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The Ugliest Runner

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Eric LiddellEric Liddell is known today largely because of the film, “Chariots of Fire”, in which he is portrayed.  He was known as a man of conviction and faith, but was also ridiculed for his ugly, ungainly running style, mouth open, head thrown back and arms flailing.  In 1932, the journalist W.W. Marsh remembered Liddell “running with that extraordinary gait of his, like a stricken stag”.  But as Harold Abrahams, Olympic 1924 winner of the gold medal in the 100m race (the one which Liddell famously refused to compete in because its final would be on a Sunday), surmised, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

Born in January 1902 to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, northern China, Liddell was educated in China, and later in a boarding school for missionary children near London.  When his family returned to the UK on furlough from China, he would live with them (mainly) in Edinburgh.  Athletics were merely a way to fill free time for Liddell, whose goal was to return to China as a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps; his most famous quote sums it up:  “I believe that God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

We know him as a runner, but in fact his entire career in running was  only from 1921 to 1925:  His first meet was for the Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921; within 2 years he was running races beyond the Scottish borders and became known as “The Flying Scotsman” (named after the eponymous train famous for its record-breaking speed).  Within those four years he also completed a degree in science (he later taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin), became a renowned preacher, and won seven caps for Scotland in Rugby.  While his Olympic fame would seem to be the crowning achievement of his life, he still considered sport a hobby, and even ran in a few meets while living in China; but his true goal was not the “cinder track” but the mission fields of China to which he returned a year after the Olympics were history.

Eric Liddell, The Flying ScotsmanFrom 1925 to 1943, Liddell served as a missionary in China.  In 1941, he sent his pregnant wife and their two daughters to the safety of her parents’ home in Canada, while he went to serve the poor at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, where he relieved his brother Rob, who left to recover from illness.  Though he had been planning to follow his wife within a few months, as the Japanese made inroads into China Liddell had to relocate to Tianjin, from which he was interred in 1943 in the Japanese internment camp (Weihsien) along with members of the China Inland Mission and children of missionaries.  He never saw his family again, and never met his third daughter, Maureen, who was born in Canada.

Even in such dire circumstances, when the POWs began forming cliques to protect and provide for themselves, Liddell was known as a selfless Christian who gave his whole heart to doing what he could for those around him:  He organized games, Bible studies, taught science to the children (who referred to him as Uncle Eric), and shamed the richer inmates into sharing the foods they smuggled into the camp.  Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” ( “50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell’s 400 metres win, 1924”. The Guardian)

David Mitchell, a child-inmate in the camp with Liddell who went on to become the Director for Canada of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, said this of Liddell:  “Eric stood out among the 1800 people packed into our camp, which measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily rollcall when the guards came to count us. One day a week ‘Uncle Eric’ would look after us, giving our teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all women) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children and how much he missed his own.”  (Eric Liddell, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“)

Little did Eric know that his death would come only months before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War 2:  Suffering from an undetected brain tumour, the malnutrition and fatigue of prison life took its toll, and Eric passed away suddenly on 21 February 1945.  He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a simple wooden cross.  His last words were reported by a fellow missionary to be, “It’s complete surrender”, referring to how he had given his life to God.

His grave and his writings were in danger of being forgotten; a few men dedicated years of their lives to finding both, and have restored his memory to us.  His only book, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, allowing his powerful voice to speak down through history to us today.

I got Staffa’d

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If you’ve wondered why my last post was over a month ago, it’s because when I go on holiday I do just that – I take leave of life, of schedules, of obligations and responsibilities.  Now that I’m back, I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

They say you should write what you know; after our recent holidays to Scotland, I can now add to my arsenal that of being badly injured on a remote, uninhabited island!

The Isle of Staffa

The Isle of Staffa

If you’ve never heard of the small Isle of Staffa, you don’t know what you’ve been missing:  Made of basalt columns, the island and its outcrops rise out of the Atlantic in an otherworldly fashion.  For hundreds of years tourists have been going to see this phenomenon of nature, and in  1829 it even inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave).  Fingal is the figure in the legend connecting Staffa with the same geology in Ireland known as the Giant’s Causeway:  The legend is that Fingal was a Gaelic giant who had a feud with an Ulster giant; in order to fight Fingal, the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland.  Irish tales differ to Scottish as to how the causeway was destroyed, but only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other in Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Other famous visitors to the island include Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Queen Victoria and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Now to my own experience:  My husband Stefan and I were on the Isle of Mull off of the west coast of Scotland; we left our motor home there for the day and took a small boat, along with about thirty other hearty souls, on a 50-minute ride across open ocean to Staffa.  It is never guaranteed that the boats can actually land on the island, but on the day we took the excursion the weather was perfect, and the sea was as calm as open sea can be without the doldrums.

