Exterior view of the historic Alamo, Cradle of Texas Liberty,

Remember “Alamo John” McGregor – the Texian Piper

“Texan by birth, Scot by ancestry.” Early on in my quest to discover my Scottish heritage, and now in my dream to make Scotland my home, that phrase has become my mantra. It says very simply who I am. I’ve always been immensely proud of my Texas birthright and this week, (March 2-6) more than any other each year, always brings that pride home. Recent research however have served to further reinforce my growing pride in my Scot heritage, leaving me amazed yet again at how intertwined my birthright and ancestry are.

March 2nd is recognized as Texas Independence Day. On that day in 1836, 59 “Texians” as they styled themselves, gave birth to a dream. They declared Texas, then a province of Mexico, to be a sovereign nation – the Republic of Texas. They did so even as a battle was raging in San Antonio de Bexar at a mission called the Alamo. Four days later, on March 6, some 179 years ago today, the Alamo fell with the loss of the entire garrison, some 180-odd men. (The exact number of Alamo defenders has never been established). Four of those men were Scots.

Exterior view of the historic Alamo, Cradle of Texas Liberty,

Exterior view of the historic Alamo, Cradle of Texas Liberty, just after sunrise.

As a child growing up in Texas you learn quickly of the legends of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Barrett Travis, but I’ll wager few Texans know the names of the four Scots, Richard W. Ballantine, Isaac Robinson, David L. Wilson, and “Alamo John” McGregor who also died that day. Like so many of the Alamo’s defenders, known and unknown, they are revered almost anonymously, their names having slipped slowly and surely into the mists of time.

The Alamo is the most visited tourist destination in Texas with more than 2.5 million visitors annually.

The Alamo is the most visited tourist destination in Texas with more than 2.5 million visitors annually.

Yet time has a way of changing history, or at least our perception and understanding of it. Still far from being a household name like Travis, Bowie, and Crockett, McGregor is becoming the best known of the Scots, as he was the “piper at the Alamo.” He is said to have entertained the troops by engaging in musical duets/duels with Davy Crocket – he on the pipes and Crockett on the fiddle. Presumably McGregor won those melodic skirmishes by the very nature of the volume of the pipes.

It’s been assumed that these musical interludes were meant to lift the spirits of the embattled garrison, and no doubt there is truth in that assumption. However, to position McGregor’s piping in this context alone, as that of an early “morale officer”, is believed by a growing number to disregard the more traditional role of the piper in battle.

Genealogy researcher Barbara Zoe Alexander best explains this in a 1992 paper she authored at the behest of the Clan Gregor Society in Scotland, wherein she writes:

A pity Texas’ historians have never recognized the significance of McGregor’s role on that day; that what appears to them as a quaint whimsy on his part, was really dead serious duty, and he saw that duty through – “to the deid.” What a different story it would have made, if they had realized that the custom of playing the pipes in battle is forever meshed with Scottish tradition, for the piper was to Celtic warfare what the drummer and bugler were in later wars – and more. He was the heartbeat of the Clan, the keeper of their collective spirit, the recorder of their deeds, victories and tragedies. The tunes he played had special meaning to his people, and could rally men and stir their emotions like nothing else. Further, he went into battle expecting to die – and knowing his value to the battle tactics and spirits of his Clansmen, the enemy were generally eager to oblige. Even the soldiers of Mexico, who’d never heard the squall of the bagpipe, instinctively knew this man, McGregor, could not be allowed to live.

In that proud tradition of the Scottish pipers, John McGregor upheld the honor of his ancestors and on March 6, 1836, passed into the ranks of legend.”

In 1992, Alexander and a small group of Texas MacGregors performed a small ceremony honoring their clansman at the Alamo, but still his story remained largely unknown. Having faded into history once, he would do so again…

It was not until over a decade later, in 2004, when the modern Alamo movie was released, that the public (including this Texan) first caught a fleeting glimpse of McGregor perched on the mission wall with his pipes. This was possibly the first public acknowledgement that music other than “El Deguello” may have sounded during the battle. (Even today historians disagree whether Santa Anna’s band actually played “El Deguello” to signal that no quarter would be given.)

 

The 1960 movie has become a cult classic despite glaring historical inaccuracies.

The 1960 movie has become a cult classic despite glaring historical inaccuracies.

 

The 2004 remake of "The Alamo" acknowledged piper John McGregor with a fleeting appearance 1t approximately 40 minutes into the film.

The 2004 remake of “The Alamo” acknowledged piper John McGregor with a fleeting appearance at approximately 40 minutes into the film.

