Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 3: Edinburg

After our deeply moving ceremony in the Ring of Brodgar, I expected that we would have a long trip back to Edinburgh, play tourist for a little, and leave. Instead we had the most spectacular time in Edinburgh, a gem of a city.

The morning we left the Orkneys we got up at 5 to drive our car to town and take a ferry to the mainland. Then we took a cab to the train station and headed off on the train for our 7 hour ride to Edinburgh. Three trains later and a few hours early due to a happy connection we emerged.

Deb had booked us a room at 94DR, a truly wonderful B&B run by Paul and John. The inimitable Paul and John were just one of many great discoveries we made in this beautiful city.

Introduction to Edinburgh

We got in about 7pm and so had time to have a real dinner. Paul worked some magic – something which he seems to have no end of – and got us a table at the Outsider. Now generally the food in the Highlands and Orkneys was fine, but with the exception of Kylesku, it wasn’t anything noteworthy. And we had prepared ourselves for that. This first night in Edinburgh, though, we had a sumptuous dinner of lamb, steak and venison. And yet, it was not even the best dinner we had there.

The next morning we got up and went to breakfast. Paul and John told us that they expected that we had had enough of the “traditional Scottish breakfast” – eggs, bacon, Lorne sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato, and mushrooms (and sometimes haggis). Indeed, we pretty much had that in every place we stayed.

Instead, they made us the most amazing shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish with eggs, tomatoes, peppers and onions. After that, we went on a 7 hour hike around the city and surrounding hills. It was a mix of urban, historic, and even rugged, hilly terrain.

Hiking the Hills

Edinburgh had a history of volcanic and glacier activity in the distant past and you could see in the surrounding “hills” which were part of the city.

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The Cliffs Above Edinburgh

We headed out first on a long hike up a few thousand feet to Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. From there, we had a 360 degree view of the city and its surrounds. We could see the Edinburgh castle, Scott Memorial, Firth of Forth (a “bay”), the “old town”, the “new town”, the downtown and everything else.

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The “Road” to Arthur’s Seat

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A Partial Panorama of Edinburgh

We hiked among the cliffs and hills for a few hours. It was an amazing opportunity to capture photos and we occasionally spotted a bit of ancient history among these hills.

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A Hiking Friend

Edinburgh - Holyrood Park

Tower Ruin

The Old and the Older Still

We came down from the hills to one of the more diverse cities we’ve experienced. It’s actually a second Scottish UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are several different centuries of buildings and the Scots take as incredible care of them as they do their history. We haven’t seen a city that is as good at blending the past with the modern. And it seems that there is an old castle, manor house or church on every street.

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Ancient and Modern

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One of Many Incredible Churches

As we literally circumnavigated the city, we also found ourselves circumnavigating the impressive Edinburgh Castle, sometimes closely and sometimes far away. It is built on a cliff and is impregnable from at least two-thirds of its circumference.

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The Imposing Edinburgh Castle

Along the way, we found many nuggets, like the Hanging Bat, a brew pub that makes (and imports) some of the best brews we’ve had, and that’s saying a lot for us Pacific Northwesterners.

Another favorite was Princess Street Gardens. It was fun watching kids come out after school in their uniforms, playing in the grass. Of course, there were statues everywhere.

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Statue and Friend

We rounded the castle and came to a must-see attraction: the Scott Monument – a memorial to the legendary Sir Walter Scott. It’s a most amazing piece of Gothic architecture, though as Deb says, “It needs a bath!”

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The Scott Monument

We climbed 371 steps to the top, up spiral stairs that got narrower and smaller. It is not for the claustrophobic. By the time we got to the top, it was more like a tight cave passage. There was no room to pass and the doorway at the top was narrower than my shoulders (and I’m only 5’7”).

It was adorned with a large number of “gargoyle-like” ornaments both inside and around the outside. Many of these were of dogs and Deb found a greyhound friend among them.

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Deb and Friend

For the end of our hike we headed to Calton Hill. We saw his rather eclectic assortment of structures when we first arrived in Edinburgh and wanted to check it out more closely. It has an Egyptian Obelisk, a Parthenon-style structure, an Observatory, and a Tower among its many features.

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Calton Hill from the Train Station

Interestingly, John (of 94DR) told us that Calton Hill is viewed as #Edinburgh’sDisgrace since they evidently had much grander plans for the site but ran out of money. While some of the buildings were fascinating, it was rather an amalgam of incongruous things.

Finally we headed off to a real treat for dinner – the Gardener’s Cottage. Once again, Paul had worked his magic and was able to get a seating at this incredible restaurant experience. Gardener’s Cottage serves 7 course meal of amazing dishes, each created with locally grown or farmed ingredients. Among the tasty dishes we had tempura scallops, hedgehog mushrooms and creamed corn with sourdough bread, razor clams (or “spoots”) with fresh greens and the most amazing apple sorbet.

