My family made an end-of-the-school-year weekend trip from Shenzhen to Yangshuo, and it was a blast. The high-speed “bullet” train, which topped off at 300 KPH (187 MPH), made the 600 KM (375 M) trip to Guillin in just over three hours. Then, an hour-long taxi ride took us into the mystical terrain of Yangshuo. We enjoyed our stay at the Outside Inn, and highly recommend the inn if you’re making the trip and looking for comfortable and friendly lodging outside of Yangshuo proper.
If you’re travelling through the southwest Virginia, and you’re getting close to Lexington, then there is a detour you must plan to make. Especially if you have kids who love dinosaurs.
Opened this year, the Dinosaur Kingdom II is the theme park sequel to The Dinosaur Kingdom, both of which are/were brainchildren of Lexington’s own Mark Cline, who also created the infamous Foamhenge, a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of styrofoam. And as the brochure says, this is not your father’s dinosaur park.
In my three year old son’s case, this is certainly true. When I was about five years old, my family stopped at a dinosaur park on one of our summer vacations, and it was – as I remember it – simply large fiberglass dinosaurs standing around looking dinosaury. The Dinosaur Kingdom II is far, far from being so pedestrian. In fact, it’s like nothing you will have seen before.
This is a dinosaur park with a story, and it is a story that is so freaking creative and hilarious, that you can’t help but love what Cline has built in the woods close to Natural Bridge.
Just to give you a taste, here is what the brochure says:
It’s 1864. Them wacky Yankees is at it again! Tryin’ to use living dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South. But ole’ Dixie has more than a few tricks still left up her sleeve.
Experience a wooded, walking adventure of the wildest, weirdest, craziest dinosaur park the Washington Post has called Amazing! Brilliant! Hilarious! This is definitely not your father’s dinosaur park!
Our visit to the Dinosaur Kingdom II was even more interesting considering that just a week before, my family had been in Williamstown, Kentucky, attending the opening of the new Ark Encounter park (a lifesize replica of Noah’s Ark constructed by Answers in Genesis, a young earth Creationist ministry – read my review here).
Like the Dinosaur Kingdom II, The Ark Encounter also imagines that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, with dinosaurs as passengers on Noah’s Ark. But a big difference is that as far as I can tell, Mark Cline doesn’t actually believe that Yankee soldiers woke up dinosaurs during the Civil War and used them against the Confederacy.
And interestingly, even thought the Ark Encounter had a budget over $100 million dollars, it was nowhere near as entertaining as Mark Cline’s little dinosaur park in the woods of Virginia.
But pictures speak louder than words, so enjoy my virtual tour of Mark Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom II, and then plan to go see it for yourself.
Welcome to The Ark Encounter, the Answers in Genesis Ark Park, located in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter is the enormous Noah’s Ark replica, built 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 7 stories tall, and reportedly the largest timber-framed structure in the world. The Ark Encounter is also one of the more controversial theme parks built in the United States in the last several years, largely because it is a government-supported tourist attraction with a decidedly religious focus and an end-of-the-day price tag of $172,000,000.
My family I visited the Ark Encounter on July 7, 2016, the park’s official opening day, with some friends. I wasn’t there as a life-long Answers in Genesis supporter, nor was I there as a life-long anti-AiG protestor. I was there because I love the story of Noah’s Ark, because we happened to be in-country and only seven hours away, and because I frequently write about the state of American Cultural Christianity on this blog. Visiting the new flagship of American Cultural Christianity (see what I did there?) on opening day seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even at $40 a pop for my family of five (the baby was free).
But surprisingly, as I’ve been thinking about what to write regarding Ken Ham’s big boat built in the bluegrass backwoods, I’ve been struggling. Do I write a simple report of my trip? Do I tell my thoughts about the controversial displays – the dinosaurs in cages, the explanations of Young Earth ideology, the mannequins of Noah and his family? Do I respond to the protestors who congregated around the exit from I-75, frustrated by AiG’s alleged non-scientific view of the origins of the planet, and who seem to have made it their mission to see the Ark Encounter fail as a theme park?
I decided not to delve into any of those topics, but rather, to give a simple list of the positives and negatives of this theme park as I see them, as I do when I review Christian films.