This 3/4 replica of the Alamo was constructed near Bracketville, Texas (west of San Antonio) for the filming of the John Wayne movie. A tourist attraction known as Alamo Village, it has since been used in over 100 other films.

This 3/4 replica of the Alamo was constructed near Brackettville, Texas (west of San Antonio) for the filming of the John Wayne movie. A tourist attraction known as Alamo Village, it has since been used in over 100 other films.

Then, visiting Texas in 2009, Scot journalist Kevin McKenna learned the story of McGregor and his fellow Scots. McKenna questioned why the Scots’ contribution was ignored in a short film shown at the Texas shrine and then wrote an article about their role in the historic battle for “The Observer.” This renewed public attention began a process that culminated a year later in a ceremony at the Alamo on April 8, 2010, to honor the memory and the contribution of McGregor and his fellow Scotsmen.

While the Saltire had long been displayed at the Alamo, as had the flags of all the nations represented by its defenders, never before had there been a memorial to the dead of a single nation. Scotland would be the first to be so honored.

Placed at the Alamo on that day was a plaque hewn out of Caithness stone. It reads, “From the people of Scotland in memory of the four native Scots and the many other defenders of Scots ancestry, who gave their lives at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.”

This plaque was placed at the Alamo in 2010.

This plaque was placed at the Alamo in 2010. Over half of the mission’s defenders are believed to have Scot heritage. Photo credit: San Antonio Express News

I’ve written here before of the many similarities I find shared between Texas and Scotland. The two lands share a history of birth on the battlefield and from those battles emerged heroic characters whose names remain larger than life. John McGregor’s name has not yet reached such lofty heights, but on this day, 6 March 2015, the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo 179 years ago, I will pause to remember John McGregor, Richard W. Ballantine, Isaac Robinson and David L. Wilson. In so doing I am reminded again of the pride I hold in my birthright and my ancestry, and that Texas is, again as Alexander wrote, “more Celtic than most ever knew.”

While Texas’ Independence was declared as the battle at the Alamo was raging (13 Days of Glory), independence was not won until more than a month later, when the Texian army defeated Santa Anna at a place near present day Houston, Texas, called San Jacinto. That battle lasted a mere 18 minutes.”Remember the Alamo” was one of the battle cries of the day.

 

*You can read Alexander’s entire paper on McGregor here, http://thepipesofwar.com/production-blog/?p=183

Sunset on the Clyde from Gavinburn Cottages - January 2015

Gavinburn Cottages – A view for All Seasons

It is rare when traveling to discover a true gem – a place you would wish to return to time and time again. After all, the point of recreational travel is to see new sights, explore new locations, meet new people, experience new cultures. Even with Scotland as my one and only ultimate destination, it is a small, yet vast country when it comes to all of the above – sights, locations, people and culture. So how unique is it that in my two visits to date, I’ve found one of those gems? – Gavinburn Cottages!

Nestled in the Old Kilpatrick Hills and centrally located between Glasgow and scenic Loch Lomond, Gavinburn Cottages are self-catering holiday cottages catering to the tourist market.  As a guest here on two occasions I’ve used the cottages as a base to easily explore much of surrounding Scotland. Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh, Falkirk (the Falkirk Wheel and The Kelpies), Glencoe, the Isle of Bute, and even the coastal village of West Kilbride are all an easy drive for great day trips.

There are a total of five cottages contained in two buildings. The original stone building contains the Auchentoshan, Glengoyne, and Glenmorangie as 4, 2, and 1 bedroom units respectively. This building was originally home to croft workers when the property was part of a much larger farming operation. It has since been remodeled into the existing three luxury units.

Two newer purpose-built cottages, The Macallen and the Glenlivet, are each two bedrooms with open kitchen, dining, and living floor plans, vaulted ceilings and luxury appointments. These new cottages (and my choice as a solo traveler, the Glenmorangie) offer all ground floor accommodation. Each cottage is completely equipped and owners Alex and Leigh-Anne provide a nice welcome hamper of essential foods – bread, eggs, butter, cereal, shortbread, teacakes and even a wee dram as an added touch of courtesy and convenience.

I quite literally stumbled onto Gavinburn by doing my own Internet search when planning my first trip to Scotland in Spring 2014. I quite prefer the self-catering cottage as a travel option to hotels and B&Bs. I enjoy the privacy of having my own place to relax, dine, or work without worry of inconveniencing others or having to bother with hotel staff. Self-catering cottages offer the excitement of travel and the comfort of home! Returning to Gavinburn, even after ten months away felt as if I was returning to my very own flat.