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Partridge at the Gardener’s Cottage

Dinner was a truly wonderful cap to our Edinburgh experience. We didn’t really expect much from Edinburgh beyond it being a large city. That’s generally been our experience in other large, commercial, metropolitan cities. And indeed there was a long street with the typical high-end shopping. But there was so much more to Edinburgh as we learned. Had we known, we would have stayed longer. You can bet we will next time! A big thank to our “hosts” – Paul and John. Thank you for pointing us to some memorable experiences. Pura Vida.

More Photos

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A Man “Out Standing” in his Field (sorry – I had to do that!)

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Having Fun

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A Surreal Panorama

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Pollock Hall

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Old Buildings

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A Unicorn at the Queen’s Palace (in Scotland)

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A Imposing Silhouette of Edinburgh Castle

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A Gargoyle on the Scott Memorial

Calton Hill

The Observatory Cottage at Calton Hill

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Deb Against a Painted Backdrop (not really🙂 )

Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 2: The Ceremony

When we last left our intrepid adventurers after discovering the rather sad origins of the Cargile clan, they were headed off to the far north in the Orkney Islands – land of Neolithic Scots, Vikings and druids – to renew their vows on their twentieth anniversary.

We flew from Inverness into Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. These islands are as beautiful as they are cold and rugged. The Orkneys are north of Scotland, roughly at the same latitude as southern Alaska. In August you can even see the northern lights. They also have an incredible history and are a rich location for archeologists.

As the “Orcadians” will tell you, if you scratch the surface in the Orkneys, they “bleed” archeology. It seems true. There are an average of about 11 archeological sites per square mile (yes, they measure in miles!). That’s 2000 just on the main island according to one of the historians.

We visited many of the sites and they are incredibly old. The Norsemen (Vikings) visited the islands and settled part of it. The islands were actually a wedding gift from the King of Norway to the King of Scotland in the past. The folks there still see themselves as more Viking in many way than Scottish in fact.

Truly Ancient Ruins

We stayed at the Standing Stones Hotel, which was very close to the Standing Stones of Stenness. This first, simple, stone circle had 12 stones arranged in a circle and is about 5000 years old. Most of the sites we saw were about as old. That’s far older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. The stones, along with the other areas I describe below are one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland.

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The Standing Stones of Stenness (and Deb)

The Standing Stones were really a center point for most of the major archeological sites. Form there you could see the Ring of Brodgar (where we had our ceremony), several other individual standing stones, several other stone circles, Maes Howe, a burial mound with the largest collection of Viking runes, and several other ancient villages and sites. And those were the ones that were unearthed. There were many others that people know of there but had not been unearthed yet.

At the hotel, we saw a display by a local jeweler, Aurora jewelers, and unexpectedly saw some rings we instantly liked. So, we went off to find the jeweler’s studio. The rings we saw were designed and made locally in the Orkney’s and they had a series of runes around them which translated to “health and happiness.” In this serendipitous moment we decided to get new wedding rings (Again! Our first time was 10 years ago in Las Vegas). These rings really spoke to where we were and the heritage here. It was fitting.

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Our Runic Rings
Image © Aurora Jewelers

From there we went to the west side of the island to visit Skara Brae. It is one of the oldest villages ever found, dating to the Mesolithic times (though many of the other sites are Neolithic). It’s on the coast and in 1851 a huge storm tore the turf away from the top of this village. The dwellings, like most dwellings in Orkney today, were stone. Inside, the furniture – beds, dressers, etc. – were also stone.

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Interconnecting Passages in Skara Brae 

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A Skara Brae Dwelling

Did you catch the prehistoric dresser in the photo above?

While there we visited the manor of the “laird” who owned the land and who found the site. Deb was in there for maybe 15 minutes and really wanted to leave. I had never seen that before. She said it had a smell, which I wasn’t able to smell, and that it felt “bad.” We found out later from Helen, the woman who married us, that the house is evidently haunted and one of the beds is cursed. She also mentioned that she felt that the house was not right.

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The Haunted Skaill House

I should mention the weather at this point; it plays a big role in what is to come. This entire summer had had really poor weather in Scotland and the Orkneys – cold, rainy, drizzly. Most of the folks we met talked about how uncharacteristically bad it was. In fact, when we got to Scotland, the weather had been better than most of the summer. Still, in the Orkneys, it was very cold and drizzly most of the days. We crossed our fingers that our outdoor ceremony would be nice – or at least reasonable.

In the afternoon, we visited the Ring of Brodgar (isn’t that an amazing name?) with Helen and Mark. They were the couple who have an incredible business presiding over pagan ceremonies – Orkneypaganweddings. We had a “rehearsal” that also involved a ceremony to ask for good weather.

Though cold and drizzly still, the Ring of Brodgar was amazing to behold. It is the 4th (as of a few weeks ago) largest stone circle in Europe and older than almost all of them, including Stonehenge. It had at one time 60 stones in a perfect circle, with specific stones perfectly aligned with north, south, east and west. 27 stones remain. While there, Deb and I picked the stone where we would hold the ceremony.

