that Maia’s estimate of 5 minutes was the correct prediction, and I had a fine time interacting with her throughout the day!

The Oban train originates at Glasgow Queen Street Station, but we saved ourselves time by taking the train west from Hyndland to Dumbarton Central (one stop past where we had gone on our Dumbarton Castle adventure with Beth last September). There we picked up the Oban train, and continued west along the north bank of the Clyde until the route turned north up into the Highlands, high above Loch Long. From there we went along the west side of Loch Lomond for awhile. At Crianlarich, the train split (we had to move ourselves and the stroller), and the front half went west toward Oban.

The day was sunny, with a bit of cloud, as we progressed through fairly wild glens and lochs, with unexpected vistas opening out every so often, forests newly leafing out, below craggy, rocky heights, almost mind-numbingly beautiful, as we passed through stations with names like Tyndrum and Dalmaly, all with their original Scots Gaelic names given right below the English. After Helensburgh, we had gone onto a single line track, often proceeding slowly up hills and over somewhat uneven railroad bed, with an old-fashioned rocking, clickety-clack effect. (It appears that oncoming trains on the line must pass each other at stations, something we saw as Crianlarich.)

The girls variously played cards, drew pictures, ate snacks, allowed themselves to be entertained by Mick, Diane, Cristina or me, or teased each other. The journey seemed both interminable (with the kids frequently asking if we were almost there yet), and all too quick, because we were passing rapidly from one beautiful place to another.

We arrived in Oban a little after 11am, to a bright sunny day in this smallish seaside town. The ferry to Mull was just about to leave; so we watched it go from the docks. The tide was out, and seagulls and swans were working the rocky shore looking for food or waiting for Maia and Ruby to throw them the rest of Shula’s sandwich.

Actually, there isn’t that much to do in Oban: The Ferry, a line of shops several blocks long, the Museum of War and Peace, churches… and McCaig’s Tower, a folly that looms over of the town. Oban is a working harbor, lots of boats, some being worked on, and a place that you pass through on your way to the island of Mull and Iona, or on your way north up the jagged west coast of Scotland.

We wandered up the esplanade, past the Woolworth’s (I still can’t over seeing Woolworth’s in Scotland…), the WH Smiths, finally reaching the kids’ Mecca, the most important attraction, the magnet that Mick had used to get them to agree to the day-long excursion: Sweetie’s, billed as “the best candy store in the world”. And it was impressive, row upon row of large, old-fashioned jars of candy of all imaginable types, and then some, overwhelming the visitor with an enormous range of choices. You buy the candy in wee batches of 50 or 100 grams, really only a small number of pieces each, watching the shop assistants stuff the candy in little white paper bags. Afterwards, we continued walking along the esplanade, sampling the candy, while Maia immediately began worrying that she had chosen badly. This led to a discussion of the Existential Burden Of Choice… and eventually to a promise to return later to try again (so much for the EBOC!).

We wandered up the esplanade to a large grey granite church, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Columba’s. Some weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, we had visited St. Columba’s in Glasgow (with its memorable mural of St. Columba and the Loch Ness monster). Rather plain and uncluttered on the inside, two things particularly struck me about this St. Columba's: First, over the door in back there is a large, rather dark painting, which when examined closely in the somewhat dim light, revealed itself to be … a depiction of the druids driving St. Columba out of Scotland (an inversion of St. Patrick and the snakes?): There they are high on the cliff waving their arms, dark expressions on their faces, cursing him; for his part, the saint stands in the prow of a small boat, halo over his head, looking beatific (appropriate since he's a saint), heading out to sea, while his followers row, work with the sails and look unhappy. A very curious painting, which induced in me with an image of Scotland left to cranky pagans.

Second, reading the various notices about the church, as one does in these situations, in order to learn more about the place, we came upon a description of a celebration from several years back, marking the installation of the two great bells of the church, named… Brendan and Kenneth! Obviously, this church has some synchronistic connection to our family, since its great bells are named after our two children. We went out and down the stairs to the rocky beach, where we sat for awhile, until one of those bells struck the hour of one. I wonder which one it was…

We had a bit of time before lunch, so Diane, Cristina, and I left left Mick to hang out with the kids on the beach and walked up to McCaig’s Tower. This sits on a hill overlooking the town and resembles a great inverse stone circle: that is, it is a large circular wall, 9 to 14 meters tall, with regularly spaced cut-out arches where standing stones would be in a traditional stone circle. Apparently, this resonance with the nearby bronze age stone circles in Kilmartin and the Islands was not intended, as the tower is reported to have been inspired by the Colliseum in Rome as a late Victorian project to keep local stone masons in work during the winter. Diane and I both had distant memories of visiting it on our trip through Scotland in 1985, but I was surprised to find a lovely garden full of spring flowers within its walls. The view out over Oban and the surrounding bay and islands is spectacular.

We ate lunch at a fine seafood restaurant that is a personal favorite of Mick’s: Ee-Usk (phonetic Scots Gaelic for “fish”). The girls had chips, but the rest of us greatly enjoyed our salmon, fish cakes, angostinos, and haddock, while looking out over the bay. After lunch, we wandered for awhile, past the docks, ferry terminal, train station, until we started to run out of town, then turned back, stopping at the bookstore while Mick went on with the girls back to the beach. I found Kate Fox’s Observing the English, which was recommended to me by my friends Chris and Nancy some time ago and which we have been finding quite illuminating since picking it up.

The train journey home turned out to be memorable for an unfortunate event. Diane picks up the story from here (quoting from a recent email to her mom):
I had a strange experience on the train coming back from Oban on Saturday which I found rather disturbing. … A man fell twice coming down the aisle trying to get to the restroom on the train. Mick removed his 3 girls to their seats and away from the area where they were playing and where the man fell. As he lay on the floor I looked around and everyone was taking care not to look at him. I guess they all assumed that he was drunk and possibly violent as there is a lot of drinking done on the trains.

I got up right away to see if I could help and asked him what was happening. He said he had just finished running a 53 mile race [Robert: this is called ultra-distance running; this distance is twice the length of the marathon] and was trying to return to Glasgow--hurrying to try not to miss the last train and his blood sugar dropped (the race lasted 12 1/2 hours and he had had little to drink and nothing to eat. I brought him some water and Robert found both an apple and another piece of fruit. I thought he would be OK after eating and drinking something.

Finally, after I made an attempt to talk to him, other people suddenly become concerned and one of the train officials offered to call an ambulance to meet us at the next city. He refused and I didn't think he needed it. He did say that he wouldn't do another of those long races without having a support team or person to meet him at regular check points and assist him home for future races. I really don't know if he made it home or not and I felt a bit guilty at not following up better with him but the most disturbing part of the whole experience was how everyone just looked away when he fell. A bit more of the dark side of Glasgow.
I can only say after this that we returned home Saturday night, exhausted, our heads full of the adventure of the day. Since then, the week has been so busy that I’ve only now finished entry!

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