Positives about the Ark Encounter
1. The ark itself
AiG attempted to build a replica that was the size of Noah’s Ark according to biblical instructions (300 cubits by 50 by 30), and the scope of the project is stunning. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe what it’s like, standing underneath the replica, looking up at that massive stern. The experience really did bring the biblical account to life.
As you can see by the pictures, AiG’s attention to detail with the ark is unarguably impressive. When they could, the builders used very old shipbuilding techniques, a feat that must have been a massive undertaking. One can’t help but admire the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the construction of the replica ark, by people who – in many cases – were doing it as an expression of their Christian faith.
2. The “Fairy Tale Ark” and the living quarters displays
The Fairy Tale Ark display really caught my attention. This was a simple room filled with children’s books about Noah’s Ark. At first, I thought the room was going to be celebrating that the story is taught to children, but I quickly realized that the purpose of the room was actually to condemn the trivializing of the Noah’s Ark story.
I was completely caught off guard by this display, and it really resonated with me. For the longest time, I’ve been amazed that a story about the destruction of the world was often told as a children’s story, and even in Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel for which this blog is named, I tried to capture the seriousness of the flood and not make it cartoonish. I was glad to see that the AiG people felt the same way.
That being said, seeing what that room represented surprised me, considering how much Ken Ham and AiG disliked Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly mature Noah film, even devoting a two hour video review to critically dissecting the film. It’s been a while since I watched the review, but I think they must have at least appreciated that Aronofsky shared their serious approach to the event.
The second display that impressed me was found on the third deck, and it was the AiG representation of what the living quarters on the ark might have been like for Noah and his family. This was another section where an impressive amount of attention was given to detail, and a great deal of thought given to what life may have been like for people at that time.
Since one of the main complaints about Aronofsky’s Noah was that he took too many liberties with his film, AiG appeared ready to head off any criticism about their own filling in of details with a rather lengthy explanation of their view on taking artistic license with biblical material.
Here are some images of the living quarters, where you can see the craftsmanship and detail that went into the creation of the displays.
3. The tenacity of Ken Ham and AiG
Ken Ham and the AiG people fought doggedly for years to get the funding to build the Ark Encounter: They raised millions through private donations; they were determined to participate in a Kentucky tourism tax rebate program, going so far as to take the fight to court; they were persuasive enough to convince the little town of Williamstown to give them a break on property taxes and a very good deal on the property [edited]; and when the attempts to raise donations didn’t seem to be doing the job, they gave supporters and investors the opportunity to purchase high-risk bonds for thousands of dollars a pop, and supportive investors apparently turned up in droves to do so. When their detractors were celebrating the project’s demise, Ham and company kept working, and they ended up having the last laugh as the park opened on July 7.
Say what you will about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (and there’s plenty of people out there saying plenty of things!), but you have to admire their determination and tenacity to tell the story they want to tell in the face of massive opposition (even if they do go too far in response from time to time).
And I should say that as a Christian, I can’t argue with the desire of the folks at AiG to expose as many people as possible to Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said:
Creating something like the ark does draw people in (although I question Ken Ham’s claim that 40% of attendees will be non-Christians – most non-Christians I know aren’t the least bit interested, and most of my Christian friends are only moderately interested), and the Ark Encounter might very well result people coming to faith in Christ.
After all, Scripture has story after story of God using unexpected and sometimes even foolish means to accomplish His ends. In this case, even though the secular society sees something like the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as complete and utter foolishness, and many authentic Christians agree with that assessment, as a Christian I can’t discount the possibility that God can use these things to bring people into a relationship with Himself.
More about that later.
4. The Ark Encounter’s economic potential
I’m not sure if this section should go in the positives or negatives, but I’ll go ahead and add it as my last positive. A segueway into the negatives, if you will.
Kentucky has one of the worst state poverty rates in the country, and Williamstown is among the lowest for any town anywhere. Having a major tourist attraction in this region could potentially help the economy in the long run, and this was one of the big selling points that Ham and AiG used to get the state and the town onboard with the controversial tax rebates and interest-free loans. The Ark Encounter’s sister attraction, The Creation Museum, helps make the case as the attraction has drawn nearly three million visitors in its nine years of operation, and having the two attractions so near to one another is a draw for many people who might not come to Kentucky otherwise.
