I feel as if I am in a bit of a time warp. I boarded a Boeing 767-300 yesterday afternoon out of Chicago at about 6pm central time and somehow found myself getting off the same plane more than 7 hours later, but it was 8 am. I’ve never been good at math, nor has my internal time clock, but something isn’t adding up. Anyways, it’s the first time I’ve set foot on ground East of the Atlantic and needless to say I’m pretty stoked! Among the first things I noticed were the smaller vehicles, smaller serving sizes and a much smaller bed than what is required for a 6’5” tall American.
Coffee, Beer and Food- Oh My!
Now I understand what people are raving about. The British know coffee and beer and food. One caffe’ Americano is the equivalent of about 3 cups of my coffee back home (and I make strong coffee). This was much needed when Professor David Parker adamantly stated “no sleeping today,” after arriving in London at 1am Montana time. The food is awesome thus far, and I haven’t even been here for a day yet. The smaller serving sizes almost requires me to order 2 of everything. The beer here is the same as American beer, but different. What I mean by that is the fact that the beers don’t seem to be quite as carbonated and are slightly warmer than in the states. I did a double take when I saw a Sierra Nevada tap handle at the local Jack Horner Pub. After just spending a semester in Chico, CA it came to me as a shock as I have just spent the last semester studying in California. Props to Ken Grossman for distributing that far and for breaking into the European beer market!
Tomorrow we are doing a tour of London, focusing on Westminster and then a trip to the Tower of London! Stay tuned!
Today was the first of our big adventures, covering the highlights of the City of London by bus and then Whitehall on foot. London truly is a city of culture and is largely a money hub. There are so many national and international businesses in buildings both new and old. We toured the streets around Parliament, 10 Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives), and Buckingham Palace. This city is rich in history and our tour guide today was extremely knowledgeable about the city, having grown up here, as well as Britain’s rise to power and political evolution.
Probably my favorite part of the day was touring the London Tower and seeing the London Bridge up close. The London Bridge is the equivalent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It is a landmark as well as an integral part of British history. The Tower of London provides not only history but also stunning beauty. The rockwork and steelwork that went into the original parts of the Tower are an architect’s dream.
Our tour guide was very good to point out stories pertaining to certain parts of London and Britain that are believed to be true, but in fact may be nothing more than folklore. Just remember that not everything you hear or read is true.
The architecture of buildings around London, especially the Gothic style churches, are of particular enjoyment to me. Being an American, it is hard to fathom the age of these old buildings and how they stand so bold and brilliant hundreds of years after being built. I am extremely excited to see more of these buildings that have stood the test of time.
On to something that is more political. Our tour guide mentioned the fact that immigration has been a bit of a growing pain for London. This is something that the United States can easily relate to, seeing we have seen an influx of Mexican immigrants over the years. These outsiders tend to settle in the poorer areas of London and continue to do so at a steady pace.
Crash Course in Being an MP
Today was the first of our British Politics learning experience while physically in the UK. After a heavy dose of caffeine we met with former MP Frank Dobson, a member of what you would call the “Old” Labour party. Frank is quite an interesting character, known for his dirty jokes and comical view of American Politics. According to Frank, “The United States has a monarchy with an elected king, whereas Britain has a republic with a hereditary president.” Frank did a fair job of comparing and contrasting the pitfalls of both the American and British governments, as well as making us all laugh.
After Frank took off we went for an extended walk down and around St. Paul’s Cathedral which I have pictures of (to be uploaded at a later date). Here again I must ramble about the beauty in this old architecture and design. No detail is overlooked, and it stands the test of time. Why can’t they build structures like those anymore? In the states, if you find a building that was built in the 1800’s, you’re doing good. That’s a couple hundred years old, compared to the several hundreds of years that these European buildings have stood. Of course there wasn’t much in the way of settlers and people building structures more than a few hundred years ago in the states, but nonetheless, I haven’t seen near as high of quality in any of them by comparison.
Terrorism exists in the UK as well as the United States. Many historical buildings in London have been under attack from terrorist groups as well as during multiple wars over the years. Some of these buildings were able to be saved, whereas others were unfortunately lost and had to be rebuilt.
