Sad to say, Wolfville Town Council voted on Monday, June 25 to adopt a policy concerning the naming of public places that is a synthesis of a hodgepodge of policies from other jurisdictions (including Calgary?!), rather than referring these examples to a committee of council to create a truly made-in-Wolfville policy. The latter approach was used a few years ago to change street-use and signage by-laws in Wolfville that suited the Town’s unique character. The process took a year, but the results were reflective of the research undertaken and input received from businesses and individuals.

Oddly, the groundswell of support for naming Ye Olde Towne Clocke Parke in honour of Mona Parsons served to change the existing policy to the worst kind of politically correct Pablum. Guided by such a policy, the Town could conceivably be littered with plaques commemorating all the nameless, faceless individuals who ever committed Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty, rather than granting recognition to those who stand head and shoulders above most citizens by having done an extraordinary service for their community and/or their country. Mona Parsons, by dint of operating in the nascent Dutch Resistance for over a year and serving almost four years in Nazi prisons and camps for her actions, arguably deserves such recognition, regardless of the short-sighted political correctness of members of Council.

There are certainly other women in Wolfville’s history who deserve recognition for their contributions to the community and to the country, (e.g. Constance Hayward and Esther Clark Wright are two whose names were suggested) but every name thus far put forward was engaged in work she enjoyed and for which she received some sort of remuneration and/or recognition (and that’s most certainly the case for the men whose names were also suggested). One person even suggested that the park should be named for Evangeline, a fictional character created by Longfellow for the poem of the same name, because she represents the wrongs committed by the English against the Acadians. Since the Grand Pre park, which houses the commemorative statue to Evangline, is about to get a UNESCO World Heritage designation, most would agree that this character and the tragedy that resulted from the expulsion of the Acadians will be well-recognized.

In contrast with the historical figures whose names were put forward as being at least as worthy, Mona – though passionate about freedom – could hardly be said to have been engaged in work she “loved”. She did not serve on committees or councils of the Resistance who plodded along, debating the merits of action or caution, and looked to other Resistance movements to obtain a consensus on how each had conducted its activities before finally deciding on a synthesized approach to rescuing downed Allied airmen. Mona and her compatriots got down to the business at hand – and all without having a leader, a corporate structure, terms of reference, a mission statement, or even any particular regard to their own safety or well-being. And, unlike every other woman whose name was put forward as deserving recognition, Parsons unequivocally put her own life on the line. Women like Constance Hayward and Esther Clark Wright might have been willing to do so for the sake of freedom, but none were ever called upon, or found themselves in circumstances where that could happen. None experienced hearing a death sentence proclaimed on her life, nor the deprivation and degradation of Nazi prisons.

So, despite 300+ signatures on a petition, and ignoring a request from Elizabeth Kloosters to read into the minutes of the June 25 Council meeting a statement of why the park naming is important from a historical and a personal perspective, Council voted for politically correct pap cobbled together by the Chief Administrative Officer and her staff – which begs the question, “Who serves Council, and whom does Council serve?”. To quote the caption on an image circulating on the internet, “ERROR 404 – Democracy not found.”

In virtually every place I visit, I seek out the museum to help orient me to the story of the place. A recent trip to Aberdeen led me to the Maritime Museum. Although the city’s recent history has been entwined with the petroleum industry and North Sea oil and gas, its roots run far deeper. I wasn’t as interested in the oil and gas, as I was in the roots when I visited the Museum — and it was here I found a connection to my family’s recent history. Well, a connection to an object from my family’s recent history.

For context, here’s the family story: Years ago, my paternal grandmother was shopping in a hardware store in Toronto. Standing in the middle of the floor near the till was a blue and grey jardiniere, sitting atop a pedestal. Vines snaked up the pedestal, in the middle of which was a shield held by two men. On the shield is a date which I cannot recall right now because the jardiniere is in Canada and I’m in Scotland, but it was sometime in the 1700s. She was intrigued by the piece, and asked the clerk — who was also the owner of the store — what he knew about it. He rolled his eyes and said only that it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. Nan asked him whether he’d sell it. He told her she’d have to lug the thing home, so $0.50 was a fair price (yes, 50 cents). My Mum fell in love with it as soon as she laid eyes on it, so Nan gave it to my parents.