Gavinburn’s location is well suited for all types of visitors – whether your interest is solitude in an idyllic setting or hiking and biking in the outdoors, nightlife in the city or touring Scotland’s castles. All of this is well within your reach by car, train or walking from Gavinburn Cottages.

Black faced sheep graze in the hillside pastures and there’s a couple of Scotland’s iconic shaggy coos in the fields below. The cottages enjoy a garden and bar-b-que area with outdoor patios and seating for relaxing at your own pace. There’s even a swing set for the youngsters.

But in my opinion, what sells Gavinburn is the view! The River Clyde flows from the city of Glasgow to the south, under the Erskine Bridge, past the cottages and out to sea all right before your eyes. With Scotland’s ever changing weather the view can change dramatically not in seasons, or days, or even hours – but in minutes! To sit on a clear evening and watch the lights of Glasgow, Old Kilpatrick and Dumbarton begin to twinkle in the gloaming is a breathtakingly magical experience. It is a view I will never tire of, one I will return to time and time again. It is indeed, a view for all seasons!

 

Sunset on the Clyde from Gavinburn Cottages - January 2015

Sunset on the Clyde from Gavinburn Cottages – January 2015

Gavinburn's view in April 2014

Gavinburn’s view in April 2014

Approaching snow storm in January 2015

Approaching snow storm in January 2015

After the snowfall!

After the snowfall!

 

The original stone building contains 3 cottages.

The original stone building contains 3 cottages including my choice, the Glenmorangie.

IMG_0278

Two newer 2-bedroom units brought the total number of units on the property to five.

Two newer 2-bedroom units brought the total number of units on the property to five.

All of the cottage offer outdoor patios with seating.

All of the cottages offer outdoor patios with seating.

The Neighbors!

The Neighbors!

snow sheep

Gavinburn Cottages are available for rent year-round though rates do vary by seasons. Complete details are available on their website at http://www.gavinburncottages.com.

*this review was neither sought, endorsed, nor compensated by the property

 

Expansive grasslands that seem to undulate to an unseen current.

My Undiscovered Scotland – The Lowlands

Scotland. The mere mention of the name conjures up indelible images of craggy highlands, glistening lochs, great expansive glens, and rocky coastlines of unspoilt beauty. But there is another Scotland, as I’ve only recently come to know. It is one of rich farmland, renewable forests, and wide-open vistas carpeted with gently rolling hills. It is, the Scottish Lowlands – my Undiscovered Scotland!

Wikipedia and other sources will define the Scottish Lowlands as anything not called the Highlands (or the Islands), generally the area south of the Highland Boundary Fault. For me, what I term the “lowlands” encompasses many more well known regions – the Central Belt, the Lothians, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and the Borders.

On my prior visit to Scotland I concentrated on the Highlands and Isle of Skye. On my current visit though I’ve been out exploring the Lowlands, the lands of my ancestry. My 8th great grandfather, Robert Gabriel Barnhill, was christened in 1627 in Glasgow. Another ancestor, Alexander Breckenridge, is believed to have come from the Ayrshire or Lanarkshire areas before moving north into the Highlands (Breadalbane), under the influence of the Campbells.

Being susceptible to those iconic tourist images of Scotland myself, I was quite shocked by the gently rolling terrain of the Lowlands – finding it much like parts of the US Midwest where I’ve traveled extensively. Included in this region is the vast valley of the River Clyde, from its headwaters to where it reaches for the sea. The Lowlands are by far the most populous part of Scotland and contain the major cities of Glasgow to the west, and Edinburgh to the east. Based where I was, outside the small community of Forth, near Lanark, it was an easy drive to either the east or west coasts, less than 2 hours either way.

If the topography here is vastly different from the Scotland most would picture in their minds, there are also similarities – abbey ruins, castles, and history at every turn – but once outside of the cities it is, my opinion only, a much lesser known and under appreciated part of the country.

Here then are some of my favorite pictures from my brief explorations of what for me was a largely undiscovered part of Scotland.

A hypnotic wee country lane that could be almost anyway mid-America but is the A71 bear Peebles, Scotland

A wee hypnotic country lane that could be almost anywhere mid-America but is the A72 near Peebles, Scotland.

The gently rolling Midlothian countryside.

The gently rolling Midlothian countryside.

A recently replanted area of renewable forest.

A recently replanted area of renewable forest.

Expansive grasslands that seem to undulate to an unseen current.

Expansive grasslands that seem to undulate to an unseen current.

A first glimpse of he North Sea near Eyemouth in SE Scotland.

A first glimpse of the North Sea near Eyemouth in SE Scotland.

Coming into port - Eyemouth Harbor entrance.

Coming into port – Eyemouth Harbor entrance.

A windfarm in south Lanarkshire.