After gawking at the Cathedral for an hour or so we walked across the Millennium Bridge, which connects both sides of the Thames River. Directly on the other side of the river is the Tate Modern, a modern/abstract art gallery. We spent 3 hours here, but 1 hour would have probably done the trick for me as I’m a realist and struggle with modern/abstract art, no offense to anyone who is a modern/abstract fan. Beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. Many of my classmates found great satisfaction in some of this art and could find meaning behind each of the pieces.
We ended our day with dinner at Tas Pide, a Turkish joint. I opted for the lamb and potato dish. We also had young British lad join us for dinner. Oli had been on exchange at Montana State last year, where we had met through a class we’d taken together- Linda Young’s Politics of Food and Hunger. It was good to see Oli again and I asked him many of the typical American questions. People seem to think that there is a large culture clash between Americans and the British, but Oli stated otherwise. It was good to know that a white straw cowboy hat this time of year isn’t a faux pax as many had believed it to be. So much for what American’s seem to perceive as fashion- The Brits are far more laid back than we think.
British Museum/British Library- The Magna Carta
What a day! We arrived at the British Museum around 10 am after a short walk from our hotel. The Museum is a rather impressive building with a large footprint and a very open floor plan. You can learn all about the early conquistadors and settlers who shaped the early days of Britain as we know it today. Want to learn about the Greeks and Romans, the Mayans or Iranians? They have all of that as well as much, much more. Just about anything you want to learn about the history of ancient cultures can be found here. The museum has some of the largest and most complete collections of historical artifacts to be found anywhere around the world. Among some of the most famous pieces were the actual Rosetta Stone and a rock sculpture from Easter Island! Of course I seem to have a weakness for the medieval times and ancient Greece and Rome, so I spent a large part of my time in these areas. One of the other great collections that the museum had was the Clock Room. This is exactly what it sounds like- a room full of clocks. Clocks and watches of every shape, size and design. I decided yesterday that I need a grandfather clock. ‘Nuff said.
After spending almost 4 hours at the museum, (which is not nearly adequate to cover everything in depth) we made our way over to the British Library, where one of the original 4 Magna Carta documents can be seen in person! The exhibition was so well put together, starting with the history behind King John and how horrible a king he was, and the need for a document that ensured certain human rights were secured and establishing a common rule of law which even the king was subject to. The exhibition flowed rather well, demonstrating the steps taken to create the Magna Carta and the difficulties as well as roadblock along the way. Something that many people often don’t know is that the Magna Carta was not signed by King John, but rather received a seal similar to a notary. The stamp and press were both just inches from my fingertips.
Our timing for this trip was perfect. The original Magna Carta was created in the year 1215, so this year (2015) is the 800 year anniversary! Now of course the first Magna Carta was not a permanent document, but underwent some revisions before it became the piece of history that carved out the fundamental foundation for human rights and law today. My favorite part of the exhibition was (surprise, surprise) getting to see the original Magna Carta document with King John’s seal hanging from the bottom of the document. Similar to seeing firsthand the Constitution of the United States of America when I was in D.C., I was awestruck at the fact that I was physically in the presence of one of the most influential and powerful documents in the entire world. Awestruck.
Parliament and Churchill War Rooms
The White House is pretty cool, but Westminster is badass! Today we made our journey through the Tube (London underground transit) and got off at the Westminster stop, right next door to the home of Britain’s government building compound which includes Parliament and a bunch of other buildings that make up the Westminster Palace.