Like most objects one grows up with, it faded to the background, taken for granted, even though it occupied a prominent place in my parents’ living room. I remember playing around the base of the jardiniere as a small child, sometimes tracing the vines up the pedestal, or hooking my fingers through the gargoyles that serve as handles on the jardiniere’s bowl. The only plant it held in the years I grew up was a monster aspidistra that had started out as a small cutting from another monster plant my great-grandmother brought to Canada in the 19th century. Sadly, that plant died a few years ago, and was replaced with a spider plant.

As I grew older, I was curious about whether the year on the shield had anything to do with its year of manufacture, but didn’t have a clue where to begin searching for information (in the days before the internet). A few people suggested that my parents take it to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see if anyone there could help us to learn its story. Mum never permitted it, as she was concerned that if it turned out the thing had any value, word might get out and someone would break into the house to steal it. Strangely, after my parents retired and were able to take extended trips away from home, they were always careful to hide valuables like silver and the Royal Doulton figurines, but the jardiniere would be left standing out where all could see it, in front of the living room window, hiding in plain sight.

A few years before Mum died in 2002, I visited the ROM and saw a smaller, more colourful version of a jardiniere that resembled ours only by the fact that there was a bowl set atop a pedestal. I learned that these objects became popular in Victorian England with the new fashion of bay windows. Homeowners set a plant in a jardiniere in the bay window for all the neighbours to see, presumably to show they were people of quality and taste. But I was still no closer to figuring out where ours had come from. There were no distinguishing marks on it.

On Mum’s death, the jardiniere passed to me. Cleaning it off and preparing to set it up in my own living room, I had another look for distinguishing marks. None had developed since my last examination. More tantalisingly, a friend who saw it one day, told me she’d been in a museum in Florida years ago where she’d seen several pieces of varying sizes, that looked like the same pottery. Unfortunately, she couldn’t recall the name of the museum, where it was or the name of the pottery manufacturer. It seemed I’d never learn anything about it. The only thing I knew for sure was that my eldest daughter thought the piece so ugly that she was happy to defer to her younger sister when I was determining provisions for my own will, as I was updating it before embarking on this adventure in Scotland last year.

I didn’t really think much about the jardiniere, even though I love history and could spend hours in museums (much more my idea of a vacation than sitting on a beach somewhere), and was making an extended visit to country flush with museums. I wasn’t thinking of it when I visited that museum in Aberdeen — until I saw a case containing pottery fragments dug up at various sites around the city over the years. One in particular caught my eye because it had the same pebbly surface and was of the same grey and blue hues as my jardiniere. And there was a name: ‘Westerwald’ — pottery made in Germany since the 1500s, using a salt glaze that gave it its distinctive appearance.

Westerwald jardinieres that sold at Christie’s in Amsterdam in 2003

As soon as I got back to our flat in Edinburgh, I searched the internet for Westerwald. Though I was excited to see many examples of the pottery, all pieces were either tankards or chamber pots — nothing larger. I searched for jardinieres, but found nothing. I gave up. When I got up the next morning, the first thing I thought was “You didn’t search for Westerwald jardiniere. You searched each name separately.” I went to my computer, called up the Google page and typed in ‘Westerwald jardiniere’. Up popped the Christie’s site which told me that, in 2003, two jardinieres (pictured here, dated 1870-1880) sold in Amsterdam for over $5000 each! It also told me that, contrary to earlier information that said jardinieres were a Victorian phenomenon, these items were produced much earlier than that — as far back as the 1600s and 1700s. That means the 1700s date that appears on the shield of my jardiniere might be closer to the truth than I thought. Though mine is in safe-keeping with my youngest while we’re away, at the top of the to-do list when we get home is to have it insured. Then I’ll give it a thorough cleaning before putting it back in our living room. With Mum’s old concerns in mind, however, I don’t think I’ll put it in the living room window, but rather in a prominent place in the room where it can be admired, but can’t so easily be seen from the street!

Though some things have been more expensive in Scotland than in Canada, we’ve really had our money’s worth on others. Top of the list is the membership in Historic Scotland. With free entry to many historic sites, this is a history geek’s delight! One thing I will do differently next time is to take out membership in the National Trust, too. Not only do members of both organisations get to visit historic sites free and enjoy discounts at the organisations’ shops, there are also discounts on admission to partner organisations’ sites in England.

Historic Scotland also offers short term Explorer Passes for those visiting the country for a shorter period of time, so if you’re only interested in visiting a few sites over a one- or two-week visit, you can opt for a 3-days-in-5 or a 5-days-in-7 pass. January through March, there was a promotion that offered a 30-day membership for £20. I took advantage of that when my daughters visited, as I knew that, even though they were here for only 10 days, we’d be visiting a lot of Historic Scotland sites. When you consider that entry to Edinburgh Castle alone is £14.50, entry fees can add up quite quickly. And even during the high season, if you’re going to be here for longer than a week or two and plan to visit a lot of sites, purchasing a membership might be most cost effective.