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The Ring of Brodgar on Rehearsal Day
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

The next day we visited Maeshowe. This was a Neolithic burial tomb. Later, Vikings found it and left a lot of runes. It is the largest collection of Viking runes in the world. Do you know what they say? It’s actually all Viking graffiti. Some of it is really basic and funny, for example, “I am Lars and I wrote this on this high spot.” Some of it is “potty humor” – for example, something about Ingevild, who evidently was a tall woman, having to bend over. The funniest was a line that started on one line of rock and said something like “I am Bjorn and here I write these ru” and then it ran into an opening. But, on the rock above the opening it read “nes.”

A Word on Whiskey

What is Scotland without Scotch? If you are like we were, you might not have a good answer. We came here having never really cared for nor appreciated Scotch. On our trip we decided that we had to learn and so we took every opportunity to learn.

We learned that we really, really, dislike Scotches that are very “peaty” and smoky. These would be ones with descriptions like “burnt rubber”, “turpentine” and “oily rags.” Instead we discovered, not terribly surprisingly, that we liked Scotch from the highlands and particularly from the Orkney Islands. Then we discovered why.

Scotch producers use peat to make the Scotch. Peat forms from vegetation and in most areas it is very woody vegetation. In the Highlands and Orkney, there really aren’t any trees and so there isn’t wood in the peat. It is mostly composed of heather. The resulting Scotches tend to be sweeter, smoother and, at least to us, richer.

Our favorite was Dark Origins, a single malt from Highland Park distillery in the Orkneys. No, it does not have an age. It is a special “expression”, meaning that it is composed of variously-aged years of the same Scotch (so it is still a single malt and not a blend). We learned that, yes, generally the older the better, but occasionally there is an expression that is so good, they will bottle it. This particular one is aged in sherry casks and is named after a tax collector who made Scotch this way in his spare time to assuage the anguish he created with tax collecting. Come by our place for a taste sometime!

A Centuries Old Ceremony in an Ancient Place of Power

The time for our ceremony finally came and we were very excited. It was the fall equinox and nearing the end of the day. We got all dressed up in our wedding clothes. I managed to get all of the bits of my kilt together. Deb looked gorgeous in her dress, of course. As we were getting dressed, we noticed that much of the sky in the distance was blue and the sun was working hard to come out.

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In Our Finery
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

When we got to the Ring of Brodgar, we split up. Each of us took a separate path around the circle, outside the stones. We then came together and walked to our stone where Helen and Mark waited. The ceremony began with a ritual greeting.

Welcome one and all to the Ring of Brodgar, where the sky meets the land, where we are within an island within an island, a microcosm within a macrocosm. May all that takes place within this place be for the good of all and harm to none [sic].

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Our Ceremony Site – In Front of the Dragon’s Tooth
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

Mark circled our stone, stopping at each compass point and appealed to the four elements of air, fire, water and earth to grant us gifts: air to infuse our breath with words of love; fire to will our hearts with passion; water to flood our emotions with feelings of love; and earth to nurture all present.

We then had our handfasting ceremony. If you have seen Braveheart, you have seen one form of the ceremony. We had a cloth about four feet long and two inches wide. Our hands were bound three times and with each binding we made a promise to each other.

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Handfasting, An Ancient Ceremony
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We made our promises, exchanged our new rings, drank mead, and then we kissed. And something amazing happened. This whole time, the weather was getting better. The sky was partly blue and the strong sun was behind a cloud and brightening everything up. We had been thinking the weather ceremony worked. But then, right at the end of the ceremony, when we kissed, the sun broke through the clouds and we kissed in radiant sunlight. It was magical.

Drinking Ceremonial Mead
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We concluded the ceremony by jumping over a besom – essentially a set of twigs and heather bound to a stick. We gave thanks to the elements. And just that quickly, our window of sun started closing. Though it was still there behind a cloud, it was fully out for the most important 5 minutes.

The Besom
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

The Besom Jump
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

We walked back around the circle to leave in the sunwise direction (clockwise), enjoying the day and wonderful experience we just had.

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The Bride and Groom
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

Helen and Mark did a fantastic job with the ceremony and all of the details. Mark was our photographer and had some truly amazing shots here as you can see. We owe them a huge thank you for truly making our day special.

Our Lovely Pagan Celebrant Helen
Image courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

20 years. It seems like we just met. Really. We still act like newlyweds J. We are so lucky to have found each other as soulmates. Every day is a new adventure. We’ve found that we don’t need much and we have everything we need. Pura Vida.

PS: Our adventure continues. Stay tuned shortly.