After getting through security we entered into Westminster Hall, the original building in the palace that was constructed in the year 1099. The wood beams and trusses are truly a work of art, with angels carved into each of the beam ends. Westminster Hall is a massive, open building where many court trials had been fought dating back to the 11th century and more recently where the Queen’s ceremonies are held among other important events. In 1834 a fire broke out in the hall and torched some of the ceiling, requiring that part of the building be reconstructed. Luckily, most of the grand woodwork was able to be saved and reused. Connected to Westminster Hall is the abbey. The abbey was later added onto the side of Westminster Hall and links the hall to the House of Commons and House of Lords. The abbey is full of beautiful murals on the walls as well as stone statues of prior kings and queens. The murals depict scenes representative of important events throughout Britain’s rich history. (Pictures to be uploaded at another time.) After passing through the abbey we made our way into the central lobby. The central lobby is a square room with paintings of the saints from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. On either end are the hallways leading towards the House of Commons or the House of Lords. We were fortunately able to walk into the House of Commons with the green leather benches. It was such a cool feeling to be standing in the room where all of Britain’s law is fabricated!
In the afternoon we ventured (in the rain) down to the War Cabinet Rooms, the building containing the Churchill Museum and the compound where Winston Churchill camped out and commanded in the second World War after being forced out of his home due to a nearby bombing. The museum explained in great depth, many of struggles and wins during Churchill’s career as a Prime Minster as well as his personal life. The tour literally took us underground and through the solid concrete walls (one of which was about 10 feet thick) and down the halls in which Churchill himself once walked.
Well after a late night at a nearby pub-club called O’Neill’s we all hazily made our way to the train station via the Underground, where we boarded a rumbling diesel train west-bound for Windsor-Eton. Windsor-Eton is located in Berkshire, a suburb of London, which is home to the beautiful Windsor Castle. The castle is situated within the Windsor Palace, which is the Queen’s favorite palace and often spends her weekend here. In fact there is a good chance that we were all in the Queen’s presence! The palace began construction in the 11th century after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror and to this day is the longest occupied palace in all of Europe! The castle has undergone many additions and revisions since the days of Henry I, but the central mound has remained largely the same. The footprint of the entire palace is quite extravagant and takes more than a short walk to cover the ground from one end to the other. The interior of the castle is comprised largely of baroque style architecture and design. Many of the ceilings rise over 40 feet high and include extreme detail throughout. I think someday I may have to decorate my own home with knights and horses; how cool would that be?! Unfortunately you are not allowed to take any photos of the interior of the castle, I was able to take many of the exterior, which was of course my favorite part.
London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe and Camden
Today was a freebie day with nothing set in stone on the books. Professor Parker allowed us to split up into groups and explore based on our interests. We put together a solid group of about 6 of us and set out to do some sight-seeing in London. (As if that isn’t what we’ve been doing this entire time) We first headed for the Tube and made our way down to the Waterloo station which spits you out on the South side of the Thames river, nearby the London Eye. The London Eye is a 443 foot tall observational ferris wheel that holds about 15-20 people per pod. For 21.5 pounds you get to wait in line an hour or so for a 30 minute rotation. Let me just say- it’s totally worth it! At the top of the Eye you get the most spectacular view of London! You can see as far as the eye can see in all directions, with London fading off in the distance. The best birds-eye view is that of Westminster Palace and the Parliament building as you are towering well above it. I captured a pile of photos from the Eye and can’t wait to edit them when I get home!
After we left the London Eye, I wanted to check out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We couldn’t get a tour at the time because there was a play going on so I got a few shots of the white stucco and wood beam building with a mossy thatch roof. I will have to catch a play there another time.
From the Globe we re-boarded the Tube and headed North to Camden Town. Camden is what I would describe as the more youthful, far more casual part of London. Camden is known for it’s market, which is ultimately a tourist trap but nonetheless very cool. The girls shopped around and bought dresses while the guys focused on beer and food. It was a win-win for everyone.
We decided to head back towards our hotel and this is where the day got interesting. We caught rush hour traffic and wound up on the wrong train more than once. I would need a map to show you in detail what happened but long story short, we discovered that certain train lines split at multiple stations and that names are key. We wanted to get off at Tottenham Court Rd station which is right next to our hotel, but followed another train line to Tottenham Hale… turns out they are on opposite ends of London and needless to say we spent an additional hour riding the tracks back and forth until we retraced our paths and figured out where we went wrong. I guess growing up in Montana wasn’t the best training for public transit…
Imperial War Museum/ Meeting with Lord Putnam
Whenever you reflect on the history of modern warfare, the technological advances in military intelligence or the impact that it has on humankind- The Imperial War Museum in London probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. However, this 5 story building boasts highly detailed exhibits on everything from WWI to the 9/11 attack on the Twin towers and much in between. The flow of exhibits give you a good look at how warfare has evolved from hand-to-hand duels to the internal threats of suicide bombing terrorists and the motives behind each action. The museum has all sorts of military equipment on display inside the building including multiple versions of tracked tanks, aircraft, rockets and bombs. The exhibits showcase different gear and tactics used by opposing countries as well as allies.