There’s another interesting phenomenon here — “gift aid”. As a UK taxpayer, I have the option to “gift aid” my entry fee to some places (Our Dynamic Earth, Holyrood Palace, Rosslyn Chapel) whereby the organisation leverages my entrance fee to get a tax break from the government. In return, the organisation will permit me to visit their site as many times as I want for a year, free of charge. Holyrood gets you to sign your initial visitor ticket, which they then stamp. The next time you want to visit, you produce photo ID to prove that you’re the ticket bearer. In the case of Our Dynamic Earth, they take your photo and produce a plastic card on the spot. For Rosslyn, you fill out an application and return it with a passport photo and they send your membership card in the mail. (And, if you live in the EH25 post code area — that of Rosslyn — the Chapel Trust will give you free admission at any time.)

Scotland is a much more compact country than Canada, so getting around to all the historic sites is somewhat easier than in Canada. And having a transit system that can take you just about anywhere, whether by bus or by train, or a combination of the two, makes places accessible (and cheaper, when you consider that petrol costs just under £1.40/L) in ways that Canada could only ever imagine.

Although this city offers many fine (and therefore expensive) dining establishments, there are also some very good opportunities for delicious and inexpensive meals. One of our earliest discoveries was the Mosque Kitchen on Nicolson Street at Nicolson Square. One of their signs boasts “Delicious curry in a hurry” — and that’s right on the money! Besides chicken and lamb dishes, there are vegetarian options. Generous portions of chana dal or gobi aloo can be had for £4 each. A popular spot, getting a table might be a challenge at the usual meal times, but take-away is an option. They’re open until 10 p.m. each day, though they close between 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. for prayers. And, unless you ask for an ironstone plate and metal cutlery, it will be served on styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery — something to consider before you go to the counter to make your selection. Oh yes — it’s cash only here.

Thanks to our friend, Andrew, we recently discovered Kalpna, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, at St. Patrick Square on St. Patrick Street (which is a continuation of Nicolson Street… which is a continuations of South Bridge… which is a continuation of North Bridge… which originates at Princes Street) that offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for £7 per person. Once you’ve heaped your plate, if you want a drink, you’ll have to go to the bar to place your order, and it will be delivered to your table by one of the friendly people who work there. You can visit the buffet as often as you wish. They’re pleased to see you enjoy the food. During lunch times, however, they accept cash only — no credit or debit cards.

Just down the street, on Nicolson, is Cafe TurQuaz, which offers good food, excellent coffee and more friendly service — all for very reasonable prices.

And then there are the churches, with cafes that offer Fair Trade coffees and teas. Cafe Camino at St. Mary’s Cathedral at the foot of Leith Walk is a great spot for morning coffee, afternoon tea or a light lunch. St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile offers delicious food and friendly service. Henderson’s at St. John’s Church on Princes Street has good vegetarian options, and is interesting for the fact that it started as a separate grassroots, back-to-the-land family grocery and cafe operation back in the 70s. It’s now a fixture at St. John’s and, once you’ve satisfied your appetite for food, you can satisfy your appetite for fair trade goods at the One World Shop next door but one.

I decided to take the bus to Kelso yesterday. It’s a two-hour journey over lovely countryside, through the Scottish Borders. I’d gone as far as St. Boswell’s to visit Dryburgh Abbey just over a week before, so was looking forward to seeing some familiar territory. I boarded the bus at 9:10 and settled back to watch the world go by.

Entering Lauder (at about the one hour mark), the bus gave a squeal when we stopped to pick up passengers. The noise continued for a bit, then stopped. All seemed well, until we began to climb the steep hill around Soutra. The bus slowed and a blue haze began to fill the bus, accompanied by a burning smell. Stopping at a lay-by and look-off at the top, the driver assessed the damage and determined a belt had snapped. Another bus would have to be sent for… but he had no mobile reception up there! A passenger offered her phone, and the driver called for assistance. While he was off the bus doing so, one of the passengers grumbled that it was the second time in a week one of the company’s buses had broken down.

When the driver returned the phone to the passenger, she placed a call.

“Hello, Joyce?… I’m afraid I’m going to be delayed. The bus has lost a belt and they’re sending another bus. I’ll call you again when we’re under way.”

