Fàilte gu Alba

Emotionally, entering Scotland this time (from England, via the M6 highway) was strong. Two years ago, the country surprised us in many more positive ways than we could have dreamed of. A few days of road wandering, all the way to Skye, with stops in Pitlochry, Callander, Lochalsh, etc. was an incredible way of steeping into a bath of lochs, glens, braes, mountains, moss, ferns, trees, forest that seem almost full of elves (if you allow yourself to see them), eagles, elk. The conference in Edinburgh arrived too soon – we kept the dream of coming back one day.

This time, after (great, full of cross communication and maths, maths and more maths (first, set theoretic connections in Norwich, then what is emerging more and more as “model theoretic geometry” [now with various kinds of j-invariants, sheaves, Shimura varieties, moduli spaces, motives – all analyzed model-theoretically]) and also a lot of art and photography [seeing the Talbot collection was a revelation for me, for instance – as was discovering Daido Moriyama – how could I not know him before?]) stays in Norwich, London and Oxford (Merton College is an amazing place to stay as a visiting guest – and walking with Roman, Wanda and Anna to Wolvercote in the evening light, stopping along the way in some pub, is also a great thing), we took the road up the island.

Near an abandoned nunnery, between Oxford and Wolvercote.
Near an abandoned nunnery, between Oxford and Wolvercote.

A first, whimsical and coventricarolian stop at Whitby, was the real start of this part of our trip: an abbey overlooking and overhanging the North Sea – one of those places of mixed (blessed and bloody) history, where the end of historic reality and the beginning of legend are lost in mist and shadows. The abbey itself – in ruins, really – is extremely dramatic: hanging arches, romanesque and gothic vaults (usually romanesque in lower levels, gothic in upper levels), spires, rose-windows of course without glass: you do see however the lace-like structure in windows, tatting-work made of stone. Vaults and architraves and columns and bridges – with their structure made more visible than when the church or abbey is not in ruins. Here, the absolute absence of decoration makes it possible to see structure more cleanly and clearly.

In Whitby Abbey
In Whitby Abbey

After you leave the Midlands you start driving among moors and woods, mountains and a rugged coastline. Even before hitting Scotland, the drive can be extremely scenic – albeit a bit slow (roads outside motorways seem to be on the narrow side here) – and slightly more exhausting (for me) than the equivalent roads in countries where you do not have to drive on the left (and negotiate roundabouts, and think twice before turning right).

Vowels as you travel also change. In the Midlands I got odd looks when I asked for a double espresso – the guy at Costa’s on the main highway (motorway) wouldn’t understand my English for double espresso – at last he said “oh, dubbel!” (with the u exactly as it would be in Spanish! my pronouncing /ˈdʌb.əɫ/ (as in what I would deem to be “standard English”, either side of the ocean) seemed to nonplus him – what I least expected was to hear /ˈdʌb.əɫ/ corrected to Spanish-like “dúbel”. And so forth. As you go North, vowels shift and shift and shift again. Fish and chips may become something like fashanchaps depending on where you stop, probably depending also on the self-awareness of the attendant, the clerk, the person at the B&B (guest or host), the fellow walker.

Finally, the sign Fàilte gu Alba appears on the road – Welcome to Scotland in Gaelic – and one leaves England behind. For us Latin American people, the idea of “leaving England behind”, especially when speaking in Spanish, sounds odd, as in many of our minds “England” is (wrongly) confused with “Britain” – in our unaware consciousness, “England” is an island that includes perhaps regions such as Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, etc. Nothing more wrong that that, as everybody knows (except the back of my mind, that has to self-correct utterances of “oh, we arrived to England 10 days ago”… which may sound from mildly offensive to just nonsense if you are in Scotland). We knew that, of course.

The rest is pure magic.

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