A larger ship than our own tour boat, at the Staffa pier.

A larger ship than our own tour boat, at the Staffa pier.

To get to the stone pier on Staffa, here’s how it’s done:  The captain of the boat waits outside of the jagged basalt outcrops jutting out from the island until a wave swells large enough to heave the boat in; then he revs the engine and speeds up to the pier on the lift of the wave.  From there, passengers are gradually handed off one at a time whenever the boat and the pier are relatively even between the swell of waves.  This same process is repeated to reload passengers, and the same at the pier of Mull (without the jagged rocks).

We landed safely and were walking, carefully watching each step on the uneven hexagonal basalt columns, toward Fingal’s Cave; I was literally thirty steps from the cave when my left ankle turned on a column that was apparently split, though the two surfaces were not visible on the black stones due to the angle of the sun.  Turned, as in dislocated… as in the foot was completely sideways at an angle one should never have to see one’s own foot!  I grabbed for the railing to keep from falling and swung myself to sit on a taller column; Stefan was right there, and I told him to “grab my ankle and wrench it back into place!”  Fortunately he didn’t stop to think about it – he just did it!  I could feel that it wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t going to be happy with me either.

Just passing us on their way back from the cave were a Canadian fire fighter’s wife and her adult son; she knew first aid and went into immediate action, having us pour cold water on my sock to keep it soaked and cold since we had no ice pack; she also gave me strong Tylenol and some extra to keep the pain and swelling in check.  I think my husband was in a bit of shock at what had just happened; I asked him to go on to the cave and take photos since I wouldn’t make it… it was also a way of giving him time to adjust, and to let him know that I wasn’t seriously injured, though I only thought of those reasons later.  The woman and her son helped me back to the stone pier; what had taken me five minutes to walk took twenty minutes back.  Now, remember how they landed the boat and disembarked passengers?  Do that with one foot.  Twice.

A bit of surf to contend with.

A bit of surf to contend with.

The boat crew called the doctor on Mull, and he met us at his practice (once we manoeuvred the motor home up the single-track roads there).  Without an x-ray machine he couldn’t tell if it was broken; perhaps hairline fractured.  If that were the case, either way I’d just need to keep my foot elevated; a compression tube sock was my only new wardrobe accessory.  When we got out to have lunch in a pub at Fionnphort (the port for excursions), the waitress asked what happened and then said, “Let me guess:  Staffa?”  Thus, apparently, I can be added to a long list of injured tourists who got Staffa’d.

The blessing in disguise of it happening only a few days into our holidays was that I had two weeks of forced inaction to elevate my foot; thanks to the “brilliant” NHS system of Britain, it was impossible to get a pair of crutches that might have enabled me to leave the motor home (in Switzerland, one stop at the pharmacy got me rented crutches), so I got to see Scotland from the inside of the ‘home!  It wasn’t our first trip there, and certainly won’t be our last, so I didn’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and my attitude is that complaining about lost opportunities is simply a waste of time and energy – the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it.  My husband became my eyes and ears outside of the ‘home, and when he was out on hikes and excursions I got a lot of reading and writing toward my next novel done!  I still have a month to go of behaving myself – no dancing, hiking, or even driving a car – so I guess I’ll have a lot more time to read and write!

Lines of Desire

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Photo Credit:  Unknown

Photo Credit: Unknown

No, this isn’t about how to write romance novels – it’s about architectural landscaping.  The previous article on the topic of paper towns and trap streets reminded me of this term that I’d come across while researching for a novel (in draft currently, in the queue of manuscripts to complete!).