This exchange was punctuated by our driver, who was trying to call the office on his cell phone: “Hello?”… “Hello?”… (a few snickers rippled through the passengers)

About a half hour later, our bus driver flagged down the other scheduled bus going from Edinburgh to Jedburgh, and told those of us going to Kelso that we’d have to wait for the next bus at St. Boswell’s.

As we boarded the new bus, the woman who’d called her friend before made another call.

“Hello, Joyce?… We’ve boarded another bus, but I’ll have to get off in St. Boswell’s to wait for the next bus to Kelso, so I’ll be delayed a bit more. I’ll call you when I get there.”

Less than 20 minutes after we’d resumed our journey, we were stopped by a police road block and were informed by an officer that the road was closed because a lorry carrying wood had caught fire. Delay was expected to be 20 to 30 minutes.

“Hello, Joyce?… (peels of laughter from 12 passengers on board the number 51 bus) We’re stopped at — where are we, driver? [Galadean] — Galadean because a lorry’s caught fire in the road. How about I just call you when I’m within sight of Kelso?” (More laughter.)

In the meantime, our new driver was trying to call his office: “Hello?”… “Hello?”… (more peals of laughter from those of us who’d been on the other bus.)

Another woman pulled out a bag of sweets and offered them round. The woman who’d mentioned earlier that this was the second time in a week the bus had broken down, grumbled that all she had to share were canned peas. That cracked me up, but I didn’t dare laugh out loud! You’d have thought we’d just learned we were to be put out in the middle of the wilds to fend for ourselves, without two sticks to make a fire!

When at last we got to St. Boswells, I decided to visit the excellent cafe/bookstore/antique shop that had been recommended to me the last time I was there so, with half an hour to kill, I set off in that direction… only to find that it’s closed on Mondays! So, I stopped in at the Co-op next door to pick up some fruit, and returned to the bus shelter to wait. There, I met up with the woman who’d made several calls to Joyce, and a man who’d had to take the bus to Kelso that day to pick up his car. We had a pleasant chat, and soon the bus arrived.

We continued to talk about the region, its history and people until we arrived in Kelso. As we got off the bus, the fellow pointed ahead and said, “See? There’s the Cross Keys Hotel on the town square. That’s where the drovers used to stay when taking their sheep to market.”

As I looked in the direction of his outstretched hand, I realised where I was — and that I’d been in the town last October! Oh well… the Abbey ruins were worth another visit, and I had a lovely cup of tea and a scone at Caroline’s Coffee House on the Horsemarket. There I read my book until it was time to catch the bus back to Edinburgh.

Walking back to the flat, I saw a notice for a talk at the Broughton History Society for 7:30 that evening. I had a bit of supper, then headed to the Drummond High School over on the next street. There, Professor Charles McKean of the University of Dundee gave a fascinating talk and slide show: “Scotland as a French colony in the 16th century.” Using architecture, he argued that with James V’s marriage to Marie de Guise in 1538 began the process of colonising Scotland. French custom and couture dominated Scottish life, and gradually buildings (new or renovated) began to assume distinctly French features — round towers or turrets. They also began to have defensive walls built around them. This was at the instigation, according to McKean, of Marie’s brother the Cardinal de Lorraine (and a military man — as one would expect a man in his position to be in those days). Until then, Scots had no reason to fortify their houses because they were a peaceful people. (I wonder if Professor McKean meant ALL of Scotland, including the Highland clans? Should have asked.)

With James V’s death, the Queen became Queen Dowager, with lifetime entitlement to properties in Scotland, including Stirling Castle. She remained in Scotland throughout the “Rough Wooing” of Henry VIII, (who was determined to have Mary Queen of Scots become his son, Prince Edward’s wife) though Mary was sent to France. Marie had no desire for her daughter to marry Edward, and instead pledged her daughter to become wife of the young Dauphin, Francois. When Francois ascended the throne, her daughter would be queen of both Scotland and France (though most certainly would never return to Scotland). Of course, that’s not how things turned out in the long run. In the short run, the French influence remained strong on the Scottish court and people — which frequently annoyed many Scots, as they saw key posts at court doled out to Marie’s French compatriots.

According to McKean, after Marie’s death, architecture in Scotland began to assume its own unique design, and Scottish culture asserted itself once more, never to be overshadowed again — not even with the Act of Union in 1707(?).