More Photos

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The Standing Stones of Stenness

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The Ring of Brodgar
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

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Deb and Andy

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Wedding Photos
Images courtesy Mark Woodsford-Dean

 

Renewing Our Vows in Scotland – Part 1: The Highlands

Debbie and I renew our vows every five years somewhere new. For our 20th anniversary, we did something very off-path. We travelled to the far north of Scotland to one of the oldest stone circles in the world. We renewed our vows in a pagan handfasting ceremony. At twilight. On the equinox. It was a truly magical event. Here’s our story in three parts.

It’s been awhile, yes. Not that the summer hasn’t had its share of off-path adventures, including teaching in Costa Rica and buying a new house – well more accurately, a fixer – in Fall City. And the house has indeed been greedily consuming every spare moment of time it seems. Nevertheless, shortly after we moved in, Deb and I headed off to the Scottish Highlands.

Deb had spent several months planning this amazing trip, which included a number of adventures including our vow renewal – or as one of our friends mistyped, our “vowel renewal.” The name “Cargile” is Scottish and so I thought it appropriate to get remarried in the full traditional Scottish kilt kit. I could not find a kilt in the Cargile tartan of “Clergy” so I settled for the more common “Black Watch”, though I was fortunate to find a handfasting cloth in the Clergy tartan.

Suitably prepared, we headed off with our Tortuga backpacks of course. We only use those for travel now and surprisingly my kilt and all of its accessories, along with the rest of my clothes, fit. Deb’s gown also fit along with all of her things.

Our first day involved a lot of flying and a long train ride from Edinburgh to Inverness. There, we rented a car for our trek through the Highlands. We knew we’d have to drive British-style and joked that it would be more challenging if we got one that was “stick.” We did! It actually was not difficult at all to master British-style driving (including driving stick with the stick on the left).

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Deb’s First Drive

The Bonnie Highlands

Over the next several days, we took a long tour through the Scottish Highlands. What a beautiful country. I could describe just how beautiful it was, but I’ll leave that to the photos. There are a lot more at the end.

Scottish Highlands

Looking West near Unapool

Scottish Highlands

Some Locals in Lochinver

We spent our second night at the Kylesku Hotel, the Scottish Hotel of the Year, in the northwest of Scotland. Sonia and Tonja, our innkeepers, welcomed us like family. It was right on the loch (lake) and we had amazing fish that literally came off the boat. The dock was right next to the hotel.

One of our first fun adventures was an unexpected rescue. As we hiked around the hotel, we came to an overlook on the loch. Deb spotted an odd sight – a slowly undulating white arm touching some plants by the edge of the shore. We went to investigate and found that a fairly large (compared to what we’ve usually seen diving) octopus was stranded in a shallow hole surrounded by plants. This loch is attached to the sea and the tide had gone out. The poor thing was listless and was feebly moving its arms. I went down and had to pry its sticky arms from some plants and then lift it up. It was about two feet long and was much heavier than I would have expected. I was able to toss it into the water. Then the most amazing thing happened.

The octopus, which I thought was nearly dead, sprang to life in the water and zipped around in a circle in front of me and then jumped out of the water and back in before swimming away. Its “happy dance” touched me. It felt like it was saying “thank you.” I never knew octopi could, or would, breach. I just wish I could have gotten a picture. It was a pretty amazing creature.

The next day we had a gorgeous hike through the Scottish Highlands near Lochinver. We started off in a forest by a river and then ventured out into the hills. We were the only ones around and felt that we had the entire world to ourselves. The heather was rich in the hills and the views were spectacular.

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Scottish Staples – Heather, Rocks and Mountains

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My Love in the Heather

The Highland Games

From Lochinver, we travelled east to Invershin where we stayed at the Invershin Hotel. We had a fantastic time there and met new friends from Canada and Germany along with our wonderful innkeepers, Cheryl and Angus. We chose Invershin because we were attending the Highland Games.

The games were the finals for the year in Scotland so we got to see the best of the best. It was one of those moments that really distinguishes an experience in a country – like watching an Arsenal vs. Manchester United game in a British pub in London, or dancing in a jammed samba club in the middle of Rio de Janeiro until 2am.

The games have been going on for 2000 years and all events take place on a grass field, including the track and cycling events. But those were pretty ordinary compared to the “heavies” competition. They threw stones and hammers in a variety of ways and also did the caber toss. Essentially, they pick up a large tree, run and then flip it so that, ideally, it does one half rotation and lands straight in the opposite direction.

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The Caber Toss

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And a Flying Kilt

Yes, kilts were flying. But these athletes did not wear their kilts the “traditional” way; they had compression shorts underneath. The bagpipers, not so much, as one of our Canadian friends learned!

The games also had a dance competition, a bagpipe competition, and a parade with full pipe and drum corps.

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The Sword Dance

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The Pipe and Drum Corps

And of course, what games are not complete without Tug of War? This was serious. They were (highly) competitive teams. The matches would take 10-20 minutes with lots of grunting and an occasional plumber’s butt.

