Friday, July 29, 2011

The Queen's Camp David and and a Sailor's Hometown Pride

"He is the happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home." (Goethe)

Last Saturday Paul took me to Balmoral Castle. Dating from the 16th century but greatly remodled in 1852, it was purchased by Victoria and Albert and has been in the Royal family ever since. The Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech") once lived there. It currently serves as Queen Elizabeth's Scottish vacation home. Because it's an inhabited Royal palace, the area open to visitors is limited. I was reminded of my visit to the White House and how the public enthusiasticly pays admission and stands in line to see a couple of rooms. Tourists in Washington don't visit the White House to see the yellow velvet chairs. They make the trip because of the great national significance the building holds for them. I felt the same about Balmoral. It's status as a Royal retreat made it feel a bit like Camp David (though far more attractive, I'm sure). Throngs of toursits visit every summer to see where the Queen walks her corgies and gets the rare opportunity to drive her own car. Some locals I've talked to are very proud that their own beautiful Aberdeenshire attracts the attention of the Royal family each year. The route taken from Aberdeen to Balmoral is known as Royal Deeside, named for the adjacent Dee river. The Queen's patronage brought out throngs of people who would line the streets to see her motorcade pass. While she no longer takes the slow route to Balmoral, Royal Deeside hasn't lost any of its pride. It's a lovely part of Aberdeenshire where you can look across the river and into the Cairngorm Mountains. This is where the highlands begin. I know this because there's a large sign reading "You are now in the highlands," as if anyone could fail to notice the sudden presence of mountains that seem to spring up out of nowhere. Another reason I love Royal Deeside is that it's a region undiscovered by American tourists, leaving this Yankee feeling like I'm truly in Scotland each time I'm there. "The Kings Speech" and "The Queen" are both great films to check out if you'd like to see Balmoral on screen.

Speaking of cultural experiences, I had one this morning. An old Scottish sailor approached me outside Marischal College and told me how much he loves the gothic college, which originated in 1593 as a Protestant alternative to the Catholic King's College (part of the University of Aberdeen where I now attend). He told me that Marischal College is to Aberdeen what the Sydney Opera House is to Sydney. It's the local landmark, the most beautiful part of the city, the way he knows he's home. He also had some choice words for St. Nicholas House, the modern style Aberdeenshire council building across the street. He feels that it spoils the lovely view. I have to agree: St. Nicholas House is rather an eyesore and also conceals the 16th century manor house built by Provost Skene. I have to use my imagination to see the view that Skene would have had from his window: a grand, gothic palace of a college, towering above the city like a giant. He would have seen contemporary scholars of Martin Luther and Thomas Moore meandering the green as they debated doctrinal issues like Papal authority and whether God can be experienced personally by each individual or filtered through a church hierarchy. Provost Skene probably attended "Kirk Sessions" at Marischal college. Similar to the Puritan courts of colonial New England, these church magistrates decided on legal fines and punishments for crimes like adultery, theft and wife-beating. Punishments could include anything from time in the stocks to banishment from the city.

The Aberdeenshire city council is moving from the eyesore building and into Marischal College where they will debate legal issues of our time: where to place traffic lights, how to fix the budget deficit, and which potholes deserve their attention first. And so once again Marischal College will play its part in the leadership of Aberdeen.

Photos: Balmoral Castle, 1890 sketch and current photo of Marischal College in Aberdeen
Song of the Day: "Home" by Scottish expat Ciaran Dorris. This song is for the old sailor who has made Aberdeen his home. The video is by a photographer in Perthshire, where Mr. Dorris calls home. It has a few shots of the Cairngorm Mountains, which he mentions in his song.


  1. This beautiful slideshow + song makes me long for a place I've never been....though my longing to see the sweet heart behind it swells even more. Twas nice chatting with you today!

  2. Whoops! That was meant for your slideshow of the highland visit. Oh, well...