He’s an entertaining speaker, and certainly leaves his audience with a lot to think about, challenging as he does the textbook stories of Scottish history. Coincidentally, I’d been thinking earlier in the day about an article about General James Wolfe that would cast him in a different light, based on accounts by people he encountered after the Battle of Culloden, which contrast even with the popular story that he risked the Butcher Cumberland’s wrath (and discipline) by refusing Cumberland’s order to kill an unarmed Jacobite soldier (so Cumberland did it himself). I’ll have to think a bit more on that… though McKean has certainly inspired me!

Mona Louise Parsons (1901-1976)

Many who know me are aware of the story of Mona Parsons — the only Canadian female civilian to have been imprisoned by the Nazis for her work in the nascent Dutch underground from May 1940 to September 1941 (married, as she was at the time to a Dutch businessman, and living in Holland). Convicted of treason by a Nazi military tribunal (one of the first, and few women to be tried thus), she was initially condemned to death by firing squad. Her composure and courage so impressed a judge, that she was permitted to appeal her sentence which, in January 1942, was commuted to life at hard labour. She went through many trials and tribulations, humiliations and cruelties, but never lost her nerve or her hope. At age 44, she escaped from the Vechta prison in March 1945 in the company of the indomitable 22-year old Dutch baroness, Wendelien van Boetzelaer.
The book I wrote about Mona Parsons is now, sadly, out of print (even though last December it was approved for the supplemental reading list for the Grade 11 history course in Nova Scotia). The documentary I co-wrote for History Television back in 2000 has also receded into the background. So, I was delighted to learn in the autumn of 2011 that the Women of Wolfville were gathering support to have the new town park in Wolfville — the town where Mona spent her formative years and her final years — named after her. Unfortunately, in Wolfville, there are those who wish Mona to be remembered as an addled alcoholic unworthy of remembrance. Despite passionate support from Wolfville citizens such as Wendy Elliott, Ramona Jennex, Jeremy Novak, Gillian Poulter, Donna Holmes and Emily Levy-Purdy the Town made a decision that is a bland attempt at political correctness, in which it determined that no one was more worthy of such an honour than another. Apparently in the Utopia that is Wolfville, we are every one of us equal. Too bad that sentiment doesn’t get any further than paper. Further, when asked if a simple statue could be erected in her memory in Ye Olde Towne Clocke Parke, the representatives of the Women of Wolfville were told that a policy would need to be drafted about such matters… perhaps February. Well, it’s now halfway through April, and there’s been no movement. In the meantime, however, someone offered a free statue of some Dead White Man to be erected in Ye Olde Towne Waterfronte Parke, and Wolfville Town Council has been honoured to give its approval for such a Worthy Noble to be thus honoured.
Long before last October’s town park naming debate, Robbins Elliott – who knew Mona when he was a boy, and as a young Army officer saw her in the Canadian Field Hospital after her rescue (when she carried a mere 87 lbs on her 5′ 8″ frame and was suffering from septicemia), and was so keen and so instrumental in helping me to bring Mona’s story to light in the 1990s – proposed in 2000 that a street in Wolfville be named after her. The suggestion was ignored, and instead new streets were named after some of the town’s founding “fathers” (more Dead White Men) – including the first chief of police and a real estate developer. Robbins Elliott once told me that, before he left this earth, he wanted to see a book, a documentary and a film about Mona, and a permanent memorial – appropriate to her vivacity and spirit – created for her in Wolfville. Robbins died November 13, 2003, having seen two of his four wishes granted. But his fervent desire for the other two are not forgotten. Back in 2005, there was even discussion at Parks Canada for a permanent memorial for Mona Parsons in one of Canada’s National Parks.
Closer to home, suggestions in 2003 to include her in a proposed display in the Kings County Museum of its leading citizens – among them Gladys Porter, first female mayor in eastern Canada and Nova Scotia’s first female MLA; Alfred Fuller, founder of the Fuller Brush Company; Abraham Gessner, father of the modern petroleum industry; and Walter Ryan, the man who created the permanent lighting of Niagara Falls – met with no enthusiasm. In fact, I was asked to remove Mona Parsons from a talk I gave to community groups about these historical characters. Initial reason given for excluding Mona was that she had done nothing for her community. Annoyed, I asked if the “nothing” she had done could be equated with the “nothing” done by WWII veterans like my father and Robbins Elliott. With the strained patience one shows to a four year old whose only response to every statement is “But why?”, it was explained to me that Mona had left Nova Scotia, married a foreigner, made some sacrifices in a foreign country, returning to her home town only to die. After arguing that every other figure proposed for the permanent display, with the exception of Gladys Porter, had also left their community (all to the United States) and had died elsewhere, another excuse was offered — one I’d not heard before.
I was told she was considered unacceptable by some members of the community — and especially by a couple of key members of the Wolfville Historical Society at the time — because of an alleged drinking problem. Apparently colourful historic anecdotes describing men’s alcohol-induced antics – including Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald being so drunk for an appearance during an election campaign that, while standing on the back of a train, he vomited and proclaimed words to the effect “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I think of my opponent” – are considered amusing occurrences and elevated to the status of legend, but in a woman are to be judged as unladylike, and sufficient grounds to deny her recognition in history for whatever heroic actions she may have undertaken. But no such anecdotes exist about Mona. There are only her painful writings of her inability to remember things, or of becoming confused and befuddled, unsteadiness on her feet – all of which can be attributed to the transient ischemic attacks or “mini strokes” she suffered. And besides, after experiencing what she did in Nazi prisons and camps, who could blame her if she had developed a drinking problem? Hundreds of people came through World War Two with scars that could not be seen and which they dulled with alcohol or drugs – conditions we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress. Would the Self-Appointed Protectors of Wolfville’s Moral Fabric like to review histories of the names of those who appear on the town’s WWI and WWII memorials to determine which of them should be struck from the stone for perceived activities or beliefs deemed inconsistent with those of an upstanding Wolfvillean? What on earth could be done, for example, if one of them was found to be — gasp! — GAY?!
Perhaps someday, when both the self righteous who would condemn her, and Mona’s idealistic promoters who would have us believe she never fell off a virginal pedestal have all gone the way of all flesh, Mona will find some perspective as a human being who had flaws as we all do — even the self righteous and self-declared upright members of the Wolfville community — and who took exceptional risks that few of us are ever called upon to do, to support the freedom she believed in, without ever having carried a gun or having worn a uniform. And it is for those actions alone that she deserves to be remembered long after the rest of us in the ranks of the unremarkable and ordinary have faded from memory.