A windfarm in Lanarkshire.

A bridge across the river Clyde.

A bridge across the river Clyde.

The ruins of Raguels Abbey.

The ruins of Crossraguel Abbey.

Architecture more typically envisioned when imagining Scotland.

Architecture more typically envisioned when imagining Scotland.

Sunset at Alisa Craig

Sunset at Alisa Craig on Scotland’s west coast near Turnberry.

A golfing resort, found throughout Scotland.

A golfing resort.

Forget Glasgow and Edinburgh and explore the numerous small towns, villages and communities that dot the Lowlands.

Forget Glasgow and Edinburgh and explore the numerous small towns, villages and communities that dot the Lowlands.

The Lowlands offer a surprise around every corner, like this Llama!

The Lowlands offer a surprise around every corner, there are sheep, cattle and yes, even Llamas!

 

 

 

 

 

2014 – My Year of Homecoming

2014 was declared a “Year of Homecoming” in Scotland, a tourism branding designed to encourage Scots to celebrate their homeland, for those with Scot ancestry to visit and explore their heritage, and for others to simply visit and discover all that Scotland has to offer. This was the second such “Year of Homecoming”, with 2009 the first and being hugely successful; an estimated 95,000 tourists visits influenced generating nearly an additional £54-million in tourism revenue. With Scotland hosting global special events – the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Ryder Cup, annual Scot events like the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and a multitude of regional festivals like the Speyside Whisky Festival, the Forth Bridges Festival, and the year-ending Hogmanay celebrations, there was something for almost everyone on offer. Coupled with an historic public referendum on Independence, 2014 promised to be a year when the global spotlight would shine on Scotland.

While I am one of the estimated 50-million Scot Diaspora spread around the world and targeted by the “Year of Homecoming” campaign, no marketing campaign was necessary for me to find my way home.  I’d already fallen in love with Scotland, begun exploring my Scot ancestry, and started planning my visit months before being aware of any official “Homecoming”. Before year’s end I visited Scotland not once, but twice, and in doing so confirmed in my heart and mind that Scotland is my spiritual home and the place I hope to someday call my physical home.

Scotland’s tourism marketers coined a hashtag for use by Scots and visitors alike on social media to showcase their experiences. The hashtag? #brilliantmoments

Following is a sampling of the #brilliantmoments from my “Year of Homecoming.”

Early in planning my trip I sought out online and social media resources in Scotland and was led to a monthly Twitterchat called #Scotlandhour. Taking part regularly, I made multiple contacts that soon became online friends that aided my planning. I have and will continue to meet many of those friends in person.

scotlandhour-feature

 

Seeking to expand my Scottish contacts in the States I joined organizations like the American Scottish Foundation and found the Scottish Society of the Louisiana Highlands right in my own backyard. I attended my first Burns’ Supper and assisted with our own Tartan Day Festival, designing this poster.

Given my work in digital design and desktop publishing I was thrilled to design the festival's program and poster.

In late April I finally arrived in the land that had occupied my every thought for most of the previous year. I began a 3-week visit staying in the Old Kilpatrick Hills overlooking the Clyde while exploring nearby locations and attractions.

For my second week I moved to what I call my Scottish “ground zero”, Glenbogle aka Ardverikie Estate in the Highlands. Strange as it may seem my love of Scotland was sparked by the television show “Monarch of the Glen” filmed on the estate and in the surrounding area. Here is why I had come to Scotland.

Finally I ventured to the Isle of Skye; to see for myself its nearly indescribable beauty, and to take delivery of a bespoke piece of jewellery and meet the Jeweller, Nick Shone, who helped me design to the bracelet to commemorate my visit.

 

 

T

While in Scotland my ancestral ties to the land were strengthened when my cousin, our family genealogist, confirmed my paternal 8th Great Grandfather was one Robert Gabriel Barnhill, born Glasgow 1627.

I returned to the States and my work as editor of BALLOONING magazine but with a heavy heart. Even before departure I had begun exploring options for immigrating to Scotland. My visit had convinced me I longed to make Scotland my home.

During my trip I’d met and made many friends. To thank them and to commemorate my journey I produced a 60-page photo book filled with those #brilliantmoments.

books

In July, a ballooning trip to Colorado served only to heighten my longing to return to Scotland as everywhere I turned I found striking comparisons to sights I’d seen there.

colorado

In October I marked a career milestone – 25 years as an emcee at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with my longtime partner there, Tom Rutherford. Even so, my heart was still in Scotland and the Saltire was proudly flying from our announcing tower.