Furthermore, Ken Ham has stated multiple times that the Ark Encounter could potentially bring a couple of million visitors in its first year alone. Having said that, it should be noted that others claim that those high numbers were purposefully inflated to make the park more attractive to investors. Whether or not it was purposeful, I can’t say. But unfortunately, with only 30,000 people reportedly visiting in the first six days, it doesn’t look like the end result will be anywhere near a couple of million.
That being said, my family must have spent close to $1000 in travel, lodging, food, and the Ark during our four day excursion, and there were hundreds of families at the Ark Encounter on opening day. That’s a lot of money injected into the area. Critics counter this idea by pointing out that the Ark Encounter has taken money away from the state through lost tax revenue and interest payments on that huge loan, and that it will be years before that loss becomes a gain for the local economy. And if the Ark Encounter fails, it will never be a gain.
Negatives about the Ark Encounter
- The displays
Other than the two displays already mentioned, most of the displays were pretty underwhelming. I saw posters explaining the AiG interpretation of Scripture, the AiG explanation of how the earth could be 6,000 years old, supported by a few television-sized video monitors. I also saw a few exhibits demonstrating what life might have been like on the ark for Noah and his family. There were also several fake animals in cages (including the infamous dinosaurs… I didn’t see the unicorns), but they didn’t really do anything, so they weren’t terribly interesting.
Considering that Ken Ham was bragging that the Ark Encounter would compete with Disney and be “beyond Hollywood”, and furthermore that he continually emphasized that the park had been designed by the person who had designed the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, I was expecting more bang for my $160 bucks. See, the park is heavy on attempts to proselytize visitors and educate them about Creation theory, but extremely light on entertainment.
I’m assuming that as time goes by, more displays will be added, but they need to be more than just posters on the wall or the odd mannequin. The ark needs to be a dynamic, moving place to visit, and they shouldn’t just rely on visitors being impressed by a big boat, because that wears off quickly and won’t bring people back. I know that AiG has plans for a Tower of Babel, a first century village, a theater, and other things, but right now the Ark Encounter needs to bump up the entertainment factor if they want their numbers to be sustained.
Here are some simple ideas that AiG can use for free: (1) have actors wandering the decks in costume and in character, interacting with visitors. (2) Have much more multi-media, maybe even 4-D films that help you to experience what it would have been like to be in the flood. (3) since AiG loves dinosaurs so much, use Ken Ham’s Aussie connections to get dinosaur puppets from Erth to be a part of the experience.
The bottom line? There are a thousand things AiG could do to make the Ark a “must-see” park for everyone and not just believers, who are currently the only ones interested in visiting. Part of that is to make the place entertaining as well as informative. After all, it’s not the Creation Museum, so loosen it up a little! Make the experience more immersive and interactive and maybe even add some levity and fun, and even I might be convinced to return.
2. The sole focus on apologetics as ministry
As I walked around looking at the displays, I kept my eyes open for anything that would indicate that there was any sort of charitable component to the Ark Encounter, this ministry that was taking so much money to build.
Perhaps a portion of the ticket sales would go to help the poor in Kentucky? Maybe AiG would give you the opportunity to donate to help build schools or hospitals in some developing country as you buy your official Noah’s Ark cubit in the gift shop for $19.99 a pop?
Surely there would be something in this Christian theme park that reflected the charge of a Christian to help the poor?
But I saw nothing, and while it did disappoint me, it also didn’t surprise me. After all, as I said before, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, and after operating costs, every dime that is spent on visiting the Ark Encounter will undoubtedly go to pay back the massive 68 million dollar interest-free loan that was given to AiG by the city of Williamstown (which – interestingly – has a poverty level of 18.3%) and to return the investment given to those who purchased the bonds. This certainly makes business sense.
But does it make ministry sense?
3. The evangelistic component
Along those lines, I’ve said multiple times that I admire that Ken Ham and AiG have placed such a high priority on their projects sharing the Gospel. They have put an impressive amount of time and energy into building what they call “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”
But having visited the Ark Encounter, having walked the halls, examined the displays, and seeing what they have to offer, I can’t help but question how much of an impact this outreach will have on non-believers.
I’ve spent the past couple of days scouring the internet for any examples on non-believers visiting the ark, and in that time I’ve seen several reviews from visitors whose views weren’t in line with AiG when they visited. Reading their reviews seemed to indicate that none of them were convinced of anything afterwards, even after they were treated very respectfully by Ark Encounter and AiG employees.