Also known as desire lines / paths, social trails, goat tracks, cow paths or bootleg trails, these unnamed ways are the path of least resistance and most direct distance between their origin and destination.  The wider the path and deeper the erosion, the more proven a path it is.  By some landscape architects they are seen as a failure in proper planning of physical space, but by others they are seen as simple proof that one cannot always impose an empirical will on human choice.  If you zoom in on any large park in Google Earth, such as Hyde Park in London, you’ll see desire paths criss-crossing their shortest-path way throughout the park.

There are all kinds of urban legends about retroactive paving; I leave the verification to those who have expertise in this area, but here are two examples:  New York’s Central Park’s networks of paths are said to be designed around these desire lines, pavement making them retroactively official; however, it actually seems like a poor example as the paths marked do not readily fit the criteria of straightest path or path of least resistance.  Also, Columbia University is said to have turned the desire lines into sidewalks under the guidance of its president Dwight Eisenhower (before he became the 34th president of the US).  Whether such stories are true or not, it would seem like a logical solution to the problem of worn grass patches, rather than needing to re-seed them each spring as people forge their own lines of desire through winter snow.  Why fight human nature?  Or animal instinct.  In Scotland one is wise to follow the sheep paths up in the bonnie highlands; they are proven, solid paths avoiding the hidden streamlets, gigantic holes of souterrain entrances, and the mire of a hidden bog (usually – though the latter seems to bother sheep less than it does me).

Do you know of any “desire lines” in your town?  Have you taken them yourself, or are you one to stick to official paths?

Family History: A Moment of Profound Change, 1899

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Family histories are fascinating, and each one is unique:  They mirror the changing times, the cultures in which they form, and here in Switzerland they often represent the international, innovative and traditional yet open mindset of the Swiss.  I was born and raised in America, immigrated to Scotland at the age of 20, and eventually met my Swiss husband there.  So “my” family history spans from the frontier plains of Kansas to the Highlands of Scotland to the Swiss Alps.  A few years ago I put together a Swiss family history and photo album, digitalizing faded, torn, close-to-extinction photographs.  Here’s one of the family stories.

1899 - Tochter Elisabeth, Vater Josef German, Tochter Josephina Steinauer

1899 – Tochter Elisabeth, Vater Josef German, Tochter Josephina Steinauer

The photograph above was taken in 1899, on the occasion of the imminent emigration of Elisabeth Steinauer from Einsiedeln, Switzerland to America.  Her widowed father Josef and sister Josephina would never see her again; emigration was a permanent change back then, with only the extremely wealthy ever making a return voyage back to Europe to visit relations.  Elisabeth met a Mr. Schönbächler in Sacramento, California; they were married and settled down on the far side of the new frontier; up until at least 1960 she was still alive and well, writing letters home from America.  She was not without family, however; her elder sister Meinrada had emigrated to Sacramento 4 years earlier; incredibly she had done so as a single woman of 30 years old!  There she met a Swiss man by the name of Birchler, with whom she had actually gone to school with as children in Switzerland, and they were married.

By the time this photo was taken, Josephina had married Franz Xaver Hüsler of Einsiedeln, Switzerland,  and had had six of their eight children (only two of which preceded her in death).  One of her surviving children, Josef Hüsler, became my husband’s grandfather.

Though this will likely only be of interest to family members, below is the Hüsler Family Tree, from 1600 to present; I put it here so that it can be accessible to those who would like to see it.  It is incomplete, so if anyone has more information to add, please contact me in the comments below!  Click on the images to enlarge.Hüsler Stammbaum 1, 1600-1770sHüsler Stammbaum 2, 1780s-1930sHüsler Stammbaum 3, 1940s-Gegenwart

Christmas Holiday Traditions

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I write 5 blogs, 4 of them on a weekly basis; I like to find interesting topics, though there are times in the year that can get a bit crowded with other activities.  Christmas has just passed, and at the moment we have a teenager living with us; the topic of family traditions came up a few times, and it’s a good reminder that within even the same culture there can be variations of traditions.