I’ve been so busy having little adventures over the last couple of months, that I’ve neglected this blog for some time. After a visit to Dryburgh Abbey on Friday, I’m inspired to write about the experience.

I have to say that one of the things I will most miss about living in Scotland is the excellent public transit network. I realise that Canada is bigger and less populated than the UK, but we could really learn something from their example. We have been able to take ‘city’ buses (as opposed to City Link buses) to destinations as far away as the Scottish Borders — a two hour trek! — and all for very reasonable prices.

The ruins of Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders

Friday morning we boarded a bus to Dryburgh Abbey. When I asked the driver for a return ticket (Ron travels free on his bus pass for 60+), he thought for a moment and printed off one for St. Boswell’s — £11.90. Ron settled in to read for the duration, while I was happy to sit back and just watch the scenery.

At Earlston (home of the 13th century laird and prophet, Thomas the Rhymer), two passengers got on — one a man in his 60s, the other in his teens. They sat behind us and chatted for a bit, then the older fellow gave Ron a bookmark for his book — a business card for his new online venture for an old passion: archery. He introduced himself as Mick, and the younger fellow as his student, Alex. When Mick learned we were Canadian, he invited us to visit sometime and have some free lessons. When they’d boarded the bus, I’d heard him ask for a ticket to St. Boswell’s, so knew he would know exactly which stop we needed to disembark.

On reaching St. Boswell’s, he told us that we had a bit of a hike ahead of us. Because I’d checked out the route on Google maps, I told him we were quite content to make the 20-minute trek. He recommended a couple of places for us to stop (the local church for a reasonably-priced and tasty lunch, the local pub for a good pint, and a local cafe/bookstore/antique shop), and we headed off. Uncertain when we saw no signs directing us towards Dryburgh, we stopped a little further along and asked a postman. He told us we were on the right track, but that it would take us longer than 20 minutes to walk. Turned out he was right. Dryburgh was almost 4 miles from St. Boswell.

Sir Walter Scott's tomb in the north transept of Dryburgh Abbey

Initially annoyed that Google had steered us wrong, I found my irritation diminishing as we walked along the same route that Sir Walter Scott’s funeral cortege travelled when taking him to his final resting place in Dryburgh Abbey ruins. The countryside is lovely and, other than having no sidewalks or even shoulders to take one out of the path of cars, serene. Thankfully, traffic was light and between cars, the birdsong was spectacular! We crossed over the Tweed, trudging uphill then down, with Scott’s beloved Eildon Hills (said to be home to Merlin — though a different Merlin than the one popularised in English tales of King Arthur) visible in the distance.