 

A few weeks later I would bring my balloon flying career to an end in Natchez, MS – selling my balloon and equipment to fully focus on making a move to Scotland.

natchez

With the year coming to an end I was already planning an extended return to Scotland in 2015 to further my immigration efforts. Quite coincidentally a house sitting opportunity arose and I found myself back in Scotland even sooner – in time to celebrate the holidays – Christmas and Hogmanay. For that there was nowhere else to be but Edinburgh!

And so my Year of Homecoming ended appropriately with me at home, in Scotland. I’ve still not achieved the immigration I desire and in a few weeks time I’ll have to return to the States, no doubt again with a very heavy heart. But for me, 2014 was a year filled with #brilliantmoments!

 

 

 

 

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers on stage at Haddington's Corn Exchange.

A Red Hot December’s Eve

Outside the temperature was below freezing. It had been that way most of the day. Inside, at the Haddington Corn Exchange, it seemed near sweltering, and why not? The Red Hot Chilli Pipers were about to take the stage and I was there enjoy the show.

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers on stage at Haddington's Corn Exchange.

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers on stage at Haddington’s Corn Exchange.

I became a fan of this band almost as soon as I began exploring my Scottish family roots, nigh onto two years ago. As a bass player in a few rock ‘n roll “garage bands” in my youth, and a trombonist/musician through university, music has always held a keen interest for me. Exploring my Scot roots obviously led me to the music of Scotland and the bagpipes.

A recurring theme in my quest to make Scotland my home has been networking and making friends on Twitter, then cementing those relationships in-person (where possible) once in Scotland. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers would be no exception, thanks to a little help from the band. I began by watching most of their online YouTube videos, purchased their new live DVD, caught as many BBC or other TV appearances as I could, and followed band members like piper Dougie McCance and bassist Alan McGeoch on Twitter.

RHCP bassist Alan McGeogh - one of the first band members I struck up an acquaintance with on Twitter.

RHCP bassist Alan McGeoch – the first band member I struck up an acquaintance with on Twitter.

As a fan I’ve wanted to see the band for some time but was not able to do so on my earlier trip to Scotland, nor during their summer tour of the US. This time, one of their final concerts for 2014 (in Haddington) fit perfectly into my holiday visit so I snapped up a pair of tickets. (I could never have imagined I’d also win a “Meet & Greet” with the band here in Scotland. Thanks to keyboardist Gary O’Hagan for plucking my name out of the hat!)

RHCP burst onto the scene in 2002 when they won the British talent show “When Will I Be Famous?” Now at the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I think TV, especially in the States, is overrun with amateur hours – The Voice, The X-Factor, Got Talent and so on. But to their credit, these shows do occasionally turn up a true superstar. In 2004 the RHCP were an opening act at Scotland’s outdoor music extravaganza ‘T in the Park’ , now they’re headliners! They’ve released 5 albums, toured the world, and reached number two on Amazon.com’s US music chart.

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers in action!

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers in action!

Scottish dancers add another element to the Chilli Pipers live shows.

Scottish dancers add another element to the Chilli Pipers’ live shows.

The RHCP are not a 70’s garage band. Their musicianship is superb. The band boasts four degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and snare drummer Steven Graham is an 8-time World Champion. The band’s pipers have featured on movie soundtracks including “Brave”, “Frozen”, and “How to Train Your Dragon.”

The band is a combination of the usual guitars, keyboards, drums, a horn section and, bagpipes. The music of the Chilli Pipers is a unique styling called “bagrock”; rock ‘n roll covers with bagpipes, not vocals, taking the lead. It’s a shocking combination for some but don’t judge until you’ve given it a listen.

Here’s the band’s own YouTube video of my favorite of their tracks – Don’t Stop Believing. If this is your first sampling of bagrock – hang on!!

 

Before we go further, yes, the band is often confused with the US band Red Hot Chili Peppers, and one of their albums, “Music for the Kilted Generation” is a parody of “Music for the Jilted Generation” by The Prodigy. With all their other talents the band has a typically Scottish self-efacing sense of humor!

You might mistake their name but there is no mistaking the uniforms; black and red with kilts and sporans.

You might mistake their name but there is no mistaking the uniforms; black and red with kilts and sporans. Of course the bagpipes could give it away.

The venue for the show I would see, the Haddington Corn Exchange, is small and intimate with a capacity of only 900. A polite and orderly crowd filed in and the band took the stage precisely as scheduled at 19:30 (7:30p). I thought I knew their sound but nothing I’d experienced online could have prepared me for the show I was about to see and hear. I should not have been surprised though as the band was named the Scottish “Live Act of the Year” in 2007 and 2010.