This led me to expand my search for any skeptics who had been convinced by the Creation Museum, since it has been around for nine years. I found plenty of negative reviews by Atheists and Christians alike (here, here, and here – just to show a few), and I did find a couple of anecdotal examples of children from Christian families telling their parents that they wanted to follow Jesus as a result of visiting the museum, but I didn’t find any stories of skeptics or non-believers having any sort of change of heart from their visit to that attraction.
Sadly, if anything, the argument could be made that the typical response of non-believers to the Creation museum was having their skepticism reinforced by the visit. Watch this video for an example (and there is a bit of salty language):
The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter both seem to suffer from the same problem that plagues most of the Christian films I review. They want to be evangelistic, but their impact outside of the faithful appears to be negligible.
Incidentally, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. There could be scores of people who have come to faith as a result of their experiences with the Creation Museum, and there could be scores who will because of the Ark Encounter. If so, and if someone would like to provide evidence that I’m wrong about the evangelistic impact of the Creation Museum on skeptics, then I’ll gladly retract this point and have my positives outweigh my negatives.
4. The Cost
While I admire the tenacity, determination, and heart for evangelization of the people behind the Ark Encounter, I’ve also struggled with the fact that they are doing an Ark Encounter at all. Such a huge sum of money for building a theme park? My struggle finally came to a head one morning last May when I opened Twitter and found an AiG Tweet touting the benefits of building a Noah’s Ark theme park right next to a Tweet from J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos, talking about their push to raise money to help orphans.
Seeing the two money-raising efforts side-by-side took my breath away. On the one hand, as a Christian, I respect AiG’s effort to share the Christian faith. On the other hand, as a Christian, I’m horrified that believers have struggled and fought and spent years raising an enormous amount of money to build a for-profit theme park replica of Noah’s Ark.
And it warps a part of my brain that it’s been done in the name of Christian ministry.
At this stage in the project it may be a tired argument (although I wouldn’t call it a stupid argument, as some have), but I can’t help but think what else could have been done with that money that might have had even more of an impact, if not on propagating the Creationist viewpoint, at least in sharing the Gospel and demonstrating a valuable apologetic, by meeting the physical needs of the poor and sick.
For example, over on Twitter, @branthansen wrote this:
Brent’s Tweet represents the heart of my struggle.
But didn’t Jesus command his followers to make disciples and to teach? Isn’t that what the Ark Encounter is doing?
As I said before, Answers in Genesis claims to have obeyed that command by building the Ark Encounter, and they have a point. People visiting the park will be exposed to the biblical teaching that the world is a damaged place, and that Jesus’s life, ministry, and death on the cross is the answer to fixing the damage.
At the same time, Jesus also said this:
So, what do we do with this? First, some counter arguments:
1. Giving to the poor is not AiG’s wheelhouse. After all, AiG’s stated mission is to help people learn how to defend the Christian faith, and building an attraction like the Ark Encounter is one way to go about doing that.
2. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”, and $172 million dollars is nothing to Him. As a friend wrote to me, “If Ham spends $100M on a colossal mistake, God is not one dime the poorer, nor are His plans set back by a day.”
3. I don’t personally know the Ark Encounter supporters, investors, or AiG employees, and I don’t know what they do with their private money. For all I know, they give more in a month then I give in a year, and the money given to AiG was on top of their already generous contributing to all sorts of worthy charities.
4. Christians should never endeavour to do big things for large sums of money? What if a Christian filmmaker successfully raised $172,000,000 to make a big blockbuster film? Would that make me “struggle”?
These are all good questions, and all good points. But they don’t change the fact that this sort of money raised in a for-profit ministry venture makes me uncomfortable, especially when there is so much need in the world.
And it leads me to ask the question: Would Jesus build an Ark Park, or would he turn over the tables in the gift shop?
I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know.
My final thought on the Ark Encounter: would I recommend a visit?
Christian or not, the ark itself is magnificent and is really something to be seen. But considering the cost of a ticket, there needs to be more going on to make it worth the expense, especially if you’re bringing a family. Once the park gets the zip lines up and running, once they get a few more (hopefully entertaining) displays in the ark, once they get a few more animals in the petting zoo, I’d say give it a go.
