Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stomping About In Scotland: Day 1


First stop today was the William Wallace Monument. I climbed all 264 steps to the top. Every bloody one of them. I was proud of myself. Of course, the Wallers, both in their late 70s, beat me to the top, and Everett has a steel rod in his leg. And we were all being chased to the top by 200 8 year olds.

In spite of its medieval appearance, the monument was actually not built until the 1860's. Its four interior levels can only be reached by climbing the 246 steps of a narrow, winding staircase that is perforated occasionally by narrow slit windows, as any good castle tower would have had. The view from the top is truly breathtaking, as the monument sits high atop a knoll that Wallace was said to have commanded the battle from. The famous Scottish "wild winds that greet you" blast from the mountains down into the deep valley below.

In a bizarre nod to popular culture, just outside the ticket office, there is a massive stone sculpture of Mel bloody Gibson kitted up as Wallace in Braveheart. Really. (One local resident famously objected to its placement at the Wallace Monument as desecrating the place of his memory with a "lump of crap.") Braveheart is responsible for a huge wave of nationalism in Scotland that some say drove the move for greater autonomy of its government in recent years, along with a huge surge in tourism.

Stirling Castle is well worth taking a tour. It commands an incredible location overlooking what were the two most important crossroads on Scotland that linked the north and south, the east and west. Both the Battle of Stirling bridge and the battle of Bannockburn were fought nearby. The 15th century Great Hall restoration is incredible, as is the royal chapel where Mary Queen of Scots had her Catholic son baptized while the Protestant lairds stood screaming outside. Be sure you get Bryan as your tour guide. He looks the way you want him to. He speaks exactly the way you want him to. He brings the whole castle alive with his stories and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Bannockburn Battlefield. Hmmm. No mention of those supposed Knights Templars who came riding out of the woods to scare the bejeebers out of the English troops. Seems they were "small people," or camp followers and not Templars at all. Andy Jackson and Carson Smith back home will be crushed by this important news. Or convinced it is a conspiracy by anti-Templar doubters. Curiously there is a massive flag pole erected near the statue of Robert the Bruce, put up by - not the Masons or the Knights Templar - but the Order of Odd Fellows.

By complete chance, I wandered into La Rusticana Ristorante on Hanover Street. My very attentive waiter, John Antonelli, steered me properly, and I had one of the finest filet au poivre I've ever tasted (a French dish made from Scottish beef in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh). I feel that after 264 steps this morning, I deserved it. The decor is not upscale (someone's personal paintings of Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Placido Domingo), but neither is the price. And the menu is positively huge. It's one of those great surprises, and in a pinch this week, I might even go back.

To my great surprise, Ken and Ian tell me that Scottish lodges go dark in May through September, and it is unlikely that I'll have the opportunity to sit in lodge while I'm here. I popped off a note to Robert Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland's museum and library, and author of The Rosslyn Hoax. With any luck he'll know of something going on this week. By the way, if you haven't read Cooper's book, I honestly believe it is the most important Masonic/Templar book published in the last 50 years. He gets top marks from me for slaughtering a whole herd of sacred cattle by actually examining Rosslyn Chapel in relation to other similarly aged cousins, comparing the supposed Templar "evidence" with other known medieval symbolism in the Scottish countryside, and seriously looking at the accepted historical record. If Born In Blood or The Temple and the Lodge are your bibles on this stuff, Cooper is your heretic, and you'll demand his burning at the stake.

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