Highland Games

“Cracking” Under Pressure

Before we left, we visited the Invershin castle. It has a sad story like many Scottish castles as we learned. After many generations, the last heir of the castle willed it to a hostel group with a stipulation that the castle be preserved as a hostel. That hostel group had it for several years and ran it into the ground. In need of repairs, first they sold off all of the 57 acres of land and then all of the paintings and sculptures inside. Even after netting several million pounds, surprisingly, they seemed unable to spend the 500K pounds to keep the castle maintained. The locals led a valiant battle to save it. It was offered up for free if you could demonstrate that you had the necessary cash to fix it up and keep it in its original condition. A group of investors bought it and is now trying to turn it into a 5 star hotel. Sadly, it’s not a unique story in Scotland.

Invershin Castle

The Gates of Invershin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

After Invershin, we had a free day and decided to visit the beach town of Dornach, located on the east coast off the North Sea. The gem there was Dunrobin Castle. There were countless paintings of Earls of Sutherland (12 I think) and their kin. But the highlight was the castle and grounds itself. The castle was “Disneyesque” (in a good way) and the grounds were spectacular.

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Dunrobin Castle from the Grounds

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And the Spectacular Castle Grounds

From Dornach, we drove back to Inverness to catch a plane to the Orkneys and our big day. While in Inverness though, we found a shop and looked up the Cargile crest. It was a pretty funny experience. With our genealogy historian there, we found the proper crest for the name “Cargile”, spelled as we spell it. The crest was ermine with a red “X” across the front and a martlet over the top. Interesting? Well, “Cargile” was originally a youngest son. The “X” means that he had no title or holdings. The martlet, which had no feet, meant that he also had no land. Poor guy. So, there’s the story of Cargile clan.

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The Cargile Crest

Fortunately, our adventure doesn’t end on the sad origins of us Cargiles. It doesn’t even end after our amazing vow renewal in an ancient, powerful place. But you’ll have to check back shortly for more. Pura Vida.

More Photos

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Fisherman on Loch Druim Suardalain

Rock Wall

One of Many Ancient Stone Walls

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More Pipers

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A Shetland “Pony” in Invershin

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Invershin Castle from the Trail

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The Caretaker’s House at Invershin Castle

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle Above the Grounds

Andy and Deb at Dunrobin Castle

At the Hedge “Gate” of the Grounds

Deb at Dunrobin Castle

Debbie Framed

Funny Deb

Having Fun in an Inverness Pub

Can’t

I wanted to talk about one of my least favorite words today – can’t. It’s such a small, seemingly harmless word. We use it all the time. And yet, it can be an incredibly debilitating word. It’s one of those words – like fail and hate – that we adults, sadly, teach our kids. It can be a dream killer. It’s also one of those words that directly gets in the way of change.

Can’t and I go way back. I’ve heard this word a lot in my life, though thankfully almost never from my parents. “You can’t get into Stanford.” “You can’t get a graduate Biology degree without doing ‘wet’ biology.” “You can’t get an internship at Microsoft your first year here [in a graduate design program].” (In fairness, the latter was an example of can’t’s close relative, you won’t be able to. And so on. These were all statements from folks like high school principals, department chairs, and deans.

Fortunately, can’t is a word that has the power to motivate me beyond almost any other. I’ve never accepted the power of its hold. It’s something I’d like to help our young adults learn. Like many people though, I need to do a better job myself using it.

There are really two ways to look at can’t. One is with the meaning you are not able to. It’s the dangerous one I point to above. The other is I don’t want you to. For example, “You can’t go out until your homework is done.”

I have to admit that I use the latter form fairly often. The problem with this is that it gets the word can’t into frequent use. Even in this context, I think I tend to overuse it. If I truly want to treat my young adults as adults, I should let them have the choice about when they do their homework, right? We try to do this as much as possible with Aidan and Nev. It mostly works. Mostly.

It’s the first version of can’t though that really irks me. If you watch most younger kids, they seem to have an immunity to can’t. They’ll keep trying something until they figure it out. Sure, there’s frustration at times. But I don’t think that the frustration stems from an innate belief that the kids truly would not be able to do what they are trying. They just want it to happen quickly, but that’s another story.

If someone else, especially an adult, tells them that they can’t do it, that’s where can’t can become disempowering. In a way, it gives someone permission to stop trying and give up. And then they start using can’t themselves and come to believe that they really can’t do something. What an insidious cycle.

I started thinking about can’t recently because I’ve been hearing it a lot at work. Too much. We are going through a transition involving a lot of necessary change. As I mentioned in my last post, most people really dislike change. That’s when I started realizing the broader impact of can’t.

When people start saying that they can’t do something, they (perhaps unintentionally) give others permission to not try. And when you are collectively going through a process of difficult change, can’t makes it easy to not try. It helps people resist change. And that can be infectious.

Conversely, I didn’t hear can’t very much in the startups I worked in, at least not in terms of our ability to do something. In fact, if it wasn’t possible to do something, we’d often just find a different way. Startups are the children of the corporate world. Anything is possible. Somewhere along the line, established companies, like many adults, seem to lose that.