This is true, even if you’re not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but not a young-earth Creationist. Just be prepared to talk to your kids about what they will see, and to talk about why they will be seeing it. It can lead to some really interesting conversations about different belief systems, and different ways of interpreting Scripture. And yes, Bill Nye, it can even lead to discussions about science.
At least it did with my kids!
And if you do decide to go, and you agree with me on the charity/cost issues, then do the job that AiG should be doing and donate a matching amount to the tickets you purchased to a worthy charity of your own choice, preferably one that works in Kentucky.
I’d recommend a charity like the Christian Appalachian Project.
The final event of our Chinese New Year trip to Hong Kong was a trip to the Udderbelly Festival‘s Dinosaur Zoo, and it was a great way to top off our trip, especially for our two and half year old dinosaur fan, Noah.
The Dinosaur Zoo folks are from an Australian company called Erth, and they put on a great show! The audience was filled with kids of all ages, and they really responded enthusiastically to the entire production.
The show runs from February 10 to 14th, with shows in English and Cantonese. Go here for more information, [edit: the link is old, and they’ve removed the info] and plan to take the kids! They’ll love it!
Want to know what McDonald’s of the future might look like? You just have to go no further than Hong Kong’s Admiralty Center and the McDonald’s Next Concept Restaurant. This is a one-in-the-world McD’s dining experience, and has both the traditional menu as well as healthier options that you build for yourself.
The fancy new McDonald’s was a hit for my kids. While my daughter went the traditional double cheeseburger route, my son ordered a hamburger that you built to order, and he said it tasted better than a typical McDonald’s burger. I had the build your own salad with grilled chicken and asparagus (!), and it was quite tasty, and I didn’t leave McDonald’s feeling like I needed to take a few Lipitor for my trouble.
The food was brought to our table by nice McDonald’s employees, and was pretty quick in arriving. And while you can tell that it was a crowded place, we very quickly found seats, and they even had cell phone chargers on every table – which in Hong Kong is a pretty big deal.
I didn’t try the McCafe options, but the baked goods and coffee looked like an upgrade from the typical McCafes that you find in McDonald’s all over China.
It was a pretty cool experience, eating in this McDonald’s from the future. If you’re in Hong Kong, give it a try!
My wife and I enjoyed our first visit to Biltmore Estate today, but as I was driving away, I was struck by two things.
That may seem like a lot, but when you compare him to his grandfather, the shipping and railroad tycoon who built the Vanderbilt empire from nothing, and his delightfully mutton-chopped father, who after inheriting the empire, doubled it in just eight years, George was not a success.
George Vanderbilt – who reportedly had no interest in the family’s business empire, simply inherited a fortune, and then spent years sinking it all into building the largest home in the United States.
Given, that home is obviously spectacular, and Vanderbilt’s collections of cultural, artistic, and historical artifacts which fill the place are second-to-none. But the fact that we know about anything at all about Biltmore today says more about the tenacity, efforts, and business acumen of his descendants than it says about those of Vanderbilt himself.
This fact really surprised me.
Secondly, I was struck that I – as an average American – live a life that a turn-of-the-century person like Vanderbilt couldn’t have dreamt or imagined, even with his millions, his family name, and his impressive European chateau in North Carolina.
For example, I travel the globe cheaply and comfortably in a day, while a similar voyage would have been much more arduous for Vanderbilt, and would have taken him a much longer time by land and by sea. Vanderbilt may have had an impressive library, but I have every published book in the world at my disposal with the click of a button. I can communicate with anyone in the world in an instant, while it would have taken Vanderbilt days or weeks by post or perhaps by telephone to a few people. I drive my own horseless carriage at high rates of speed while enjoying the wonders of air conditioning and listening to any music I wish. I’ve seen pictures and video of men on the moon, of spacecraft reaching every planet in our solar system, and high resolution images of galaxies light years away.
To bring it back to Earth, in 1914, George Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of his generation with immediate access to the best medicine of his time, died in New York due to complications from appendi-freakin-citis. And right now, somewhere in a small hospital in middle America, an E.R. surgeon is performing an emergency appendectomy on a person with no money, and that person will likely walk away from the surgery.
We have vaccines for polio, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever, rubella, hepatitis, and influenza – all diseases for which Vanderbilt’s money could not buy a cure.
Which makes me ask the question: what will things be like in another hundred years? Here’s hoping for more amazing breakthroughs, technological advances, and another hundred years of us not eradicating ourselves as a species.