I was born and raised in America, emigrated to Scotland, and am now 100% Swiss; my husband is 100% Swiss, came to Scotland, met me, and inherited my mixture of cultures (which fits fine in our multi-culture family).  When I lived in America the Christmas tree went up shortly after Thanksgiving; in Scotland, if it went up, it was around the first of December; here in Switzerland the trees usually go up on the 24th of December, so in our household we’ve made a compromise and do it the Scottish way.  For over ten years we’ve had a silk tree rather than a real tree; we just could not support the ecological consequences of chopping down a tree that had grown for several years, just to spend a fortnight dying in our living room and then to be tossed out with the compost.  The silk tree looks real, doesn’t drop needles or need watering, and has served us well for quite some time.  When it comes time to replace it, the tree will be taken back to the shop and they will dispose of it ecologically (that has already been paid for in the price of the original tree).  Swiss are extremely ecologically-minded; there is a “joke” (though it’s not far from the truth!) that after drinking a tea the Swiss will put the tea bag contents into the compost, the bag into the old paper collection, the string into textiles recycling, the staple into the metal collection, and the cardboard tag into the cardboard collection!

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One of my handmade ornaments from a beer can!

Our Christmas decorations are otherwise modest, nothing too flashy, but we have taken the North American tradition of Christmas stockings to heart.  I am gradually replacing our store-bought decorations with handmade ones; I make them from recycled drink cans and a bit of embossing ingenuity (For that process, click here).

In Switzerland the traditional Christmas meal is Fondue Chinoise; we only really do that if we get together with the wider family as it is quite a lot of effort for just the two of us.  In Scotland, the favoured meal was Haggis with tatties and neeps.  I do miss the Christmas crackers on the table in Scotland – not the food-type crackers, but table favours with small firework-snaps in them:  Two people pull one apart, and as it snaps a surprise gift comes out.  There were also the table bombs, with exploding gifts (like a piñata in reverse…).  Here, the intimate family circle celebrates together on the 24th, and on the 25th is family day with in-laws and the wider family; the 26th (Boxing Day) is also a holiday, usually spent with the other side of the family, or spent travelling back from the 25th (which is how our Boxing Day is spent, as our family Christmas involves either everyone coming here, or – more often – us going to France).

Every family has their own traditions; when two people marry they bring with them all sorts of expectations, impressions, preferences, habits and memories that form who they are, why they act the way they do sometimes, and how things “should” or “should not” be done.  And as they make compromises, new traditions are born.  That’s what makes cultures and mentalities, and eventually national traditions evolve over time!  What are your family traditions?  How much of it is from your culture, and how much is from your family’s individual traditions?

Loch Eriboll

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Loch Eriboll & region

Loch Eriboll & region

Loch Eriboll is a sea loch along the northern coast of Scotland, roughly 16 km (10 mi) long.  It’s been used probably as long as it’s existed as a safe anchor from the stormy seas off of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth.  Bronze Age remains can be found in the area, including the souterrain I wrote about recently.  There’s also a well preserved wheelhouse on a hillside above the west shore, and on the small peninsula jutting out into the loch, you’ll find the ruins of a small scale lime industry that developed there in the 19th century.  The shores around the area are fascinating, as the geological composition in that area is a conglomeration of an amazing variety, split along the eastern shore of the loch by the Moine Thrust.  Even along the roads you’ll find chunks of pink metamorphic rocks glittered with mica.

In 1945, thirty-three German U-boats surrendered in the deep loch, ending the Battle of the Atlantic.  Eilean Choraidh, the largest island in the loch, was used as target practice for aerial bombing due to its size and resemblance to the shape of a ship.  Along the western hills you can see words written with stones, near the settlement of Laid:  They are the names of warships, such as the Hood and Amethyst, arranged there by the sailors of those ships.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll, taken Summer 2012, © Stephanie Huesler

152 - Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag, 20 July 2012

Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag Beach, taken Summer 2012, © Stephanie Huesler

Not far from Loch Eriboll, on the way to Durness, is a treasure:  Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag is a beach of vertical walls of stones layered in colours ranging from black to pink.  When the tide is out the beach is endless, and when it’s in, climb the rocks!  The beach was created as the Ice Age sheets began to melt, pushing the walls of rocks upward as the island actually rose, no longer being held down by the massive weight of ice.

On a clear day, you can see the southern-most Orkney Isles, and the waters around the coast are still busy highways for ships of all sizes.

Skara Brae

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Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is probably the single most famous Neolithic settlement uncovered in the world.  It gives us the most complete picture of everyday life in that period of time, and has quite a few surprises:  Indoor running water?  Dressers and beds?  Yep.  They had storage rooms, and even toys for the kids.  There are some objects that they can’t figure out, but that just makes it all the more tantalizing.

