“I think witches are good”, said Robbie and drew a breath through his cigarette. It was a reply to a question by one of my anthropological colleagues. Robbie, the former miner, soldier and now gatekeeper at the Scott Monument was taking us to a favorite pub of his in Edinburgh; The Royal Oak.
As we entered the pub, a small, high-ceilinged room revealed itself. It was filled with people. Mostly elderly men, but there were some younger men and a couple of younger women, too. In the far left corner as we entered sat a musician, dressed in black, playing a guitar. Robbie explained that sometimes there would be 4-5 musicians here, playing together. As we made our way further into the pub, or the middle of the room, Robbie stopped and pointed to something hanging high above, near the ceiling.
“This is the declaration I told you about”, he said and looked at my two colleagues and I proudly. It was the declaration of Abroath.
Within a frame, words were scribbled on a piece of paper, looking like a piece of old parchment. It said:
“As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
I wondered how many men and women that applied to in today’s society? My guess was: not many. Less than desirable.
As we settled in with a pint, a slightly hunched over figure caught my eye. As I’d entered the pub, the figure had slipped in behind me and was now slowly sipping at a whiskey whilst holding a beer in his other hand. The figure had grayish hair and black stubbles. A warm presence seemed to be an underlying note to his being. A bluish scarf was dangling from his neck, a coat resting over his one arm. Under the “cover” of doing a folklore study I had an “excuse” to make contact.
The introduction was as introductions are, a little awkward at first, until you relax. I found out that the figure’s name was N and he was from the Highland; visiting Edinburgh for holiday.
As a reply to my introduction and request for Scottish folklore, he told me the story of why there are no hands on the clock tower in MacDuff, on the side facing Banff.
“Many years ago a man was being hung at twelve noon. But it turned out that a pardon had been issued for him. As the pardon was on its way, the inhabitants of Banff didn’t want the man to live, so they turned the clock forward on the tower which resulted in the untimely death of a free man… Hence, there are no hands on the side facing Banff”, as N said: “because they can’t tell the time anyway.” I didn’t agree on that conclusion; my intuition said that the point was a whole different one, but for the sake of science, N should have his say as well as I.
As our talk progressed, I noticed that N compulsively fidgeted with his hands, fidgeted with his thumbnail, making an unnerving sound. Making him seem a little nervous.
“You’re on holiday by yourself?”, I asked him.
“Yes.” He then turned to describing his experience of the city.
“You know, there’s so much happening here. When I walk out onto the street, more cars pass me in just a moment than in a year in my village.”
Somehow the conversation drifted toward the subject of family.
“Do you have any children, then?”
“Boys or girls?”
“One of each. I’m lucky really, they turned out great; they both have good educations and are doing well.” Apparently, I thought, education equates with “doing well”.
Scratching the surface, however, I have learnt that things are never what they appear to be, but I went along with it as this didn’t seem the time nor the place for that investigation.
“That sounds wonderful. What about your wife? Didn’t she want to go with you to Edinburgh?”
“No… You know, I’ve invited her to go to Paris with me over the weekend, but she said no. I invited her to Edinburgh with me, but she said no…” He took in a breath and then seemed to let a very heavy burden come into sight as he said:
“Honestly, I don’t know what to do anymore. I mean, ten years. Ten years we’ve lived in the same house, but not really been together… I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but…. you know sex… as soon as the sex is gone…”
“Well, there has to be both”, I answered. “The physical and the spiritual connection. If there’s no communication and no physical connection either, then… love is dying.”
He looked at me for a fraction of a second; then I saw a flicker come into his eyes. An idea.
“You know, I think I have another story for you.” N took another sip of whiskey, and began his story.
“Before you’re born, you’re sent to God and he gives you a package. This package is your burden to bear, and once you are born this burden gets heavier and heavier through life…”
I was waiting for some kind of absolution within the story to occur, but it never came.
“And that’s it… That’s the story.”
“Oh, N! You can’t believe that!? I mean…” In the same second a story came to my mind.
“Okay, liste. I have a story to tell you, too.
There was a young boy whom was sent to a wise man by his father to learn the secret of happiness. As the young boy arrived at the palace of the wise man, he entered the palace halls and saw artists painting, heard musicians playing the most wonderful music, encountered some of the most wonderful scents he’d ever smelled. As he came up to the wise man, he told him that he was there to learn the secret of happiness. The wise man then gave him a spoon with a drop of oil. “Go enjoy my gardens, see all the beautiful artwork, taste the food and enjoy all that is here, but bring me back the spoon with the oil.”
The boy went around the halls, the gardens and the corridors full of artwork and as he came back to the wise man a radiant smile was on his face.
“I see that you have enjoyed your walk. But where is the drop of oil?” The boy looked down and realized that he’d dropped the oil.
“Let this be your lesson, then. The secret to happiness is taking in all the beauty, enjoying all that you can enjoy, but never letting go of that drop of oil….”
And that’s it, I concluded.
“That’s profound. But I’m not sure what it means,” N replied. “What is the message?”
“Well, the message is to never lose sight of the objective.”
“But I don’t think you’ll ever find what you are looking for,” N said as resignation and disillusion rose up within him.
“Well, once I said the same thing. But then, one day, I did find what I was looking for. But it meant looking in the direction I’d never wanted to look in. Nor was it there that I had ever expected to find anything. Like this conversation, in this pub.”
(For more information on the story of MacDuff and Banff, see: