When trying to describe my time in Scotland, all I can really think to say is that it’s been céilidhs and wet laundry.
I don’t have perfect words for our short time in this little country. It has been wonderful and disappointing and eye opening and great, and packing our bags yesterday was not easy. I’m incredibly excited to visit Ireland, a lifelong dream of mine, but I’m going to miss this little country and it’s quirky ways and the people here I’ve grown to love.
So I guess I’ll talk about céilidhs and laundry. On the first day in this charming country, I looked out the window of the corridor near my tiny room to see crisp, white sheets hanging from laundry lines and dancing in the breeze. In the first two days, I couldn’t tell you how many times I stopped in that corridor to snap a picture of those clotheslines. I found it endlessly charming to see the rotating cycle of shirts and sheets pinned up each day. It felt like a movie, and I imagined singing and clipping white sheets to the lines.
And then I stank myself right through my suitcase of clothing and gathered up a pile of my own laundry to wash. After a bubbly spin cycle it came out of the machine heavy and wet, and with a bag of clips in one hand and a soaking basket in the other, I made my way to the clothesline.
This whole concept of a clothesline is far less enchanting as you’re wrestling with wet jeans and sweater sleeves, crazy clothespins and rouge socks. After a few soggy slaps in the face with my own wet shirts, I left the sun to do her work. Not so bad. But the next week, it rained on laundry day, and tangled, soaking shirts and trousers became the bane of my existence as I draped them across anything and everything I could find. For 48 hours, my room was a damp disaster zone as I flipped my sweaters over on the heater every few hours. Those charming clothesline were much less so when they changed from a concept to a chore.
And that’s the way Scotland has been. Saying “ten quid” is less fun when you realize that is 15 dollars of your precious spending money. The originally charming accents instantly make you stand out and mark you as American with only the word “hello”. The cobblestone streets are hard to travel on. The city center, which charmed my socks off the first day, has its share of smokers and addicts and smog. Cute shops are really just tourist traps.
Scotland and Edinburgh are lovely and have captured my heart in a way I never thought would happen, considering I’ve never given this country much thought at all. But I’m learning that just because things are different does not mean they are better. It’s okay to enjoy and be enchanted with a new culture too, but that does not make yours inherently bad, which is what I originally thought upon landing here. I’m learning not to hate my home cultural, or really think about it too much. I think that Americans usually believe the rest of the world either loves us or hates us far more than they really think about us at all.
Some of my other expectations have been wet laundry too. When things you expect to be charming in execution turn out to be exhausting in reality, there is always a sense of disappointment, but the pain or growth you take from that experience is up to you, I believe. Relationships that I thought would be easy have been painful, and I’ve been learning lessons in harder ways than I would have chose. God is putting me through the wringer, I told a friend on the phone the other week. Wet laundry isn’t fun to wrestle with, but at the end of the day you’ve still got clean clothes from it.
Maybe all of my expectations haven’t been met, but others have been exceeded. Last Saturday, our group was invited to a local céilidh (pronounced kay-lee, like the name), a Scottish dance celebration that comes from the traditions of the Gaelic people. With mostly terrible high school dance memories at the forefront of my memory, I dragged my feet to this event with the rest of the group. The dance was sponsored by a local church that had just bought, restored, and moved their church body into a old cathedral right in the downtown city center of Edinburgh, and was their way of celebrating the brand new move and the goodness of God to their congregation. A dance in a church, I thought as we walked in. Weird. I’m used to going to church to learn what I need to fix about myself, not party. As we walked in, women in swinging dresses milled about, and full grown men and tiny boys wore full Highland garb, kilts and all. I couldn’t help but laugh until I realized they were wearing these outfits in complete seriousness.
The main auditorium had been cleared of chairs, and the old stone walls rose high above the now converted dance floor, meeting in an arching peak above our heads. Huge stained glass windows that had probably looked down upon countless prayers and communions now threw scattered light on us as the band on stage instructed we grab a partner and make our way to the middle of the dance floor. In his charming accent, the band’s caller walked us slowly through the steps of the first dance and then we were off, whirling and skipping in circles to the beat of the fiddle and drums, josling and laughing with old Scottish couples and little kids as we clumsy Americans tried to navigate the crowded dance floor.
Sweaty and panting and laughing, we danced through the evening, grabbing the hands of strangers and friends to form circles and lines and squares. Watch the kilts! we squealed when we lost track of our footing, mimicking their movements to get back on track. The only thing I can compare the dancing to is an American barn dance, with more plaid and speed. I didn’t want to sit even one song out, and I just kept thinking I’m in Scotland, dancing at a céilidh with a man in a kilt. I’m dancing in a cathedral in Scotland. My life is crazy! We were told to check our arms the next morning for bruises from the dancing, “the sign of a good céilidh!” they told us. I woke the next morning with sore legs and bruised arms, to my delight.
The church I grew up in isn’t necessarily from the town in Footloose, but dancing has always been frowned on, and I never really questioned it. “Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of His faithful people,” the pastor read from the stage. “Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with timbrel and harp.” And dancing in church suddenly seemed like the most natural way to celebrate the opening of a new, beautiful building, in a city where the population of Christians is at an all time low. Twirling with old and new friends, joining hands with tiny, bold children and old, brave women, twirling on the arms of cute Scottish guys you’ve only just met, laughing and singing with brothers and sisters in Christ who’ve served Him faithfully just across the ocean for all their lives, seemed to be the perfect way to celebrate. No one was was too dignified to bounce around like a fool that night. The fathers and grandfathers in the church were the first out of the floor, pulling their wives and daughters behind them. A new friend explained to me this is how they celebrate weddings and the New Year as well, and suddenly everything in me wanted to be Scottish.
Giddy, laughing celebration, in the house of God. There is something about that Gaelic variation of celebration I love. Ham buns feel pale in comparison to this rowdy, joy filled party. It felt like a big old family, celebrating the goodness of their Father. Joy isn’t always easy to choose, even on the dream trip of a lifetime, ya’ll. I’ve been praying for so much love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness self-control throughout my days on this trip, because Lord knows I can’t come up with that stuff on my own. Traveling the world doesn’t guarantee joy. Having amazing friends or perfect circumstances does not guarantee joy. Seeing new places, fulfilling lifelong dreams, all the things you think will fill you up- they don’t give joy. But in the presence of God and community of believers who seek His face with you, there is fullness of joy. It’s a gift from the Spirit of God.
And so we celebrated, stomping and kicking in the historic shadow of a country with a rich but dwindling legacy of Christianity and God’s work. My time in Scotland was full of visiting that history first hand and learning through new friends of the rich culture ingrained into the people. It’s been such a good gift from a great Father. Scotland has been lots of joy and laughing and learning, as well as some wet laundry and céilidhs. I hope someday to dance on this soil again.