Originally much farther from the shoreline, over the centuries erosion has eaten away at the land; Skara Brae will itself eventually succumb to the pounding Atlantic waves.

I was there in 1989 for the first time, and again in 2002; the first time I was there I was with a group of friends and we were given a private tour by the uncle of one of my friends, who just happened to work there.  It was an amazing way to see this prehistoric site, tourist-free and (back then) largely untainted by tourism.  In 2002 it was a different matter altogether; a tourist shop had sprung up, and we had to time our viewing between bus-loads of day-tourists from the South (Scotland).  Also on that second visit, the Atlantic winds were so strong we were literally leaning into the wind at 45° angles; if it had had a sudden lull, we would have been flung into the sunken dwellings; needless to say it was more of a nerve-wracking event than the first time around.

Skara Brae stone objectsIf you get a chance to go, do so; take at least a fortnight on Mainland Orkney; it is known as the Archaeologist’s treasure trove, and for good reason – just about any stone you turn over has some kind of historical significance there, and there are many sites to take in:  Maeshowe, Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar, and chambered cairns to name a few, and even more modern sites such as Churchill Barrier, and sunken World War 2 vessels (some portions are visible in low tide) in the stretch of water between Scotland and the isles, the Pentland Firth, known as “The Sailor’s Nightmare”… there are several currents that flow and mix into this bottleneck, not only making for treacherous sailing but it can also make even the hardiest sailor lose his lunch.  Word to the wise:  When heading out of Thurso with the ferry to the Mainland (the largest island in the Orkney group), a) don’t eat yet (it usually leaves around lunch time, and believe me, you won’t keep it long if you eat…), and b) as soon as you get on the ferry head to the dining room and get a window-side table.  This is because they will not only fill up fast, but once you’re out of the relatively calm / wind-sheltered bay into the open Strait, you’ll be glad for a ring-side view from a wind-sheltered, spray-sheltered spot.

Atlantic Iron Age Souterrains

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Day 8, 1.149 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012  A Souterrain is a type of underground construction mainly associated with the Atlantic Iron Age.  Built near settlements, they were used as storage for food or for protection through hiding from raiders.  After being dug out they were lined with flat stones, with staircases down into their depths.  Of those excavated throughout the UK and Ireland, artefacts are rare, indicating that they were merely in use temporarily.  Some are very small, while others resemble passageways; my guess is that it would depend on the size required by the settlement, and how much time they had to prepare it.

Day 8, 1.141 - Souterrain, Loch Eriboll, 21 July 2012I came across a souterrain along Loch Eriboll in 2012, as I was in the area doing research for a novel I’m working on.  In these photos you can see that, if you were walking out there at night or dusk, they could be very treacherous.  My husband crawled down inside to take a picture back out; it was roomy enough for him to stand once inside (in this particular souterrain even the ceiling was lined with large stone slabs), though the narrow stone stairs and proportions in general indicated a much shorter population than modern humans.  you can see from the photo of myself how overgrown the bracken and heather is; it was nearly completely hidden; we were looking for it based on a geological map’s markings, but if we hadn’t known it was there, it would have gone completely unnoticed.

Scandinavian Scotland

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An ancient broch along the road near Ben Hope, Highlands (taken July 2012,  ©Stephanie Huesler)

An ancient broch along the road near Ben Hope, Highlands (taken July 2012, ©Stephanie Huesler)

Having lived in Scotland, I have a deep love of all things Scottish (except the freezing cold horizontal winter rains).  My husband’s and my wedding rings were handmade in Orkney, and are covered with runes that translate as “Dreams of Everlasting Love.”  And of course we had to go to Orkney to pick them out…

A novel I’m working on between my more pressing projects (an 18th century English historical trilogy) is set in 8th century Scotland and Norway, as well as modern Scotland.  It’s a great excuse to go on holidays to those places, and I’ll be heading to Norway soon for a research trip.  If you’re unfamiliar with ancient Scotland, here’s your chance to learn something new:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavian_Scotland has a great article, covering quite a few aspects of history.  Enjoy reading, but don’t forget that the best way to experience history is by going to that place and imbibing in the atmosphere itself.  It’s my invitation to you, to go on holiday to the Highlands of Scotland!

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