Change needs a fertile environment of the possible, much like startups. Can’t gets in the way. You don’t hear dreamers and visionaries using the word very much.

The destructive power of can’t on the process of change is a newly-found realization for me. Maybe change can be helped along a bit with the elimination of a single word. I’ll give it a try. It’s a nicely “off path” strategy. Pura vida.

Change

At the very beginning of our adventure I wrote about complexity and change: when there is a lot of complexity involved in something, it’s hard to change. As we’ve gone through our transition from our Costa Rican adventure back to Seattle, and as I’ve started working for a company that is itself in transition, I’ve thought about change (a lot) and how to think about it. It’s a bit fitting that I return to that subject now as I transition the blog from the way we were “intentionally off path” before and the way we are “intentionally off path” now. If you noticed, this is the first post where I didn’t start with a sentence that snuck in a link to “our new adventure.” Change is good. But not everyone thinks so.

Perhaps because my brain is back in a more creative, problem-solving space every day now, I started thinking about how to categorize change. It worked in my noodling on engagement so I figured I’d try that again. The model is really simple. It’s a triangle – ironically, the most stable of shapes. And here, I’m looking at how people approach change.

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The Ridiculously Simple Triangle of Change

Resisting Change

People generally don’t like change and resist it. I see it all of the time in what I do. Change can be scary. Change takes effort. And it sometimes takes knowledge I don’t have. It’s easier to just stay the same. It’s safer not to change. It’s comfortable and safe. What happens if… And so on.

Is it any wonder why three of the biggest causes of stress involve major change – a new job or loss of one, a marriage or divorce, and moving? For many people, these don’t come around that often. Even if you are “practiced” in change, they can be very difficult. Often in these cases, though, what adds to the stress is that these changes may not be choices fully under one’s control.

Even when change would be extremely beneficial, some of us still resist it. It explains things like people staying in dead-end jobs they dislike, or abusive relationships. It might even explain the pattern of Italian men who still want to live with their mothers well into their thirties (52% according to one report). Sometimes, a well-known, familiar, if very unsatisfying situation is far less scary than what might be “out there”.

Even if we resist change, many of us will change if the alternative of staying where we are, in our view, is much worse. The metaphor that comes up in business a lot is the “burning platform.” It’s a situation ‒ a crisis ‒ that is so scary that it forces change.

The origin of this story, as I learned in writing this, came from Daryl Connor. There was a tragic oil platform fire in 1988. People who were on that platform had to essentially choose certain death on the platform or choose possible death by jumping into the freezing water. It’s been used a lot to describe situations where a company’s business situation is so dire that it must embrace change. As an example, you might remember Stephen Elop’s email to Nokia employees after he moved there from Microsoft and had to turn around the failing business.

The burning platform situation is a bit extreme, but it does highlight just how wed we can be to things remaining the same. I find it ironic that we as human beings, arguably the most adaptable of species, resist change so often. I think it’s because we are out of practice – but more on that in a bit.

Trying Change

The middle layer of the triangle brings up an interesting conundrum. Is “trying something new” a way of embracing change? I think so. I’m talking about human behavior here, so I do think it applies. After all, some of us go to the same stores and restaurants every time. Others of us actually like to try something new every now and again.

It boils down to the same situation: the “tried and true,” safe choice or the new, unknown, and perhaps scary, one. The basic behavior is fundamentally similar whether the situation is dramatically important or much lighter.

I find it compelling that children try new things constantly. That’s one of the ways they learn, whether it’s trying a new food or a big scary trick at a skateboard park (not that that‘s ever happened!) Kids also aren’t familiar with the concept of “failure” – until we adults teach it to them. You’re just trying stuff and sometimes it’s better and sometimes not.

This experimental attitude that is fundamental to kids sadly seems to get lost somewhere on our journey to adulthood. And like many things about our bodies, when we don’t keep something in shape through practice, well, it gets a little flabby. Somewhere along the way we reduce our appetite for taking risks and trying new things. Things that could lead to change.

Risk is indeed at the heart of change. Years ago I read a fascinating article about researchers using the TV game show Deal or No Deal to study economics (thanks to the Internet, I actually found it again here). In this worldwide show, contestants start with nothing and then choose among many suitcases, each of which has money. Each round, they can choose to stay with what they have, or trade for a different one. When people have nothing, they take risks. Then, when they have a lot to lose, they don’t. The same behavior that got them the money in the first place makes them very conservative and cautious. The researchers had a perfect “sandbox” for studying and explaining why we often make the choices we do.

As we get older, we do have a lot more to risk. Our appetite for risk, and for change, goes down sharply. We stop taking bigger risks and we stop making big changes, even though we might continue to take and make smaller ones. We “settle in”. But, this is something that we can change through a little practice. With apologies to Nev and Aidan (because they hear this a lot), to get good at something, you need to practice.