All that being said, we enjoyed our visit to Biltmore, and I’ve come up with ten tips for visiting the place.
Thimblerig’s Ten Tips for Visiting Biltmore
1) Biltmore is crazy popular in Asheville in the summer, so visit on a weekday if you are able. But the place is very well organized, so even though we arrived at 11:00, we didn’t have too many lines.
2) Why would anyone bother with valet parking? To feel like a Vanderbilt? Folks, the shuttle service is free and easy, and if you’re really feeling healthy, the walk from the parking lot to the house is less than 10 minutes.
3) Bring a picnic lunch. We had a nice simple lunch we brought with us on a bench during our walk to the lake. It was fun, and it saved us money compared to the pricey Biltmore eateries (think airport prices on the property).
4) While Biltmore is literally crawling with extremely well-informed guides, the general ticket doesn’t get you any sort of guided tour. Rather, you can pay $10 for a little cell-phone-like audio tour. I would highly recommend this, but would suggest you bring your own earbuds, as the headphones are curiously rationed, and normal earbuds will fit. Trust me – you don’t want to walk around the whole mansion holding the cell phone thing up to your ear. But do the audio tour. It’s worth the $10.
5) Travelling with a child? Leave the big stroller at home and bring the umbrella stroller and a backpack. Lots and lots of stairs everywhere at Biltmore – in the house and in the gardens – and you’ll end up carrying the stroller up lots of those stairs. Much of Biltmore is not wheel-friendly (keep this in mind for wheelchairs, too).
6) If you are travelling with a small child, do the gardens first so that they get plenty tired out. Our two year old blessedly slept nearly the entire time we were touring the house because we wore him out first in the gardens.
7) Bring a few bottles of water with you. I didn’t see many water fountains, and we got pretty thirsty.
8) Buy your tickets a week ahead from the website, and save $10 a ticket. And if you go this summer, kids under 16 are free. Many B&Bs and hotels have special deals as well, so check with your accommodations before buying from the website.
9) Stop off at the winery on your way out, as a few sample glasses of wine are a spectacular way to end a long day of seeing how the better half lived compared to your grandparents. It’s also fun to watch people sampling wine, as some of them look like they may have attended wine school in France, and beside them is the guy just gulping down free wine.
10) And if you are travelling with small children, and you spent all day dragging them through several floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion, you owe them at least a half hour at the little petting farm at Antler Hill. The kids can pet chickens and feed goats, which our two year old loved better than Disney. You must stop there.
All in all, a trip to Biltmore is something you should do if you have any interest in American history, and especially if you curious about the way a very small segment of the population lived at the turn of the century. It’s a bit pricey to enter, but it’s money well-spent.
Do you know the name?
If you know Scottish music, it’s a name you might know. If you know Scottish music, it’s name you should know.
His could have been a name that most all would have known, regardless of our fondness for music from Scotland. There are some names that deserve to be known. But life has a way of writing our scripts in surprising and sometimes cruel and tragic ways.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I tell you more about Martyn Bennett (the bloke in the picture in the header, picture credit to B.J. Stewart) and why I’m writing about him, you need to hear him. I think we’ll start with the first track from his second album, Bothy Culture. The song is called Tongues of Kali.
Oh, and make sure you turn up the volume.
How I heard about Martyn Bennett is a bit of a story.
My wife and I were married in 1998 on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, the day of Hogmanay (the last day of year in Scottish). It’s also the day of one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world, as Edinburgh is transformed for one night into a citywide mix of free concerts, dancing, celebratory kissing, and the kind of joyful revelry that should always happen on New Year’s Eve.
Considering we had a small wedding that included only five, we made the decision that Edinburgh’s festivities were actually our wedding reception, with thousands of guests and music and fireworks. As night fell, I put on my rented kilt, and my new bride and I headed out to see what the city had arranged to celebrate our new marriage.
Weaving our way through the festive crowds, we came upon a stage on a fairly empty city square being prepared for a concert. We had no idea who would be performing, but since few people had yet stopped at the spot, and since I saw different kinds of Scottish musical instruments being handled on the stage, we decided to park ourselves and enjoy watching people until the concert began.
