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Enthusiasm for Linlithgow got quite out of hand

Our journey to Scotland was research for simplicity -- a seeking of sharp, clean air and perceptions -- an escape from the summer steaminess of both Washington and London. We longed for the child that would require a woolen sweater in June, and I sought a sense of ethnic identity, a link to my father's McNeil ancestors.

Inevitably, we went first to Edinburgh and then wondered why. Its dark handsomeness and sober dignity were impressive enough but on a scale too large for our personal goals. it was intimacy we sought and found in nearby Linlithgow.

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No more than 20 miles to the west of Edinburgh and but a few miles from the Firth of Forth, Linlithgow's main road since its 12th- century designation as a royal burgh.

In keeping with our flight toward warmth and companionship, we took rooms in an 18th- century farmhouse, feasting on the Hay family's home-cooked food before taking an evening's walk in the town.

It is in Linlithgow, which means Loch of the West Valley, the Scotland's tragic queen, Mary Queen of Scots, was born in 1542, six days before the death of her father, James V, and her unknowing ascension to the throne. Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of both Mary and her father, lies just north of High Street, next to St. Michael's Kirk, where Mary is thought to have been baptized.

Partly in ruins now, its roofs gone and its massive chambers bare and vulnerable to rain and wind. The palace was once a model of splendor and sumptuousness. Its position on a promontory above Loch Linlithgow ensured some security, while slopes down to the water provided land for orchards, beehives, and fields of strawberries. Today those slopes are neatly trimmed grass, reaching down to the water's edge.

The long evenings of summer bring later closing hours to the palace, and the intense glow of the dying sun intensifies the blues and golds of Loch Linlithgow and its royal landmark. Deepening shadows and the curiously vibrant silence of a once lively domain add to the drama of the place.

Despite its breathtaking setting and overall majesty, the palace itself is initially disappointing. The plain yellow sandstone, randomly pierced by the small, narrow windows safety required, seems plain indeed when set against its tantalizing history.

We paid our fee with a shrug and entered the royal quadrangle. Incredible. That unassumming exterior hides a dazzling heart. From the bizarre King's Fountain in the inner close, a late-Gothic design whose carved grotesqueries once spilled water through their gaping mouths, to the immense chambers and halls with fireplaces large enough to seat a table for ten, Linlithgow Palace implies not only wealth but royalty.

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The present structure was begun by King James I in 1425, its quadrangle from being completed in the 16th century by James V, father of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1607 the north quarter of the building collapsed, its restoration -- called the "new wark" -- between 1618 and 1620 undoubtedly eliminating the chamber where Mary was born.

The visitor today thus sees three centuries of architecture as he moves from floor to floor by the corkscrew stairways once called the "turnspikes" of the King or Queen.

The power or ruins is a peculiar one, but somehow the emptiness of these cavernous rooms, invaded by circling birds and naked of even plaster or wood, allowed us temporary possession of this royal house. No velvet rope, gilt-framed painting, or watchful guard suggested our lineage was too common for access to the King.

It was not until we were once again within the Peel, as the grounds surrounding the Palace are called, that we could spare a thought for neighboring St. Michael's Kirk. As snug against the palace as it is -- so close as to seem a younger brother if not quite an equal -- St. Michael's goes not quite capture the imagination.

St. Michael's historical associations are sufficient, and tales of individuals such as Cromwell -- who stabled his horses there in 1650 and permitted his troops to embellish the walls with shot marks -- surely enhance its reputation. But St. Michael's has been frequently restored, its tower now capped by an aluminum aberration and its church officer rightly more concerned with faulty wiring and melted pipes than with the telling of history. He cannot be blamed, but it's a loss nonetheless.

The town itself, however, has a charm quite separate from its distinguished past, and our walk that evening brought certain small pleasures. We invaded T. and J. Fairley's the town's confectioners, with a zest I'm ashamed to acknowledge, our eyes feasting upon 86 varieties of penny candy -- down from their usual stock of 123 kinds. Using our farmhouse hosts as a proper excuse for extravagance, we chose Berwick cockles, Soor Plooms, and Edinburgh rock chips, adding toffee and bonbons to rose buds and iced caramels.

Our enthusiasm for Linlithgow now quite out of hand, we sauntered across High Street to the Ritz Linlithgow, the home of the Caley Bingo and Social Club. We applied for membership on the spot.

Though a day's passing would find us quite another place, for that evening in Linlithgow we felt a part of Scotland.

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