And when you practice change a good deal, the top layer of the triangle isn’t so daunting.

Seeking Change

As I think about change, “seeking change” isn’t about being satisfied with trying new things or embracing change when you need to. It’s a mindset. And it’s one shared by most kids. In my view, it’s a worthy state to achieve.

There is an element of constant exploration at this level of change. For any early explorer, whether the very early people who confronted a boundless ocean to see what’s across it to the brave folks who embrace “the final frontier” of space, exploration, by its very nature, is at peace with change.

Kids, too, seem to be in a constant exploratory state. It’s in their nature. It’s one of many things I think we can learn from them.

I’m not advocating that we all make major life-changing decisions every day. I am suggesting that developing a comfortable relationship with change has a number of advantages. One of the best in my mind is that it keeps us open to differences and learning new things. And that is something our world needs a lot more of.

I have heard a lot of people, inside and outside of business, use the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” as a rationale not to do something – often something that might lead to change. I never liked that phrase. It is so…static. Permanent. I work in innovation and that phrase pretty much kills the soul of innovation. More than anything, it set’s the bar of acceptability at “not broken.” There is so much more beyond that.

And looking at this simple triangle model, the way to get there is pretty straightforward. Start in the middle and try something new. Practice. Rinse and repeat. It does get easier.

This might sound a little too simplistic coming from someone who along with his family left everything and spent a year in another country. But it wasn’t always this easy.

Many years ago I worked at Stanford after graduation. I was married (the first time). I felt stuck in a relationship that wasn’t working but had a great job. I even turned down some pretty nice jobs because I enjoyed just going out and playing soccer at lunch most days. It was easy. I was settling. I didn’t want to change what had become very comfortable. I was open-minded to change, but not motivated.

Then, my marriage ended and I decided to move halfway across the country, quit my job, and go to graduate school. I met my soul mate and proposed 7 weeks later. Perhaps it was my “burning platform.” I’ve never looked back and now have a more fulfilling life than I ever could have imagined.

In the succeeding years, Deb and I “practiced” change a good deal. And it got easier. It was one of the big reasons we wanted to take the young adults to Costa Rica. Change isn’t something to be afraid of.

Now, in many ways, things seem to be settling into our pre-Costa Rica life again. Most of the big changes have been made. I’m not worried about becoming complacent though. We all, I think, have emerged from our adventure with a more flexible mindset about things. The more I think about it, the more I see change built into much of what we do over the next year and beyond. There are so many things to try and explore. It’s almost like we were kids again. Pura vida.

Engagement

Back from our new adventure, we are all still settling in. I recently started my new job at SMART Technologies. I’ve been noodling on something for almost two months now since my interview there. It’s a disturbing insight on schools, an intriguing insight on unschooling, and a telling insight about our digital native children.

Some of you might recognize SMART as the company that makes digital whiteboards. They have a long history in the education market and a recent one in business. In my interview, I was talking with some folks working on the education side. They told me something that I could not get out of my head. Teachers love the SMART Boards because it helps them with the thing they focus on and worry about most: engagement. The striking thing was less the part about the SMART Board and more the point that their biggest challenge is engagement.

At some level, it isn’t terribly surprising, especially if you have seen classrooms where teachers, often alone, have to manage a class of an ever growing number of kids with a wide range of learning styles and aptitudes. This isn’t about teachers. It’s about where we are with more traditional education – a field that’s very slow to change. Add in digital natives who are very comfortable with tons of streaming content on various screens and instant information gratification and you have a perfect storm in which engagement ends up being the desirable outcome and at some level a bar for success.

But engagement seems like such a low bar. What about interest? What about learning? What about mastery? To me, engagement is the lowest level of outcomes to achieve in education. This is what got me noodling.

I like to try to make sense of things by diagramming them. I often use a simple 2×2 matrix to do that because it forces me to really distill the key aspects. Here was my start at noodling over this problem. I don’t claim correctness here. It helped me and hopefully will provoke some thinking.

engagement 2x2 part 1[Basic Learning 2×2]

Generally in such diagrams, the lower left is not a good place to be. The upper right is. In this case, the model I was thinking about was how kids learn. I simplified it into learning by thinking and learning by doing. Most kids, and adults, use a combination of course. Some kids, like Aidan, may start out just trying things (doing). It’s especially the case with technology. I’ll call that play (more doing, less thinking). Other kids may start with more thinking and less doing. I’ll call that interest. When you put them together, you get learning in the upper right. It’s a bit like the Chinese saying:

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

So, if you take the goal as getting to learning, what helps kids with more doing or more thinking?

engagement 2x2 part 2

[How You Get There]

I boiled down into structure and tools. Give a kid a tool, whether a hammer or a computer or something else, and they’ll inevitably start playing with it. It’s a great start. Some kids thrive in this space and keep playing until they get better at it. Other kids need a little more help, which is where structure comes in. Also, just playing with something to eventually land on how to use it well isn’t terribly efficient.