The Temple of the Muses overlooking the River Tweed

We finally reached the Abbey and asked one of the employees of Historic Scotland whether there was a shorter route back. At first, when we told him we’d walked about three miles from town, he said, “Oh, it’s not nearly that long!” We told him that the road signs told us it was at least three. “You mean you came by the ROAD?! That’s nearly four miles!” He suggested a different route back — one that took us along the river, past the Temple of the Muses, over a suspension footbridge and along the other side of the river to St. Cuthbert’s Way. Despite a brief hail shower, the walk was delightful! No traffic sounds — just the river, the birds and the smell of wild garlic that blanketed either side of the footpath.

When we got back to the bus stop at St. Boswell’s, we discovered that the next — and last for the day — bus to Edinburgh left at 17.35. That gave us more than an hour to kill. We decided to go the cafe that Mick had recommended. On passing the community hall though, Mick appeared and invited us in for the archery demonstration. And even better than that? When the archers took a break, waiting for the next demonstration to begin, he invited us to have a try. I missed the targets on my first two attempts, but with a bit of instruction and the suggestion that I quit trying to hit the target, I drew the bow, released the arrow and made my first “kill”. I’m hooked!

Oh yeah — and Google maps? When I checked what I’d printed out, Google maps had told me to disembark at Newton St. Boswell’s, which is down the A68 from St. Boswell’s. Had we done so, we would have travelled over busier roads, we wouldn’t have chatted with Mick, and I wouldn’t have had a chance to play with bows and arrows. All in all, a really great day! (And the Abbey was lovely, too!)

detail of The Muses

Footbridge over the Tweed (looking down from the Temple of the Muses), leading towards St. Cuthbert's Way

Wild garlic!!!!

After a friend asked me for a reminiscence of where I was when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal against Russia back in 1972, I recalled how proud we all were to be Canadians during that memorable hockey series. And that moved me to send a handwritten letter to Stephen Harper. Here’s what I said:

“Mr Harper —

I’ve frequently heard it said that, in order to get a perspective on home, one must leave it. For the last eight months I have been living in Scotland, and I must say that the perspective I’ve gained of home leaves me feeling deeply saddened, ashamed and embarrassed — and I’m sorry to say that you and your government are the cause.

Your contempt for Canada, its democracy and its people is palpable and blatant, as is your complete disregard for the environment. Though Canadians demonstrated the trust for which we are known in the world by electing you to a majority government, you show your true colours in betraying that trust with the shenanigans surrounding the purchase of F-35 jets. You place the burden of financing pensions on the shoulders of our youth, yet still argue for the purchase of jets we neither need nor want.

You have taken a once honourable party — the Progressive Conservatives; two of whose leaders (Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark) were the best PMs Canada never had — and turned it into a facsimile of the US Republican Party, complete with dirty tactics and shady dealings.

I have signed online petitions and sent you emails, copies to the leaders of the other parties. Although they have responded promptly, I’ve never heard from you. Perhaps you prefer to ignore Canadians like me, or perhaps the volume of messages is too great for your staff to keep up with.

This time, I am prompted to send a handwritten letter. I was moved to do so after a friend who is collecting reminiscences of where people were when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal in the 1972 Canada Russia series, asked me for mine. I recalled how proud we were to be Canadians during that series. We felt optimistic and hopeful. Canada was genuinely liked abroad in those days, too. I travelled overseas and proudly wore a Canadian flag on my backpack.

Alas, those times have changed. We have a government that believes we should inspire fear rather than trust and respect in the world. We’ve had governments that have made bad decisions (Trudeau invoking the War Measures Act is top of the list), but never have we had one that has been so consistently bad as yours. Since living in Scotland and feeling such profound embarrassment, I removed all Canadian flags from backpacks and bags — but realise that I did so because I AM proud to be Canadian, so will work even harder when I return to Nova Scotia in June to ensure your government is defeated.”

What is it with political parties once they are in power? We saw it with the Liberals in the “Sponsorship Scandal” over flags. Now, apparently, the Conservatives’ weakness appears to be phones — a “Robocall Scandal”. Little surprise that a party with its roots firmly in the Republican-style Reform Party should resort to dirty tactics that have been honed by the Republican Party in the US to such a degree that they really should carry a little TM symbol! The most cursory review of the election shenanigans south of the 49th illustrates that.