The most detailed and quite gruesome exhibit at the Imperial War Museum was the Holocaust exhibit. To say the least, they spared no details and portrayed this dark and ugly event just as it was. Much media was used including photos, videos, sound clips and first-hand accounts of the things that took place in the concentration camps. I think it is fair to say that this is the most comprehensive look at the Holocaust that I have been exposed to.
In the afternoon we met with Lord Putnam, one of the appointed members of the House of Lords. Lord Putnam explained the relevance and importance of having the House of Lords and why the branch matters. Although the House of Lords does not have much in the way of power compared to the House of Commons, the Lords are certainly there for a reason. First of all, the Lords are selected not by an election of any kind, but appointed based on their diverse backgrounds. Lord Putnam, for example, spent his career in the entertainment industry. In fact, he was the producer of the movie, Chariots of Fire, which you may or may not have seen. If you haven’t, I would recommend it! Second, the Lords are in place to ensure that legislation from the House of Commons does not conflict with current legislation in the UK and abroad. As Lord Putnam put it, the Lords are there to help make legislation “implementable.” The Lords are typically experts in a certain area and approach legislation with a holistic view, moreso than the MP’s do. Lobbying also works differently in the UK. Instead of lobbyists working with members of committees of both the House and the Senate as they do in the United States, lobbyists work only with the House of Lords and typically never with any of the MPs in the Commons.
Although Lord Putnam falls on the futher left end of the political spectrum being an “Old Labour” guy, I found him to be quite brilliant and very well rounded. His opinion of the current education system in the United States was quite an eye opener. He feels that our education system is still in the dark ages, which I agree with to a certain extent. More on this at another date…
God Save the Queen
It’s not that common to hear somebody say that they had the opportunity to see the Queen of England and the Prime Minister all in one day, but luckily I can now claim that! What a day it was for both myself and my group as well as Britain. We made our way down to Westminster and positioned ourselves on the side opposite the masses. Thanks to our meeting the day before with Lord Putnam, we knew where the Queen would stroll in and where we needed to stand to get a good glimpse of her without getting trampled by the crowds. (Although that has never been much of a threat to me) Shortly after 11am the Queen arrived, following the carriage carrying the Mace and the carriage with the Prince inside.
After viewing the Queen’s grand entrance we headed to a nearby pub to watch the Queen’s speech via BBC. The Queen’s speech is where she lays out the objectives for the new government, focusing on everything from education to taxes, daycare to military. From here, the Queen leaves Parliament and heads back to Buckingham Palace. The next couple hours following the Queen’s speech is where members of Parliament prepare their speeches for the afternoon debate. Because the new government is a Conservative majority, the Tories get to make the first couple of opening speeches after being nominated by the Speaker of the Chamber. In case you haven’t ever watched the State Opening Debate, let me tell you that the speakers usually make it a fun session full of jokes and puns and innuendos. Yesterday’s debate was quite entertaining with multiple references to Hillary Clinton.
Here is a link to give you a taste of what the debate was like.
After the opening speeches the leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman, had a chance to speak out against the Conservative victory and instead of making it comical, proceeded to make some personal attacks on Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives as a whole. I got the sense that she is a sore loser, but hey- this is politics!
Today was a simple travel day for us. But I got to experience a whole new form of transportation- trains! We left the Kings Cross station in London at a little after 10 am headed North. Now the UK doesn’t have all that large of a footprint when we are talking about land mass. I believe that the entire UK can fit within the state of Montana! So maybe it isn’t all that surprising when I say that it was a 4.5 hour ride up to Edinburgh, but we surely covered some ground averaging about 110 mph. The scenery along the way was breathtaking and we all welcomed the green country side having spent 9 days within the concrete walls of London! I decided that I could probably stand to live out there somewhere along the way.