Alan McGeoch’s thumping bass could be felt through the floorboards right through to the soles of your feet. That is when the crowd wasn’t doing ‘jumping jacks’ with the band or otherwise just dancing a jig. Gary O’Hagan’s keyboards added an often mellow, melodic flow while guitars wailed and the pipes, well the pipes simply soared above it all.

The show was a mix of covers of rock anthems like  – Wake Me Up, Smoke on the Water, We Will Rock You, and of course, Don’t Stop Believing, with Scottish favorites, a jig or two and classics mixed in. The band’s staging and showmanship was superb as they both enthralled and enthused the audience with choreography, comedy, and a rousing onstage persona that one reviewer called “sexy and sassy!” And of course, there are the kilts!

The Pipers' horn section added some brass to their on stage sass and left me wanting a cover from Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears.

The Pipers’ horn section added some brass to their on stage sass and left me wanting a cover from one of my other favorite groups, Chicago. How ’bout it guys?

A touching moment in the show came when the band dedicated their rendition of Amazing Grace to the victims, families and friends of the terrible tragedy when a bin lorry crashed into a crowd of holiday shoppers a week earlier in Glasgow. Here’s a sound file of that song from the show…

 

Another highlight came when the local pipe band joined the Chilli Pipers for the Scottish classic “Highland Cathedral.”

Here’s my video of a ciip from that number – sadly the sound is a wee bit distorted as I was standing directly in front of the speaker tower…

And another video clip from further back to help get your Scottish jig on…

 

A Red Hot Chilli Pipers show is suitable for all ages - and in Scotland it's never too early to introduce a fan to bagrock! (Note the young girl in her Da's arms in center of photo).

A Red Hot Chilli Pipers show is suitable for all ages – and in Scotland it’s never too early to introduce a fan to bagrock! (Note the young girl in her Da’s arms in center of photo).

A band tradition is a crowd selfie at the end of each performance - I'm in that shot somewhere.

A band tradition is a crowd selfie at the end of each performance – I’m in that shot somewhere. Check out their Facebook page for more.

It ended all too soon.

The band had run a contest on Twitter and Facebook for fans to win a “Meet and Greet” at the show and yes, I entered. Word that I’d won reached me about an hour before the appointed opportunity. As I’m staying about 40 miles west of Haddington, driving that distance – alone, at night, in a part of Scotland I’d never seen, on the other side of the road and car than I’m familiar with – well I arrived just a tad late. Still the group’s road manager met me and assured me I’d get to say hello after the show.

True to his word, keyboardist Gary O’Hagan – who had selected my name in the random drawing, and bassist Alan McGeoch both came out to say hello a have a chat. As an event emcee in the States I’ve witnessed many a back stage pre-show meet and greet. That the guys took such time to visit after the gig showed an amazing compassion for their fans. Meanwhile other members of the band joined the departing audience to sign autographs and pose for fan selfies.

I’d liked to have brought along my new vintage red Gibson bass for Alan to sign but, what with airline baggage restrictions, I settled instead for he and Gary’s autographs on a Chilli Piper’s t-shirt.

A special personal souvenir from a musical evening in Scotland.

A special personal souvenir from a musical evening in Scotland.

And of course, there was one final memory to be made. I’d come all the way from Texas with hopes of meeting a fellow bass player and, thanks to the luck of the draw, my hopes were realized. Thanks Alan – you guys are a class act. I look forward to seeing you again soon, on either side of the pond.

A fan selfie with bassist and new mate Alan McGeoch

A fan selfie with bassist and new mate Alan McGeoch

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are just that – Red Hot!! When will you feel the Chilli’s heat?

Christmas in Edinburgh is so detailed you need a program to find your way!

Christmas in Edinburgh

Two Homecomings in one year! Who would have thought it? Certainly not I. Yet when the opportunity for a return to Scotland became apparent I jumped at the chance.

In my earlier visit this year I spent a week in Glasgow, a week in the Highlands, and a week on the Isle of Skye. My plans to spend a day in Edinburgh were interrupted by foul – well, Scottish weather. And while this second Homecoming would see me in Scotland for a month, there was no doubt seeing Edinburgh would be my top priority.

Scotland’s capital city is a top tourist destination at any time of the year, but at Christmas (and Hogmanay) the city is transformed into a winter wonderland with rides and attractions, shows, and two amazing Christmas markets. For me the goals were – in no particular order – to take in a bit of panto, the markets, and to see the Scottish production of the award winning “Wicked”.  Being alone in Scotland, Christmas Day would be anticlimactic (having celebrated earlier with family in Texas).

Christmas in Edinburgh is so detailed you need a program to find your way!

