One of a miscellany of short observations from a trip to Scotland.
It is our first full day in Scotland, and full is the operative word. We sleep late, figure out how to use the tricky switched electrical sockets, resist tacky souvenirs along the Royal Mile, and select the National Museum of Scotland for a cram session that we hope will substitute for the reading we didn’t do before leaving home. Inadequate Preparation, thy name is Isabel.
Instead, we have again discovered the Museum’s Curse: a plethora of detail and damn little big picture in which to position said detail. As our eyes start to glaze over, our walking pace starts to pick up. But what we can piece together of the big picture isn’t an edifying story. It’s kinda depressing, really: a nasty stew of Death and Destruction, with just enough Devotion thrown in to keep the pot boiling. Betrayals, slaughters, seemingly endless fighting—and much if it in the name of religious differences that seem, well, trivial. Maybe even ridiculous.
I was, of course, already familiar with the broad brushstrokes of the whole Catholic/Protestant thing, starting with Henry VIII. High-school history had covered the basics of the flip/flopping between England’s Catholic and Protestant monarchs and the resulting flip/flopping on what constituted death-deserving heresy. In a day when access to heaven or relegation to hell were vividly real outcomes in many people’s minds, the stakes—no pun intended—were high.
Since high school, historical novels here and there and BBC productions like The Tudors have fleshed out my simplistic overview with a vague appreciation of some of the real politik underlying or, at least, complicating the religious conflict: domestic land and wealth grabs, and international power politics. Yikes—no wonder it got messy.
But it is news to me that the Scottish had moved smartly along from Catholic/Protestant conflicts to infighting among Protestant denominations, or that they had generated so many denominations. (The better to fight, I guess.) It is an eye opener that anyone cared deeply about things I think of as musty old church structures, like bishops versus presbyteries. And yet, it makes sense when I stop to consider it. Where today we might say to ‘follow the money’ to understand the drivers of a situation, for much of history the sensible advice would be to ‘follow the power’.
We stagger back into the daylight with a few more facts and a few fewer illusions. I reflect that at least what I’ve just seen is history, not the daily news. I’m tempted to add, Thank God. Maybe, considering everything, I’ll just leave it at Hurray!