Today was a crash course in the layout and history of Edinburgh. We first walked from the hotel over to “Old Town” and down to Holyrood Palace, where the Queen stays on her visits to Edinburgh. Holyrood has so much history behind it, with the original abbey constructed in the 11th century. This palace is less extravagant than Buckingham although still full of many intricate details and many paintings hung throughout. This palace has a long history of battles and struggles to remain intact as it was under attack many times since its first construction. Aside from massacre around the palace, there were also royal murders which took place in the 1500s and “blood stains” on the floor to prove it.
After we finished with our exclusive tour of Holyrood, we met with a local tour guide who took us around Edinburgh the rest of the day on foot. We walked past the new Scottish Parliament building which was quite controversial and ended up costing about 10 times what it was originally estimated to be. We will be spending quite a bit of time at the Scottish Parliament over the next few days so I will speak more on it later. We headed up the main street in Old Town called “The Royal Mile.” The Royal Mile connects Holyrood Palace at the bottom end straight up to the Edinburgh Castle at the top, which was built upon a volcano! Now don’t worry, the volcano went inactive some hundreds of millions of years ago, but left a solid basalt rock formation with steep cliffs on 3 of the 4 sides. This sturdy foundation was perfect for building a castle and the steep walls made it a much more defensive fortress. The Edinburgh Castle consists of several buildings added on as time evolved. The Grand Hall is where parties were held and showcases a beautiful wood beam ceiling with engravings. There are so many cool parts to this castle that I don’t know where to begin! The Edinburgh Castle also boasts the oldest standing structure in Edinburgh, which is a little chapel that was dedicated to Saint Margaret by her son, King David.
After wrapping up our time at the castle we headed back across the train tracks to “New Town” where we had dinner at a little pub named Jeckel and Hyde, aka “The Eerie Pub.” I’ve seen some unique bars before, but this one has quite a few unique features including skeletons, organ pipes and many other things that you’d typically find around Halloween or in a haunted house. The best part is the hidden restroom doors which are behind a wall of books known as the library. Watching people try to figure it out for the first time is cheap entertainment and gave us all a good laugh!
Stirling Castle, Wallace Monument
Today we headed about an hour West/Northwest of Edinburgh to a town named Stirling. We didn’t do this just for giggle either; there is some important history in this area quite relevant to both Scotland and England. In September of 1297, Sir Scott Wallace defeated the English army at the Stirling Bridge. In a nutshell, Wallace and his Scots knew the lay of the land quite well, including the fact that it was mostly a soft, squishy marsh. When the English charged Wallace and his men on horseback, they quickly found that they would sink before reaching the river crossing. Their next option was to cross the Stirling Bridge to get to the other side, however, the bridge was only wide enough for about 2 horses at a time. This created a funnel effect that evented in a slaughter at the other side by Wallace and his men. Wallace was recognized as a clear leader and symbol for the Scots. His legend lives on today through stories as well as the Wallace Monument. The monument was completed in 1869 and you must hike 246 steps up a steep spiral staircase to get to the top. It is well worth the exercise as the 360 degree view is priceless; looking back towards Edinburgh on one side and the Scottish Highlands on the opposite side.
Besides learning about all of this history and checking out the monument, we also toured Stirling Castle so that we could compare it to the other castles we have toured so far. The Stirling Castle dates back to around 1110 when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel there. Over time, the castle has seen and survived many attacks with the last one being in 1746 when the Jacobites made a half-assed attempt to seize the castle. Of course they failed and the castle’s defense proved to be worthy once again. Although the castle is nowadays a tourist trap, it remains the headquarters for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
King Arthur’s Seat/The Scotch Experience
Today was our Edinburgh playday so to speak. We began the day by hiking past the Holyrood Palace and ascending up what is known as King Arthur’s Seat. King Arthur’s Seat is a the tallest peak on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It is the local’s exercise getaway similar to Bozeman’s College “M.” The peak rises 822 feet above the city of Edinburgh and provides 360 degrees of breathtaking views. I realized that I was a little out of shape, but hiking from sea level made the breathing easier and it was quite an enjoyable hike other than the weather which was windy as could be and spitting rain.