Christmas in Edinburgh is so extensive you need a program to find your way!


For Panto I selected the Edinburgh Dungeon – named Scotland’s Best Visitor/Tourist Attraction for 2014. While photos are prohibited, the experience did not disappoint. The Dungeon is an entertaining look back at Scotland’s often gory and macabre history. (Hint: It may be too intense for some children). Besides panto the adventure includes two thrill rides including your chance to experience the hangman’s noose up close and personal! I’ll say no more!

After the show there was time to pop across the street into the Doric pub for a seasonal mull wine and a haggis, neeps and tatties pie before going on to the Christmas markets.

With all the city has to offer The Scottish Entertainment Award's Top Honor

With all the city has to offer The Scottish Entertainment Award’s Top Honor

Joining in for the Panto fun!

Joining in for the Panto fun!

The Doric Pub across from the Dungeon offered a light seasonal fare lunch!

The Doric Pub across from the Dungeon offered a light seasonal fare lunch!

From the Dungeon it’s a short walk past The Scotsman, under North Bridge, to Waverley Station where you can easily cut through to Princes Street and the European Market.

There are two distinct markets set up for the holiday – the European and the Scottish. I chose to tour the European market as it was nearest the Dungeon and featured the major ride attractions in the form of the Big Wheel, the Star Flyer, and the double-decker carousel plus Santa Land!

The glorious double decker carousel is a favorite of all ages.

The glorious double decker carousel is a favorite of all ages.

The Star Flyer is a sky high thrill ride rivaling the Scott Monument for top billing.

The Star Flyer is a sky high thrill ride rivaling the Scott Monument for top billing.

The Big Wheel offers unmatched aerial views of Edinburgh's Christmas markets.

The Big Wheel offers unmatched aerial views of Edinburgh’s Christmas markets.

The markets are just that – a seemingly entire village of stall after stall after stall offering a shopping mall’s worth of products (both handmade and commercial) and treats of every description. A favorite for me was a white chocolate crepe! In Santa Land you’ll find Santa’s Train and a Christmas tree maze to delight young and old alike. Both markets also offer ice skating rinks for the more adventurous!

Both the european and Scottish Markets feature a huge variety of food and merchandise for the holiday shopper!

Both the European and Scottish Markets feature a huge variety of food and merchandise for the holiday shopper!

Marzipan anyone?

Marzipan anyone?

Enjoying a white chocolate crepe  gave me the opportunity to sit and people watch for a while.

Enjoying a white chocolate crepe gave me the opportunity to sit and people watch for a while.

These vases and bowls appeared commercially made at first but are actually hand turned and finely lacquered.

These vases and bowls appeared commercially made at first but are actually hand turned and finely lacquered.

An evening at the markets is more than entertaining. Sit and just listen for a while and you’ll hear languages from all around the world. If people watching were a sport, this would be the all-star game! And the culinary delights available are many and delicious. The crowd was dense yet very polite and friendly. Edinburgh’s Christmas Markets are the epitome of the season’s “hustle and bustle.”

Looking down on Santa Land geared largely to the children.

Looking down on Santa Land geared largely to the children.

The European Market is set in the Princes Street Gardens - including the Christmas Tree Maze.

The European Market is set in the Princes Street Gardens – including the Christmas Tree Maze.

My final seasonal escape would be to the land of Oz via the Scottish production of “Wicked”. I’d been on the trail of “Wicked” for some time in the States but never seemed to be in the right city at the right time. I spent many a weekend with the “Wicked” hot air balloon team – even arranging for my niece Courtney King to crew for the balloon at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this past October – where the show closed on the Friday before Balloon Fiesta opened – a consequence of timing I discovered too late to see the show.

Edinburgh’s 3,000 seat Playhouse theatre is the venue for “Wicked” and its emerald green frontage, plus the properly Scottish weather of wind, rain, and cold combined to set the stage for this remarkable play. Again, photos and recordings are of course prohibited but the Playhouse was packed full, on Christmas Eve. I shared a few extra “Wicked” balloon pins I’d brought over from the States. I gave one to a young girl sitting beside me with her Mum. She was celebrating her 12th birthday – and each year her present is going to see a musical. Though she professed hopes of becoming either a dentist, or a vet, I won’t be surprised to see her competing for a Tony someday!

Who needs a yellow brick road? Just look for the emerald neon and you'll find Edinburgh's Playhouse!

Who needs a yellow brick road? Just look for the emerald neon and you’ll find Edinburgh’s Playhouse!

Even on Christmas Eve a full house crowd filed in...

Even on Christmas Eve a full house crowd filed in…

Before Edinburgh, hanging with my niece Courtney King (green tutu) and the Wicked Balloon Team was as close as I could get to the stage production.

