After our trip to Ireland we climbed aboard the Irish Airline, Aer Lingus– green airplanes (of course!) with a dashing little clover on the tail. Our redheaded flight attendants walked up and down the rows while we gazed out the window, looking for our next destination . . . the rolling hills of the proud, wild people of Scotland.
I don’t know what I expected from Scotland. To be honest, I was so excited about England that I didn’t think much about the other countries.
But my, was I pleasantly surprised!
Soon the choppy blue waves of the sea gave way to the mists that signaled we were approaching a piece of land. We looked eagerly out the window, and at first all we saw was clouds. It appeared to be a very misty, overcast place. But then suddenly the clouds parted, and we caught the first glimpse of Scotland.
As opposed to the green patchwork quilt that made up the landscape of Ireland we had just left, Scotland was a wild, mountainous place. We passed peak after peak of rugged mountains which seemed to crest the very sky under the plane before dipping down into deliriously low valleys brushed extravagantly with vibrant green and wisps of purple. From the sky the landscape almost looked like many bald heads sticking up out of the ground, but I knew it was just mountains that were so high that nothing could grow on them.
I watched, fascinated, as we passed over mile after mile of open wilderness. I could almost hear bagpipes in my head and imagine the wild, proud people who used to live here and whose descendants still do, holding up the traditions of pride and loyalty to one’s clan as fiercely as they did back in the days of the kilt wearing Highlanders.
We landed in Edinburgh just as the sun was setting. When we stepped off the bus and looked around it was like we had entered a fairytale kingdom. The golden sunset was pierced by the silhouettes of dark, jagged steeples. We turned to each other and said, “it looks like we just stepped into a Harry Potter story.” Little did I know that the Harry Potter books were actually written in this very city, and the author used to walk around and pull ideas for characters from tombstones and street names. We saw many of these “name muses” while we were in the city. Looking around at the gothic buildings and imposing Edinburgh castle towering like an edifice carved into the side of the mountain, I could well imagine how someone could look at it and envision Hogwarts academy, the magical castle in the books.
It’s hard to explain what went through my head as we passed through the streets that evening. We were tired from travel, but the town was pure magic, and its enchantment fueled us. The buildings were steep and tall – I had a crane my neck to look up at the tops of them. The streets were cobbled and very steep. Everywhere little shops beckoned to us, golden light spilling out of their cozy interiors into the shadows. I half expected to see a group of elves or dwarves, tipsy from an evening’s merriment, exiting from the warmth and coziness of the pubs into the cold evening. And a cold evening it was– even with my hands in my pockets my fingers were getting numb. It was so hard to believe that just days before when I left Virginia, the temperatures had been hovering around 100 degrees (37.7 C).
That night we dropped off quickly to sleep, the lights of this strange, magical city dancing on our pillows, lulling us off into plaid colored dreamland.
The next morning dawned clear and crisp and cold. Even though it was only September we could already see our breath in the morning. Of all the places we visited, Scotland was the coldest. I don’t know if we just happened there upon a cold week, or whether it is always colder. Most of Edinburgh also seemed to be uphill, as if the entire city had been built on a roller coaster track. The old tongue in cheek saying “I walked uphill both ways to school”? I’m pretty sure that saying MUST have originated here. It was so steep in places that if you weren’t careful and started looking at the buildings, you could lose your balance and get dizzy.
The city reminded me of a fairytale castle. All around us people chattered away, rolling their “R’s” and speaking in such a thick accent that we couldn’t always understand them. I found the Scottish people (everywhere I encountered them) to be incredibly friendly. They went out of their way to be helpful when I couldn’t find where I was going, and when I asked them to “teach me something to say that makes me sound Scottish,” they said that I could use the word “Numpty.” Apparently Numpty means a thick skulled, idiotic person. They told me to use it only on enemies. They told me if I said it with a smile, no one would know I was casting an insult. haha!
I’m sure you’re wondering about Scottish food. Hmm. One of their “specialties” is haggis, which is made out of sheep lung and other organs, I believe, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. It kind of looks like roadkill to me, to be honest. I didn’t want to try it, but I did taste a little tiny bit. It tasted very gamey to me and left a bad aftertaste. But everyone else in the group loved it. I think if I wouldn’t have known what it was maybe I would have liked it too. But as it was, one bite was enough. The Scots also love blood sausage and Scotch eggs… But I didn’t try either one of those.
Everyone said I would regret not trying them. Hey everyone… I don’t regret it. 😉 For breakfast they have “beans on toast,” which is just what it sounds like– kind of like, baked beans scooped on top of toast. Sometimes for breakfast they have baked beans with a fried egg on top, and sausages on the side.
Peas are everywhere. I’m not sure if this is everyone’s favorite food, or what. I found peas literally everywhere. I ordered a quiche and they were in the bottom of it. I found a bag of chips (“crisps”), and they were made out of peas. What I thought was guacamole on my plate ended up being something called “mushy peas,” which was actually just cooked peas mashed up like mashed potatoes. I’m not sure what the fascination is with peas and beans in this country, but I thought it was interesting.
As in Ireland, the pubs were covered in flowers, and drinks were served tepid without ice. When you ordered water at a restaurant, a small pitcher was brought to the table, sans ice, and each person got a small cup into which you poured your own. Edinburgh, unlike Dublin, seemed to have plenty of other food choices besides the classic local cuisine. I saw lots of familiar restaurants including Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and various Mexican chains. I don’t know how the food here tasted, but I did see them.