In the afternoon a couple of us who were interested in a distillery checked out The Scotch Experience. Because there are no major Scotch distilleries in Edinburgh, this was our best option. You start out with a Disney-like ride in an oversized oak barrel on a track that takes you through an animated tour of the brewing and distilling process. It was a bit cartoonish but covered the basics. After the ride you sit down and learn about the different regions in Scotland where Scotch is made and the characteristics of each region. We then picked the region that appealed to us and got to try a sample of Scotch. Of course I chose the Islay region where they dry the malt over a peat fire giving the Scotch a very prominent smoky taste and finish. All in all, it was worth the hour and 14 pounds. I learned a few things, and this trip is all about education. You all may think that I’m over here playing and whatnot but it is completely business..
This morning we met with Dr. Nicola McEwen at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. McEwen works in the Centre on Constitutional Change and is an expert on the subject of devolution. For those of you who are not familiar with devolution, it is the process of devolving or removing power- in this case from England to Scotland. The Scots recently held a referendum that asked the people of Scotland who were 16 and older whether or not Scotland should be its own independent country with an independent government. The reason for this push is largely because the Scots do not feel as if their values and beliefs are being properly represented in Westminster. Scotland is also a much more liberal country than most of the rest of the United Kingdom. Long story short, the referendum didn’t quite pass but was within a few percent of making it.
Many Scots that we have talked to state that they voted “NO” on the referendum for a few reasons. First of all, it is at Scotland’s advantage to remain a part of the union. Some believe that the Scotland is not yet prepared to govern itself fully, but think it is possible within the coming years. Others believe that Scotland would not be able to afford to become independent of the UK.
If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the people of Scotland, it is that they are some truly patriotic individuals who are proud of their past, their culture and their desire to be properly represented. I can see why- Scotland is a beautiful place with much to offer and is buzzing with culture. Even in day to day interactions with Scots, you can quickly tell that there is some friction between them and the English. This has been the case for hundreds of years and may continue until the two are completely separate states. Only time will tell.
Today we toured the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh. The modern building doesn’t exactly fit in with the neighborhood considering it is hundreds of years newer and looks nothing like the Holyrood Castle right across the street. When the new building was built, it was quite a controversial topic. The first red flag was that it didn’t fit in with other buildings in the area as already mentioned. The second but probably bigger issue was that the building ended up costing about 10 times what it was estimated to in the beginning of the project. It really is a cool looking building with many elegant features symbolizing Scottish culture and history. From both the outside and the inside there are many boat shapes which represents the long relationship between the Scots’ economy and the sea.
In the afternoon we met with Susan Deacon at the University of Edinburgh. Susan had worked in politics much of her life and knew the battles of the game. Susan is a member of the Scottish Labour Party, but tends to be more conservative than the majority of Scots and therefore was able to give us a more conservative perspective on issues such as devolution and representation. Luckily for us, Susan took the time out of her busy day to meet with us and discuss Scottish/British politics one-on-one.
Battle of the Scottish Parties
Today was a real eye opener as far as the political spectrum in Scotland is concerned. While we have come to learn that many of the Scots fall far left of center, there is still a few conservatives to be found in the country! We met with two political leaders at the Scottish Parliament building. In the morning we met with the Scottish Conservative, Annabelle Goldie, and in the afternoon with Linda Fabiani, who belongs to the Scottish National Party.
Annabelle Goldie comes across as a very well calculated, easy going lady. Ms. Goldie was leader of the Scottish Conservatives from 2005 to 2011. She approached and discussed the issue of devolution from a realist’s perspective and backed up her opinions with data and numbers from credible sources. It’s no surprise that she was so well informed as she had been a part of the Smith Commission, which laid out a proposed set of bills that would devolve certain powers to Scotland without the country completely breaking ties with the United Kingdom. Ms. Goldie laid out the reasons why it would be foolish for Scotland to separate from the UK, including finance issues, defense sector (or lack thereof if Scotland were independent) and a host of other reasons.
