Fool, Britannia!

It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend. I do not own an outrageous garden-party hat to wear in honour of Her Majesty’s 60th year on the throne, but I do have these:

Hoarder confession: I have owned them for years – nay, decades, at this point. Years ago my British mother brought them back from a trip to England—not that she would have ever worn such things herself! (And even more horrifying: each of my three brothers got a pair, too…as if the four of us would actually wear matching socks.) How have they lasted so long? Well, I am not a loud-sock-wearing kind of person, so I have never, ever worn them. Plus, they are polyester. Plus, they got stuck in the bureau behind a drawer for several years and I didn’t rediscover them until I moved a fews years ago and took the drawer out. Tomorrow, I may get up the nerve to put them on my feet. A sartorial sacrifice from the Commonwealth. Pass the Pimms!

 

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Are You There, Nessie?

Here’s something else from my cabinet of curiosities that has a story. It’s my souvenir of Scotland. Not what you’d normally expect…it’s a piece of fossilized bone, given to me by a marine biologist, on the shores of Loch Ness.

dinosaur fossil

Several years ago, on an extended trip to the British Isles, I went up north to Inverness for a few days. While there, I heard about a day trip to Loch Ness offered by a company called Gordon’s Mini Bus Tours, which came with good recommendations. I signed up. I’ve recently learned that, sadly, Gordon died in 2002, after being hit by a car in his home town. This is supremely unfair. While it seems some of Gordon’s colleagues have attempted to carry on his tours, it just wouldn’t be the same without Gordon.

Some things I found out right away:

  • The bus was truly mini, holding a maximum of 10 people, including the driver and our guide, Gordon, in very close quarters.
  • Gordon sounded exactly—and I mean exactly—like Cary Grant, and was charming as heck.
  • Gordon’s tours were one part tourism and one very large part participatory theatre.

Our first stop was a local village, where Gordon handed each of us cryptic notes and sent us off in different directions on a scavenger hunt. I was sent to a bakery, where I exchanged my note for a mystery bag that contained buns. Someone else was sent to the butcher and came back with a bag of sausages. No explanation at the time…was Gordon using us to do his grocery shopping?

But as it was a long drive to Loch Ness, we eventually stopped for lunch. The bus pulled over on the road in the middle of nowhere and Gordon led us down an embankment to a ravine, at the bottom of which was an unlit campfire. While Gordon lit the fire, he told us stories about various Scottish kings and battles and other historical highland goings-on that had happened near this ravine. Lunch was not only the aforementioned sausages and buns…Gordon also boiled a haggis over the fire, and passed around whisky in tin cups. He also handed out sheet music and had us singing songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the full-on Scottish Experience.

By the time we arrived at Loch Ness, we’d learned that Gordon—a.k.a. Dr. Gordon Williamson— had a Ph.D. in marine biology, and had also worked at some point as a kindergarten teacher. One the one hand, he had a solid understanding of the real science that could verify or debunk the possibility of the Loch Ness Monster. On the other hand, he had a childlike sense of wonder and openness to the possibility of magic and myth, not to mention a mischievous sense of humour. He told us about various hoaxes, but also about documented sonar experiments that found very large moving somethings in the lake. Did he believe in Nessie? He left that up to us, but he did provide a few scientific theories that made it at least possible, such as the fact that there are many species around today that are descendants of prehistoric animals that haven’t changed much, like alligators and whales, and that it’s not impossible for the descendents of prehistoric marine creatures to be present today in remote northern waters. It was possible that something large and rare, viewed as a “monster” by those who have seen her, actually existed in the murky depths of Loch Ness.

This piece of fossil that Gordon gave me was, he said, from a dinosaur bone, supposedly found nearby. At the time I didn’t know if it was true or not. He was a good storyteller, and never came clean on whether he truly believed in Nessie or not. It was a fossilized something, anyway. I’ve since found out that Dr. Gordon Williamson did indeed use real plesiosaur fossils in demonstrations. If the Loch Ness Monster is a descendant of a dinosaur, the plesiosaur is one of the more likely candidates, so say the believers.

Gordon put my (possibly plesiosaur) fossil in a plastic tube and wrote my name and “Loch Ness” on it, and also added a little message from Nessie:

On our way back to Inverness, we again stopped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Gordon sent us off up a hill and gave us directions to follow, like “turn left at the big tree at the top of the hill, then down to the rock pile, then look for the cattle gate…” He didn’t come with us, however, and while it was picturesque, we had no idea what we were looking for. We hiked through a cow pasture (with cows), climbed a couple of fences, crossed a large purple and green meadow and slid down a hill before we found ourselves back at the bus. “What was that about?” we asked. In his Cary Grant voice, Gordon said, “Well, you’re in Scotland! You must go traipsing through the heather!”

So my souvenir of Scotland is, maybe, perhaps, possibly, a piece of a Loch Ness Monster. Or not. Either way, it is a unique souvenir of a truly memorable day. Cheers to you, Gordon, wherever you are.