Virtual Vacation: Macbeth and High Tea, Day 14

(Dear Readers: This is another high-density post with lots of photos. You may need to let it load for a while before you come back and read it–Laura).

Today was one of the “Seeing Scotland” days on our trip. Our first stop was Clava Cairns, a Bronze Age, 4000-year-old archeological site with burial cairns and ancient standing stones.

As our bus approached the last bridge before the parking lot, we came upon this sign, which was immediately worrisome to those of us who had been pigging out on Newbold House’s home-baked bread, fresh butter, and homemade jam.

Phew! We made it. Robyn handed each of us an Angel Card with a word for us to meditate on while we moved through this prehistoric site in silence.

Photo by Robyn Randolph

My word was RESPECT. I wondered what it meant as I walked around the ancient stone formations, trying to imagine the burial rites and ceremonies that were performed here 4000 years ago.

Our second destination was Cawdor Castle. On the way, Kevin, our driver, lamented that the Highlands region was losing its young people.“When they leave home to go to University, they stay there or they go even further away to get a job. It’s a real problem.” It was sad to hear that after the intergenerational unity we witnessed at the Highland Games the other day.

Photo by Robyn Randolph

Cawdor Castle is the setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There is no proof that the events of the play actually took place within these walls, but leading man, Sir Henry Irving, and his leading lady, Dame Ellen Terry, visited the castle in August of 1887 so they could “absorb the atmosphere” in preparation for their roles. As I waked through the castle, I imagined Lady Macbeth compulsively washing her hands in the oversized ceramic bowls: “Out, out damned spot!” I could almost smell the blood running down the walls.

Upon entering the castle, we’d been told not to take pictures of the artwork or tapestries, so I focused my camera on the quirky, amusing details I saw along the tour.

For instance, the crest that welcomed us when we first entered said, “Be mindful,” which struck me as a very 21st century expression. Where I come from, mindfulness is a buzz-word for busy Americans trying to integrate Buddhist principles into their overwhelmed, busy lives. What was it doing on the crest of this Scottish castle?

Photo by Talin Vartanian

I learned from a sign on the wall that “mindfulness” had a whole different meaning here. It is believed to be an inverse rendering of the Campbell of Argyle motto, “NE OBIVISCARIS, which translates as, “Do not forget.” The expression, the sign explained, is taken from the Bible—“Be ye mindful always of his covenant.”

You can see why it’s so easy for there to be cross-cultural miscommunication. I, for instance, thought it was “cute” that the pathway that led us through the castle sported a blue, green, black, green, and red plaid carpet.

What I learned later from Talin is that the pattern on the rug was an exclusive Campbell of Cawdor plaid, commissioned by the family and designed specifically for them. No one else is allowed to use it. It is their plaid; they own it. That really piqued my curiosity button—who designs proprietary plaids for specific families? Is that an actual profession?

One thing that was really clear as I walked through the castle—people who lived here must have been really short:

These very old, worn, uneven steps led down to the kitchen.

In the remodeled “modern” kitchen, this device was center stage. In front of it a sign read, “This is not a thumbscrew, it is a French duck press for extracting gravy from meat.” I am not making this up.

In the older kitchen, I got a kick out of all the old tools and implements:

There was a whole shelf of cast iron irons for warming the beds:

I found the castle interesting, but the real beauty and splendor of Cawdor Castle was waiting for me outside, in the gardens:

Apparently these box hedges are very fragile. There were warning signs asking us not to “lean against them or place anything heavy on them, as it will cause lasting damage.”

I particularly loved these archways:

Eileene and Susan and I went out in search of the woods behind the castle. We found  several hiking trails, marked with ingenious signs, considering the fact that people who speak so many different languages visit Cawdor Castle.

The trail markers use a pictorial system; each path is designated by a different color. Under the green tree at the top of the post (representing a forest hike), icons guide you to the red trail, the blue trail, the green trail or the yellow trail. And on the way back you can find your way by following the signpost with the castle at the top—the violet trail.

The woods were deep and old. At one point, Susan remarked, “I don’t know if Robin Hood was ever here, but he sure could have been.”

On the way out of the castle and back to the bus, this was our view:

The last thing I saw before leaving was this poster. As you can see, Shakespeare and Cawdor Castle are still very much connected:

Back on the bus, I eavesdropped (as every good teacher does) on the students who were sitting behind me. In our last class, I’d been talking about how meaningless words like “beautiful” and “lovely” and “wonderful” are—how they should be erased from our vocabularies and replaced with much more vivid, specific description.

Donna from British Columbia said, “We’re trying to figure out other words to use besides ‘beautiful’ to describe the Castle.”

Julie from San Francisco said, “How about undulation?”

From behind me, Marie from Reno rattled off, “Extraordinary. Radiant. Admirable. Charming. Dazzling. Delightful…”

I interrupted her. “You’re not supposed to read them out of the thesaurus.” I turned around. Sure enough, she was reading them off her i-phone.

Julie piped back in, “How about statuesque?”

Donna countered, “You can’t use statuesque for a castle.”

“How about foxy?” Marie called out.

“What did you think of the gardens at Cawder Castle?” Asma asked out loud.

The whole back of the bus erupted in unison, “They were foxy.”

I could tell the retreat was in full swing.

Before we reached our final destination of the day—high tea–we stopped for a short shopping excursion at the Brodie Country Fare Shop. While I looked for gifts for Lucas, my 11-year-old grandson, Talin discovered these unusually-flavored potato chips. I found her photographing them in the exotic food section. Like me, Talin likes to seek out unusual things that make her laugh:

Photo by Talin Vartanian
Photo by Talin Vartanian

That’s Ludlow Sausage and Mustard; Sunday Best Roast Chicken; Swanky Veg: Candy Stripe Beetroot, Red Beetroot & Blue Potato Crisps; Lobster, Chili & Garlic; Mature Cheddar Cheese & Chives; and Cotswold Brie & Bacon. Believe it or not, these are all potato chips, except here they call them crisps. Someone actually bought a bag of the Brie and Bacon crisps for us to share. I tasted them on the bus; they were actually pretty good.