Linda Fabiani on the other hand, couldn’t have been more opposite. Linda is a die-hard member of the Scottish National Party, which is an extremely liberal party within Scotland. Linda comes across as a feisty, stubborn lady who won’t take no for an answer. Ms. Fabiani, as well as the rest of the Scottish Nationalists, want nothing more than to be completely independent of the United Kingdom and join the European Union. I won’t dispute the fact that the woman is passionate about her country, but there comes a point that pride can really be a hindrance. Ms. Fabiani vehemently argued that she and the rest of the Scottish Nationalists were fighting for what the people of Scotland wanted, yet failed to acknowledge that the referendum last Fall showed less than half of the Scots wanting to be independent of the UK. Ms. Fabiani was very good at one thing- dodging questions- particularly the ones that clashed with her point of view.
At the end of the day, my view on Scottish independence has changed 180 degrees from where it was when I first arrived in the UK. In the beginning of the trip, I was rooting for complete Scottish independence on the grounds that culture and values would be preserved rather than Scotland and the rest of the UK becoming a melting pot of people like the United States seems to be. However, I’ve realized that Scotland benefits from being part of the UK. Social programs are expensive and without Westminster playing a role in Scotland, the country would have a hard time coming up with the funds to support social programs. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, but as it is the Scots are reaping some serious benefits (and money) from England. I do understand that representation in Westminster has been a problem for Scotland, but that is something that can be addressed through efforts such as the Smith Commission and honest politics.
Jumping the Pond
Today was a travel day, getting from Edinburgh to Belfast via plane. Nothing all that eventful happened, so I really don’t have much to report other than the cute flight attendant that gave me a free coffee. Pretty much the only big thing that happened today!
Today was our tour day on a coach with tour guide Dee Morgan. Dee is a brilliant, patriotic Irish lady who grew up in Belfast through thick and thin times. Dee is one of those people who are like a walking encyclopedia with an answer to every question and knows everyone you’d want to know. We started out by driving down the Belfast/West Belfast boundary. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the conflicted little city of Belfast, the area has experienced recent struggles based on religious conflicts. To explain it all in depth would take hours and to be honest I couldn’t mentally absorb all of the history and knowledge that was thrown at me today so I’ll try to sum it up.
There is literally a 40 foot tall wall between Belfast and West Belfast. Roman Catholics on one side and Presbyterians on the other. Pro Unionists on one side and Pro Nationalists on the other. Irish Republican Army (IRA) on one side and non-IRA on the other. The wall was put in place to divide the two sides to reduce conflict between the two. There are still gates on the roads crossing through the wall. These gates are still locked each night and unlocked each morning. Think everything is all peachy in Belfast? Think again. Now I won’t try to tell you that Belfast is a war-torn city by any means, in fact it is quite wonderful here and I am certainly enjoying it. But old grudges die hard.
In the afternoon we met with a couple of the faculty members in the Political Science department at Queen’s University where we learned about the history of United States-Northern Ireland relations and the evolution of devolution in Northern Ireland. (See what I did there?) Here again, the matters are far too complex to convey in any short blog so I’ll leave that for you to research on your own.
Today we took a trip to the Ulster Museum near the city center of Belfast. The museum has a host of historical exhibits including everything from dinosaurs to the universe, but that’s not what we were there for. The exhibit that we were after focused on more recent Northern Ireland politics and the Troubles. The exhibit was essentially a crash course in the tensions, conflict and resolution from 1900 until now. Even having read books about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were certain events that were fuzzy to me and the exhibit displayed timelines with important dates that clarified those events and helped to put them into perspective.