Before Edinburgh, hanging with my niece Courtney King (green tutu) and the Wicked Balloon Team in Albuquerque, New Mexico was as close as I could get to the stage production.

The Wicked Balloon Team tours the USA promoting the show.

The Wicked Balloon Team tours the USA promoting the show.

A wicked souvenir you can't find in Scotland, but two lucky girls left the theatre with one.

A wicked souvenir you can’t find in Scotland, but two lucky girls left the theatre with one.

And thus my Christmas in Edinburgh was complete. A tip of my stocking cap to also the staff at the Macdonald Holyrood hotel. Knowing their guests were likely away from friends and family for a holiday that is all about the same, they’ve made every effort to bring the magic of the holiday to us – complete with a holiday cinema, a scrumptious Christmas lunch complete with party hats and Christmas crackers, and, of course, a visit from Santa Claus.

Christmas in Edinburgh is magic!

 

 

Lemonade for the Holidays

“When given lemons, make lemonade.” How many times have we all heard that? It may be cliché but there is truth in those words. In pursuit of my goal to immigrate to Scotland I’ve been given plenty of lemons these past months. My ancestry (8th great grandfather born in Glasgow in 1627) is too far removed. Other tiers within the UK immigration laws are simply unattainable – for example, investing £200,000 pounds to start a new business (entrepreneur). Likewise I’m no star athlete or member of an entertainment troupe.

Halve 6 lemons and squeeze to make 1 cup of juice…

UK immigration laws simply do not, or I should say no longer allow for the immigration of the self-employed. At one time, several years ago, a self-employed writer (me), artist, or musician could immigrate rather easily, but that option has been removed from the books.

Add 1 cup of sugar…

My work requires only a laptop and reliable wifi so with today’s technology I can do my job easily from anywhere in the world, location is unimportant. Although I can meet all the requirements, including NOT using state supplied services; my only route to making Scotland my home is to obtain a job offer from a Scottish employer who must then sponsor me. Therefore, I had hoped to “live” in Scotland for the first half of 2015 and seek the required employment. Those plans were waylaid however when I learned I would not be allowed to work and support myself while in the UK.

Add 6 cups cold water and stir until sugar dissolves and contents are well blended…

Prior to this disheartening news I had begun exploring house sitting as a cost-cutting measure. To my surprise I was presented with a magical opportunity to holiday in Scotland, a two week house-sitting in Lanark complete with caring for Coco, a beautiful 5-month old kitten, while her owners holiday in Russia. A couple of Skype conversations later and voila! Lemonade!

Pour into a tall glass, add ice, enjoy!

As the house sitting begins the 27th of December, I plan to arrive early and spend Christmas in Edinburgh and return to the city a few days later for Hogmanay. Beautiful to behold at any time of year, Scotland’s capital city becomes a metropolitan winter wonderland for the season. Holiday revelers can enjoy rides on a towering Ferris wheel, an old-fashioned carousel and even Santa’s train. The adventurous can get lost in a Christmas tree maze or take a spin round the city centre ice-skating rink. A European Market stretches from the Mound, along East Princes Street Gardens Terrace and around the Scott Monument in the very heart of the city. The open-air stalls offer unique arts and crafts gifts and seasonal refreshments; mull wine and mince pies, chocolates, and more! Yum!

Days later, as the New Year (Hogmanay) approaches, multiple venues offer rocking and rollicking entertainment. Hogmanay celebrations begin on 30 December. The city is bathed in the glow of a torchlight procession to Calton Hill. Led by pipes and drums, the event drew 35,000 people last year. On the 31st there is the Hogmanay street party. Bands and DJ’s entertain partygoers in anticipation of the climactic fireworks display above Edinburgh Castle and the joyous singing of the Scottish classic “Auld Lange Syne.”

It promises to be a holiday unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m now a whirlwind of travel planning – selecting flights, choosing an Edinburgh hotel for Christmas, seeking self-catering accommodation for the week after Coco’s family returns home, and contacting friends made on my earlier visit this year to schedule holiday reunions.

My long-term goal remains unchanged – to make Scotland my home. Clearly there is still much work to be done. For now, I look forward to a tall, invigorating glass of lemonade! I hope you’ll join me.

Slainté Mhath!

Edinburgh's city centre winter wonderland

Edinburgh’s city centre winter wonderland By Ally Crockford (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Torchlight procession to Calton Hill

Torchlight procession to Calton Hill By photojenni [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh's Hogmanay Fireworks

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Fireworks By Robbie Shade (Fireworks over Edinburgh) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons