Sailing back to Mallaig from the “little isles” of Eigg and Muck, with the craggy peaks of Skye’s Black Cuillins filling the horizon, it’s easy to have a Brigadoon moment and imagine yourself in a Scottish land of enchantment at the edge of the world.
Western Scotland’s topography is striking in its variety: lochs, moors, great eruptions of rock, the bluest of ocean waters, a canopy as capacious as Montana’s Big Sky country. Being a confirmed urbanite, I’m usually immune to landscapes. But I confess to having been captivated this past June during four days of driving through what must be some of the world’s most beautiful scenery (often along single-track roads, dodging sheep).
There’s more to Scotland than magnificent natural panoramas, of course. Glasgow, which three decades ago seemed condemned to senescence, living off the faded memories of its Industrial Age greatness, has remade itself into a bustling center of commerce, finance, high-tech, and culture. Edinburgh remains one of Europe’s most charming cities, its 18th century New Town a monument to the beauties of neo-classical urban design and its Old Town a splendid medieval rabbit’s warren leading from Edinburgh Castle down the “Royal Mile” to the palace of Holyrood House. Alas, the new Scottish Parliament buildings — hyper-modernist excess of the worst sort — are nearby, and rather spoil the palace environs and the view of “Arthur’s Seat,” one of those abrupt promontories with which Scotland abounds. (The Scottish Parliament disdains prayer, but I was invited to offer a few thoughts at the Parliament’s weekly “Time for Reflection.” Twelve of 129 parliamentarians thought it worthwhile to hear what “reflections” I had to offer; sic transit gloria Weigel.)
The new Scotland has its oddities. My wife and I couldn’t find Scotch eggs — tasty little cholesterol bombs made of deep-fried, sausage-wrapped hard-boiled eggs — in the food halls at Jenner’s, Edinburgh’s answer to London’s Harrod’s. But we did find a vegetarian version of Scotland’s national dish, haggis. Haggis, for the uninitiate, is a meat pudding made of the ground parts of the sheep that the sheep has no right to be proud of, mixed with burnt oats and stuffed into a bag made (at least traditionally) from the lining of a sheep’s stomach; it sounds awful, but is in fact delicious. But “vegetarian haggis?” What’s next? Alcohol-free single-malt Scotch?
The very fact of the new Scottish Parliament, which has been sitting since 1999, seems to have exacerbated tensions north-and-south of Hadrian’s Wall. Indeed, I was struck by the sharp, anti-English tone of even the most temperate Caledonian parliamentarians I met. Some MSP’s seemed aware of the grave pan-European problems being caused by the soul-withering secularism that has fueled a crisis of civilizational morale across the continent. Yet the Parliament itself seems obsessed with redefining marriage and acquiescing to various other demands of the gay lobby, all in the name of a hollow notion of “human rights.” Given present political trends, it’s not hard to imagine an independent Scotland having social policies resembling those of the ultra-libertine Netherlands.
On our way to Dunvegan Castle, home of Clan MacLeod on the Isle of Skye, my wife and I stopped to explore the ruins of a medieval church. A hundred yards or so above the ruins was a rough-hewn stone stele which had been carved and raised by the local villagers to mark the millennium year of 2000. A nearby plaque boasted that it was precisely this kind of pillar that pagan Viking raiders had raised throughout Scotland.
Which seemed both odd and sad. Where Columba and Donan and the other Celtic monk-saints had planted the faith on the far rim of Europe (helping save western civilization in the process), post-Christian Scots of the 21st century now raised pagan monuments, seemingly indifferent to Him whose incarnation the Great Jubilee of 2000 celebrated.
I met an impressive cadre of young Scottish Catholic intellectuals, activists, and artists over the course of four days of lectures in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and I wish them well. They have, I fear, got their work cut out for them.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.