The “Troubles” started in about 1968 and continued through 2007, although some of the locals may argue that the tensions can still be felt today. Zooming out to a birds-eye view, the main effort of the Irish Republican Army was to make Northern Ireland look like a big disaster to deter the United Kingdom from wanting to retain the divided island. The IRA were very much pro-nationalist and wanted Northern Ireland to be separate from the UK, while the Ulsters were the pro-unionists who wanted to remain a part of the UK.
The exhibit had displays showing specific events with exact numbers of people killed such as Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday. Bloody Sunday happened to fall on January, 30; my birthday. It was the day that British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians who were protesting against internment. As conflict and tensions increased, internment had become common practice by the British government. Internment is detainment without a trial. Nearly 2000 people were detained between 1973 and 1975, and held as political prisoners. The British government used interrogation techniques that some considered to be torture and only fueled the fire in the conflict. If you want to know more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, see here.
Giants Causeway/ Tour of Derry-London Derry
At the far North tip of Northern Ireland lies a mystical place named Giant’s Causeway. This Hollywood scene of Octagonal-shaped vertical shoots of basalt rock was shaped by lava flows millions of years ago which cooled from the bottom up, creating an odd looking geologic formation of pillars. That’s what the scientists say at least, but we all know that in fact they were put there by an Irish giant named Finn MacCool. Why did Finn put the stones there? Well on the other side of the Irish Sea was a Scottish giant named Benandonner who lived on the Scottish island known today as Islay; and Benandonner was yelling names and jokes at Finn. Of course, an Irish man can’t let that go without a good fight, so he planted these rock pillars across the stretch to make a bridge to Islay. Finn then crossed the rock bridge with his club in hand, with an intent to kill Benandonner. But when Finn reached the other side and looked over the cliff at Benandonner, he saw a man that stood 150 feet tall and got scared, running back across the basalt rock bridge to his house on the Ireland side. Benandonner chased Finn across and knocked on Finn’s door. Finn’s wife, Oonaugh opened the door and said that Finn was not home, but would be back in a few hours if Benandonner wanted to wait. Benandonner accepted and had tea with Oonaugh, awaiting Finn’s arrival so that Benandonner could kill Finn. While having tea, Benandonner heard a rustle behind a curtain and opened it, only to find a massive baby- Finn’s baby. (Finn was in the baby’s crib disguised as a baby.) Benandonner took one look at the baby and decided that if this was Finn’s baby, then Finn must be a giant among giants! Benandonner did not want to wait around for Finn to get home and burst out of the house to run back across the bridge to Islay, destroying the bridge behind him!
There you have it. All great things in Ireland were put in place by giants. Silly scientists are just talking rubbish.
In the afternoon we met up with local tour guide, Ruairi O’Heara, to get a tour of Derry. Rauiri grew up in Derry and recalled stories about the frightening times as a child living in Derry during the troubles. We walked around the original barricade wall that was built between 1613 and 1615 to guard the town of Derry. Towns grow, and therefore Derry grew outside of the wall to the 100,000 or so people that it is today. Even without physical walls, there was great division of opinions in the late 1960’s all the way through until the turn of the century. Even today, there is still some disputes in this little town. Some people call the town Derry, others call it London-Derry. Bloody Sunday took place in Derry, and in the years to follow many other people were killed as a result of the Troubles.
Museum of Free Derry
Today was our last day in the UK! Hard to believe that I’ll be back in Montana tomorrow. This morning we got up, had breakfast and walked down the street to the Museum of Free Derry. This museum focused mainly on the recent political conflict in Northern Ireland, particularly Bloody Sunday. Mr. Kelley is the name of the kind Irishman who spent about a half hour giving us a rundown on the events that took place on Bloody Sunday. Now this would normally be one of the canned speeches we’ve heard before except for the fact that Mr. Kelley had a personal tie to Bloody Sunday. His brother, Michael Kelley, was killed on Bloody Sunday at the age of 17. Because of this, we all listened intently to what he had to say.
After going through the exhibit, I realized that Mr. Kelley was not just another Irishman who had his life rattled during the Troubles. In fact, it turns out that he is a prominent political figure and has gone to much length to fight the British government in holding the soldiers responsible for wrongful deaths during the Troubles, including his younger brother Michael.