Boath House was definitely my favorite stop of the day and the perfect finish to our adventures. The place was unbelievably elegant and fun. I felt like I was, well…at a tea party!

This was the woman’s bathroom:

When we first arrived, we were ushered into a well-appointed living room where a very well-dressed waiter took our drink order. Here’s Marie and Paula, perusing the list of whiskies and other beverages:

Here’s Eileene giving the queen’s wave:

Most of us ordered drinks. I, of course, ordered a whiskey. So did Eileene, who says she’s learning to drink for the first time on this vacation. (I swear, alcohol has never played a role in any of my prior writing retreats—this is a first!)

Photo by Robyn Randolph

As Eileene and I (and several others) enjoyed our drams of whiskey, Asma, who is Muslim and has never had an intoxicant in her life, called out in wry and somewhat outraged voice, “I can’t believe you’re drinking before tea.” We all cracked up.

Robyn put the angel cards we’d picked at Clava Cairns beside the plates at our long table. Those became our seats for tea, a nice way to mix up companionship and conversation.

This place was so fancy that the waiter came around to place our napkins on our laps for us. Unfortunately, I had already beaten him to it.

Tea began with tea (Earl Grey for me, peppermint, and Assam for others) and sandwiches. There were four sandwich choices. Most of our crew had the smoked salmon. I chose chicken. They were delicious.

Conversation was lively. It was wonderful to sit in such a beautiful space after a long day.

Photo by Robyn Randolph

The dessert course was equally lovely. The gluten-free people got a vanilla rice pudding with mango and coconut puree. Their plates looked so good, everyone around them wanted them, too:

The rest of us were handed a scone with clotted cream, and a raspberry white chocolate gateau. The waiter instructed us to put the jam on the scone first, and then a generous dollop of clotted cream. I wasn’t sure I’d like the cake, but it was heavenly; it tasted like cream whipped with air.

The food was so good that Lolla Stewart from Australia wrote an ode to it:

I ate the jam!

And the layers of oozing butter!

And the crunchy wholesome bread.

I ate every last generous crumb

And now my soul is warm and fat

and cares not about my flesh.

I ate the two slices and drank three coffees.

I succumbed to greed, excess and desire.

After the first slice and the single coffee

I advised myself to draw a bubble around that delight

for truly it was sufficient.

But I wanted more.

In truth I wanted to want and

I wanted to surrender.

The outdoors at Boath House wasn’t shabby either:

Photo by Robyn Randolph
Photo by Robyn Randolph

We arrived back at Newbold half an hour before dinner. None of us were hungry, but I did have some vegetables to round out the whiskey, caffeinated tea, carbs, cream and sugar.

During our evening writing class, I read a vivid, powerful piece by Tama Kieves, “Receiving Your Own Beautiful Life.” It included the following: 

I do not want to be anywhere else. These are words of luxury. These are words of mystery. These are words of quantum healing. Sit down on the pillow of your own good life and be still. Stop searching, demanding, aching, casting about.

I do not want to be anywhere else. This is what it means to live all the days of your life. This is what it means to stop and receive. You are like a hungry bird and you cannot receive because you have rejected the source of nutrition. The only source of nutrition is your present life. It’s not over there or under that. It doesn’t come later and it doesn’t get better. You get better. You get better by believing in the remarkable perfection and wholeness of your own life.

I do not want to be anywhere else. Let go of striving. Let go of hatred. Don’t push away your bowl. Instead notice the crack and let its jagged line stroke your heart with its innocence and determination. It has something to teach you. That’s why it’s there. Everything has something to give you.

I do not want to be anywhere else. These are words like open sesame…

Beautiful writing often inspires more beautiful writing. That’s why I so often read poetry and powerful prose to my students. In the rich silence that followed my reading of this piece, I asked everyone to write their own version, beginning with the words, “I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The responses were evocative, raw and at times took my breath away. Here’s one, shared with the permission of Julie Fellon from San Francisco:

I do not want to be anywhere else. Napping on the lawn under an apple tree in Scotland listening to pigs snuffling in the dirt is perfect. For a moment I hoped maybe they’d unearth some directions for me in the next steps I might take in my life—-maybe a map or a compass. But if they don’t, I can ask directions of the fox or the squirrel if I see them later on.

I do not want to be anywhere else. Riding on a bus with no sense of direction or the geography of the land I am in, is just perfect right now  I don’t necessarily need to drive or make directional decisions right now. It’s good enough just to get a ride there.

I do not want to be anywhere else. Scrabbling after midnight and scribbling at dawn seem to be working words right into the notebook of my life. The words and the stories unfold as they want to, apart from desire or conscious direction.

I do not want to be anywhere else. It’s enough just to float here in the pool of possibilities, not feeling the pull of the tide to work. Right now I’m buoyant and relaxing into the rhythm of the waves. High tide will come soon enough and toss me back onto the land of daily reality. But right now…..don’t bother me. I’m still floating.

I do not want to be anywhere else. The moist green landscape through tall windows suits me just fine. Every possibility is just around the corner in this barely explored garden. This point of indecision, of not knowing, is the moment just before the amazing surprise of the rest of my life. I want to savor it and remember its smells and its texture before it blooms and I recognize the name of its flowering.

This is the candle we blew out at the end of our evening class, filled to the brim, once again, with words:

P.S. If you haven’t gotten enough of Boath Tea House, here’s a sweet video of it that Robyn and Geoff put together.

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