Now take the converse. Some kids like to start by reading about or “studying” something. (Those kids may grow up to be people like me who reads the manual first!🙂 ). It certainly helps, but it can remain academic unless and until they actually try doing something; i.e. using a tool.

Take math for example. You can spend lots of time doing multiplication. Eventually you may notice some patterns that lead to higher level math. But some structure certainly helps. Or, you could read a lot about how to do multiplication, but it’s hard to “get it” until you actually try to do it. All of this is really scaffolding. It’s a term coined by Jerome Bruner and used in education to describe the support given during the learning process, tailored to the needs of the student, to help them achieve their learning goals.

Scaffolding works well, but it’s hard to do when you are struggling to achieve simple engagement. It must also be a huge challenge with digital natives and the sensory explosion they’ve been exposed to since birth – unlike, for example, children at the time our first models of classroom education were developed. Now, outnumber the teacher with many students in a large class and you can see the perfect storm.

In contrast, engagement tends to be less of an issue in unschooling for a few likely reasons. First, there’s usually an adult around who can help when needed and knows the student well. When students have a hand in choosing what they want to learn and how to learn, it’s certainly makes the process easier. The challenge is that most of us doing unschooling aren’t fully versed in all the best ways to help our kids with tools or structure, when they need it.

As I looked at all of this, I kept noodling about engagement. If engagement was the biggest challenge in many classrooms and something desirable to achieve, then it should be in the upper right corner. What, then would be in the other quadrants?

engagement 2x2 part 3

[The Road to Engagement]

I started with boredom as the “lowest” state, sitting in the unenviable lower left quadrant. Unstructured thinking to me represents daydreaming. It’s not bad in itself, and indeed can be the source of great inspiration, but it doesn’t help the learning process or the teacher. On the flip side, and I know it may be a provocative term, but unstructured doing can be disruption (certainly more to a teacher than a student).

Now, put anything with a screen, including a SMART Board, near a digital native, and you can see how engagement might occur. Many classrooms still prevent students from bringing in smart phones, tablets or computers or severely limit their use. Here’s where I’ll share some very “off path” thoughts.

To a digital native, devices with screens – and truly, it doesn’t matter the form factor – are their core tools. They are almost extensions of their body. We may not want to admit it, but it’s true. Is it really so different than pencils and paper were to those of us who are not digital natives?

One can argue that they can be a source of distraction or a means for teachers to lose control of a class. I’d argue two points. First, paper and pencils can also be a distraction to a (non-digital native) student who is bored. For example, you could tell which high school and college classes I was bored in (even meetings I’ve been in at work!) – by looking at my notebooks. I drew detailed sketches, wrote song lyrics, generally found lots of creative ways to be distracted.

More importantly, while they can no doubt be sources of distraction – and I think all of us as parents have struggled with this – they can also be sources of incredible power and motivation for learning when used well. There are a number of schools that are allowing some devices in now and harnessing them as part of the learning process. I recently saw one example of a grammar school in Kent where the students each had a Surface Pro and the class had a SMART Board. There was one teacher and 20 students. Sure, it was chaotic at times with some daydreaming and disruption going on to be sure. But if I imagine that class of digital natives without the devices, I’d expect things to be far worse. And indeed, she wasn’t just achieving engagement. She was getting some interest, some play, and a good deal of learning as well.

Of course, as Ben Franklin remarked, “Everything in moderation.” Being plugged in all the time can certainly be unhealthy as well. We’ve had our share of discussions/arguments with our own two digital natives growing up with screens and trying to be responsible about screen time. I think digital natives fundamentally embrace technology differently. It is intertwined in their beings and they find ever new ways of using it. While I might be different, I do understand their habits and needs – well at least a bit in this respect at least. I might consider them a little “off path” compared to me and many of us non-digital natives, but then you know where I stand on being “off path.” Pura vida

 

PS: For the record, having taken my “noodling” below the threshold of engagement with my diagramming, I also had to noodle on what “lived” above learning.

engagement 2x2 part 4

[The Final Level]

I see a “doing” path going from learning to experimentation. You might think of it as a deeper level of play, but a highly structured one and generally very goal directed. Some of the best constructivist learning principles follow this route. On the other side, I see going down a thinking path from learning leading to research. I know that word can have a lot of meanings but here I see it as a structured knowledge pursuit. When you combine the two, you can get to mastery. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers notes that it takes about 10,000 hours in a skill/field to achieve mastery. Very likely, it requires both thinking and doing to some degree.

I wonder if, armed with the proper tools, digital natives, at least in some areas, can achieve mastery more quickly. I’m an optimist. I would like to hope so. The amount of information is growing at staggering rates. According to IBM in 2012, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Our digital natives growing up in a world with increasing challenge, complexity and information will need all the help they can get.

Transitions

Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.