What’s deeply troubling is that, so far, no one seems to be immune from this drift to the Dark Side once they achieve — or, in the case of the Conservatives in the last election, even smell — power. And the longer they’re in power, the less they seem to care about anyone or anything else than maintaining dominance. It’s like watching professional wrestlers, their eyes only on some belt that looks like it was once worn by Wonder Woman, strut their stuff. At least pro wrestlers are honest about their intentions when they say they will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Over the years, Canadians have complained about the lack of decorum in the House of Commons, where it seems that MPs can get away with just about any sort of behaviour except calling another MP a nasty name. You can’t call Stronach a bitch, or Kent a piece of shit — fair enough. But apparently outside those hallowed halls, MPs and their election machines can be involved in questionable behaviour that cannot be debated in said House of Commons because the Prime Minister says so. Frankly, Steve should go fuddle-duddle himself. Hopefully the Speaker of the House has more sense.

But debate in the House of Commons is only the beginning. Let’s see some real democracy at work here. Call by-elections in every one of those ridings and set the dates for, say, 6 months in advance. Then require that every MP and every candidate’s organisers and handlers attend a one-month course on civics, ethics and how to conduct oneself like the sort of human being we would feel proud to have represent us, regardless of political leanings. Then, when we say “May the best person win”, we might actually get what we ask for.

Cafeterria Ranieri

The week in Malta was such a great experience, it’s hard to know where to start the first posting. To keep it simple, let’s start with food. Our first night in Valetta, we found Cafeterria Ranieri on Republic Street (the central route in the walled city). The staff were warm and welcoming, the food was good, the prices very reasonable (especially considering the portions — it was like eating at my paternal grandmother’s!!) and the service excellent. On our daily wanderings, we checked out other places, but didn’t find anything to compare with Ranieri’s, so naturally we kept going back for supper each night. Had we really been paying attention, we would have realised that their full English breakfast was also a super deal at €3.80. as compared to €5.50 at our hotel for the breakfast buffet. When, on our third day, we discovered this was an option, we went to Ranieri’s for our breakfast, too!

Kris is the affable owner — a gentle man who, though he watches over things, remains pretty much in the background except to banter with customers and to lend a helping hand when necessary. Manoel was our principal “caretaker”, as he was there every night but one. And even when he wasn’t there, we were royally taken care of. David, who loves his pasta, was treated to a different dish each night — except the night he decided to try a pizza, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Because of the availability of fish, I tried to have it whenever possible, so the first night’s sea bream, served with a Maltese sauce (tomatoes, olives, capers — does it GET any better??!!) was so good, that I had it a second time — but not the same night, of course. Ron sampled the rabbit stew and we both had the swordfish on another night. Manoel also made sure that we sampled Maltese bruschetta and Maltese sausage — delicious! He also introduced us to Maltese wine — unbelievably good and so reasonably priced. We thought about taking some back with us, but in the end decided to let the wine remain as a strictly Malta experience — something to look forward to the next time we go.

The only dessert I tried (once when I had room, and once just because it had tasted so good the first time) was the Casatella Siciliana. It has found a place in my heart, second only to cannoli (or, as it’s spelled in Malti, kannoli). I’ve long said that we’d have world peace if there was a cannoli stand on every street corner. People would be too busy savouring them to argue — unless, of course, it was the grandmothers arguing over who made the best one. With the discovery of Casatella Siciliana, I’ll venture to say that, by offering this as a second option, those street stalls would come closer to achieving world peace. (And, though Ranieri’s didn’t offer kannoli, I enjoyed a thoroughly delightful kannoli rikotta at the Traffic Lights Cafe near the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola.)

Manoel also introduced us to a Maltese pastry, the name of which I unfortunately cannot recall. Take a crepe, still warm, cover it with a thin layer of pureed date or fig; fold it up, dust with fine sugar and serve warm with liqueur. YUM!! And, speaking of liqueurs, Manoel introduced us to two: one orange and much like Cointreau; the other carob, which tasted a bit like sweetened Campari.

Kris, Moira and Manoel (in the foreground) -- and I hate to admit it, but I never got the name of the fellow behind the counter, though he took such good care of us, too!

We can’t say enough about Ranieri’s, so if you find yourself in Valetta, Malta, do look them up. You will feel as though you are among old friends. David — who loves to tease — thoroughly enjoying as good as he dished out, particularly by Kris’ partner, Moira. We’re certainly hoping that these new old friends will come to visit us in Nova Scotia and David in Toronto.