Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Highlands Homecoming

Compelled to visit Scotland by a long-held fascination with moors, faeries, medieval castles and feuding clans, I arrived eager to see not just a few major attractions but the entire country. I had one week, an entirely open schedule and more dreams than reality allowed.

Scotland, while much smaller than the United States, still makes up about 30 percent of the area of the United Kingdom. Travelling the entire country in seven days was not going to happen, especially when my goal was to see as many desolate moors, mountains and ruins as possible. Desolation does not lend itself well to transport; few buses and trains ramble the countryside in the way I hoped to do.

Sitting in Edinburgh, I was faced with a conundrum. My usual modes of travel, buses and trains, could not take me where I wanted to go. I lacked the money to rent a car and a constant drizzle ruled out a bike trip. I wandered the city for a time, exploring its own rich history and craggy medieval and Reformation-era architecture. Eventually, getting restless, I happened upon a travel agency while in search of a map. I wanted to explore but knew not precisely how or where and needed any guidance I could get.

I left the travel agency with a handful of maps, all part of various brochures advertising Highlands tours. Listening to the St. Giles choir rehearse Handel’s Messiah for evensong that night, I flipped through the tour descriptions. By the time the actual evensong arrived I was still in my seat, contentedly listening a second time. The next tour group left in the morning. I was going to be on it.

This was, I knew, a potentially ludicrous decision. I could be wasting handfuls of money. I despised tour groups and scorned the hordes of tourists descending from double-decker buses in major cities worldwide. I designated tour groups to the realm of high school marching bands and senior citizens (both lovely sectors of the population, neither of whom I belong to nor identify with at this point in my life).

Yet I had my birthday money, thoughtfully deposited in my account by my sisters, and no other feasible option. Plus, the brochure promised a luxury Mercedes van. Never, in my experience with tour groups, had hordes descended from luxury vans. What exactly was a luxury van anyway?

The next morning I found out. Our van was shaped much like the 17-passenger vans I rode in while working in the cornfields as a teenager. However, instead of a leathery-skinned foreman in the driver's seat, this van had Tim the tour guide, a talkative Scot with a long face and easy smile.

Buses do not stop here.

My companions included four girls roughly my age, two Americans and two Chileans. There was also a Japanese couple on their honeymoon and a single, middle-aged man. There were no senior citizens or tuba players. I considered this a promising start.

Once seated, I pulled out my book and alternately gazed out at scenery and read scenes of the battle of Culloden. By the next day I was standing on that same battlefield. I recognized the names on the various clans’ tombstones. Suddenly my fascination with Scottish history and mythology was no longer a series of intangible day dreams but flesh, blood and earth beneath my feet.

We spent the days roaming Highland forests, moors and villages. There were no official programs, only frequent stops with requests to return to the van by a certain hour. I, along with the other girls, spent the night in a cottage-turned-hostel alongside Loch Ness while the older guests paid more for hotel rooms nearby.

With the tiny house to ourselves we heated Scottish oats and cans of soup, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English about our pasts. Later we prowled the town of Drumnadrochit looking for adventure. There is little to be found, it turns out, when darkness falls in small Scottish villages. Dodging raindrops and jumping puddles, we too went home to bed.

I wished I had booked the three or five day trip so I could have made it to the Isle of Skye and the northwest part of the country. I wished I could have ridden in that van indefinitely, reading my book as purpled moors and mountains slid past rain streaked windows.

Perhaps it would have gotten old. Perhaps even meandering rides through swaths of fog-covered countryside lose their charm.  I am thankful, however, that I put aside my preconceived notions and signed up for what were two unforgettable days. (I’m also thankful for the funds, A and C.)

I will return to Scotland to spend more time taking in the vast expanses of geography and history I missed in the short week that I was there. No country holds the same allure of ancient forests, worn mountains and mythical histories. No people were more welcoming, comforting and accepting of a lone girl travelling on her own for the past three months.

In Scotland, I found a bit of home. Its forests felt like the woods of Upper Michigan, where my father grew up where I camped and picked berries thimbleberries every summer. More importantly, Scotland felt like the stories I read as a girl, finally come alive and made real. It felt, I thought, like a place I had somehow always known and had been missing all the while.


  1. Oh how I enjoy getting lost in a travelogue...with the right combination of reminiscence, humor and beautiful settings (described and shown) it almost makes me content to be an armchair traveler. [currently traveling to China, Tibet and Nepal via "From Heaven Lake" by Vikram Seth.] Yes, Scotland sounds lovely. It's already on my list, and in addition to the landscape and luxury van ride I look forward to more of that vegan haggis!

  2. A tour of Scotland has always, always been on my "wish list". You describe it exactly how I have always imagined it. As always, you write beautifully.