A man with baggy camouflage pants and long hair in dreadlocks came out on stage and started tuning instruments, creating an immediate disconnect for me. He didn’t fit my image of a traditional Scottish musician. With the dreads, he looked more like a reggae artist. Were we really about to ring in the new year in Scotland with reggae music?
But since he was tuning pipes and the other Scottish instruments, it had to be Scottish music, right?
The crowd had started to build, effectively trapping us at the front of the stage, and so we had no choice but to wait and see.
When the performance started, I was transfixed by what I heard coming from the musicians onstage. It was most definitely Scottish music, but it was infused with club beats and samples and sitars and syncopated rhythms and sounds like I had never heard before.
This was music.
Music full of passion.
Music full of life and energy.
It wasn’t safe music, like some other attempts at blending traditional Celtic music with modern sounds. It was raw. It was risky.
And things just got better.
My wife, who is a native of Kazakhstan, started squealing (yes, she squealed) and hopping up and down as she realized she’d seen the dreadlocked musician perform at the state opera house in her home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan just a few weeks earlier, when he and a small group of musicians had travelled there as guests of the British Consul.
It was like a special gift, to have the band at our wedding reception be so fantastic and unique, and to have them playing a return engagement especially for my wife. Well, at least to us it was especially for my wife.
The concert that night was unforgettable, especially when midnight came, and the city erupted in a massive fireworks display. Bennett led the now overcrowded square in a traditional singalong of Auld Lang Syne that segued into an audience-pleasing high energy song that would be well-met in any rave. We danced and celebrated well into the night, one of the best nights of my life, and an amazing way to start our married life.
In Edinburgh, in the days that followed, I managed to find a copy of Bennett’s Bothy Culture, which we would listen to frequently, fondly.
Soon after, my wife and I moved to Kazakhstan, where we lived for fourteen years. One day in 2005, I decided to hunt down information about the dreadlocked musician that we had enjoyed so much that New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh. I loved the CD, and wanted more. We would be returning to the U.S. for the summer, so I went searching, knowing I would stand a pretty good chance of tracking down any new music in the states.
To my heartbreak, I found that Martyn Bennett had died on January 30 of that year at the ridiculously young age of 34. He’d died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he’d been fighting since being diagnosed in November of 2000.
I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t imagine it. That energetic, creative, driving force, who I’d watched blow across Hogmanay like a hurricane – was gone?
From what I’ve read, as Martyn’s illness weakened him, he became unable to tour, and eventually had to stop playing his instruments. But this didn’t stop him from recording his final album, entitled Grit. Bennett described the idea of Grit this way:
Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides (Grit) brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards…
Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures.
When I found out that Martyn Bennett had died, it’s hard to describe how devastated I felt, considering I had never met the man. I really didn’t even know much about him. And I hadn’t even taken the time to drop him a note thanking him for the important part he played in the start of my marriage.
His music had travelled the globe with my family several times, and I’d never tried to let him know.
That’s the kind of thing we think about doing, but rarely ever do. And we almost always wind up wishing that we had.
So, Martyn, this is my note. We’re coming up on ten years since you were liberated from your suffering, and this blog post is my attempt to honor you, and thank you for all the joy and pleasure you brought to so many people in the too-short time you were given to share your gift. Especially the joy and pleasure you brought to us.
And it’s also my attempt to help more people to know your name, and your music.
Because yours is a name that deserves to be remembered.
Martyn Bennett lived a full life, pursuing his dreams of preserving the musical heritage of Scotland’s past while embracing the progressive nature of Scotland’s musical future. He was a classically trained musician, a meticulous musical perfectionist with a love of sampling and house beats. He was – and continues to be – an inspiration to countless young musicians across Scotland, and beyond.
Please read more about Martyn’s life in his own words, by reading the bio he wrote on his blog.
Also, read more in depth about Bennett’s life from Herald Scotland journalist, Rob Adams.
Finally, enjoy some of the music of Martyn Bennett, then share it with others.
Extreme biker Danny Macaskill’s The Ridge, with soundtrack Martyn Bennett’s Blackbird from Grit
Hallaig, from Bothy Culture, and the award winning short film by Neil Kempsell
Swallowtail, a more traditional song by Martyn Bennett, with scenes from Man of Aran
Sky Blue by Peter Gabriel, the Martyn Bennett mix. The last recording Bennett made before his death.
And if you have the chance, try to see GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.