As in Ireland, the prices listed were the prices you paid (although Scotland uses English pounds rather than the Euro). Tips are not expected unless the service is truly magnificent. It was just such a bizarre concept for me to go into a restaurant, see that something cost 10 pounds, and then pay 10 pounds and leave. I wish we did that here– no surprises at the checkout.
Taking a shower in the evening was an adventure all its own. None of the showers we visited (in any of the countries) had shower curtains. The lack of shower curtain makes it incredibly difficult not to spray water all over the entire bathroom when you are taking a shower, and this difficulty is compounded by the fact that the water gets cold in about four minutes. So you have to frantically shower, trying not to give the bathroom a car wash, and then hurriedly rinse off before the water goes cold without warning. Also, no one seems to use washcloths. I’m not sure how they wash their faces. So we just didn’t bathe the entire trip– much easier. (I’m kidding).
The highlight of my Scottish experience came when I took a bus trip to the Highlands. There are really no words to describe this journey. Imagine breathtaking, beautiful perfection. Add a dash of bliss, and you’ll be half right.
The bus picked us up in Edinburgh, and we drove for hours, winding around bends and gradually leaving the city behind. Each turn of the bend we caught larger and greater views of the rugged outlines of mountains looming in the distance. Slowly the highways gave way to fewer and fewer cars. The busy towns became sprawling farmland and pastures of sheep.
I learned that only people from the Highlands wore kilts. “Lowlanders” wore regular pants (“trousers”). To wear a kilt was a fierce symbol of Highland pride– of fighting props and undying loyalty to your family clan. The families would rather die than betray their clan. And when I saw how incredibly wild the wilderness was, it was hard to imagine living here off the land, especially in the dead of winter, and somehow managing to still crawl those ragged forests and survive, out of sheer grit and willpower. Now do it in a skirt.
Dang. The Scottish may be proud. But goodness I think they have reason to be. Those people were tough.
We crossed over into Galloway Forest Park, the largest uninhabited wilderness in the UK. It was mammoth and magnificent– stretching as far as the eye could see with nothing but wild, untamed countryside everywhere you looked. You could almost imagine fierce Highland men knowing these grounds so well that they could navigate this vast countryside with their eyes closed. It was absolutely incredible.
There is a law in Scotland that you can camp anywhere you like, as long as you have the respect to leave the land as you found it. You have to pick up your trash and leave the campsite pristine, as it was when you arrived. You are literally allowed to camp on the banks of Loch Ness if you want to. No one will stop you. But I wouldn’t do it if I were you. I hear that Nessie likes bacon. Still, it’s an awesome concept– Scotland wants visitors and residents, alike, to be free to experience the rugged beauty that is still very much alive in the Highlands. And I, for one, would not have missed it for the world.
The Highlands were unlike anything I have ever seen. The crags were so steep– almost as if they were fragments of rock, themselves, that had fallen to earth and lodged there. They were green with moss and the occasional breath of purple heather strewn across them like the unruly bangs of a beautiful woman as she stands fiercely in a gale, defying you to challenge her.
Out of the mist appeared the craggy height of Ben Nevis, the tallest point in the UK. The guide told us that Ben Nevis is shrouded in thick mist for all but 4 weeks out of the year, when the fickle sun shines long enough to burn away the soupy fog enough to behold this magnificent point. We were lucky enough to see it, and it was truly breathtaking. Ben Nevis rose like a dark spirit out of the meadow, almost seeming to glare at us as a venerated elder who had long observed comings and goings there. We were guests here, and he was a respected local. That much was very clear.
The road continued to wind, and our bus came to a soft stop in one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been in my life. Have you ever been in a place so beautiful, so magnificent, that you find yourself automatically whispering, almost without meaning to? Glen Coe is like that.
Glen is the Scottish word for “valley,” and is sometimes combined with the name of the valley into a single word, such as “Glencoe.” It was honestly hard to believe that something so beautiful was real– the mountains swept off into the distance, their crags so tall that they looked as if they would scratch the very top of the sky. The cliffs were covered in dark, velvety moss and splotches of purple heather. Little rivulets ebbed and dripped down the sides, as if we were in the rainforest, even though the temperature was so cold that I could see my breath. The legend is that these mountains “still weep for the lost MacDonald clan.” And what is the lost MacDonald clan, you say? I’m so glad you asked.
According to our guide, in 1692 this beautiful glen was home to the MacDonald clan. All of the Highlanders were being forced to sign a document guaranteeing their allegiance to England. Secretly, though, they all intended to sign it and then band together in rebellion to overthrow English rule when the English weren’t paying attention (most likely during teatime). Clan MacDonald was late getting in their fake allegiance signature– three days late because the messenger took the document to the wrong place. The English ordered that the clan leader be killed, but none of the clans would betray another clan and carry out the order. And the English couldn’t find the recalcitrant MacDonalds because the Highlands were so wild that no one but a local could navigate them.
Highland hospitality dictated that any traveler who came to you, no matter what clan he was from, be taken in and shielded from the elements and cared for by your family. It was dishonorable to turn away a traveler (any traveler) from your home. One dark night the MacDonald clan was roused by a group of travelers claiming to have gotten lost, and true to Highland hospitality and tradition, they invited the strangers in, fed them, and allowed them to spend the night among them. Tragically, the “visitors” turned out to be members of the Campbell clan in disguise, who had determined to betray the MacDonalds and accept the English king’s reward bounty for killing the clan leader. In the middle of the night the Campbells killed the clan leader, his wife, his children, and around 30 other members of the clan, while they slept in their beds. The Campbells betrayed the law of hospitality they owed to their host, and they also betrayed the law of the Highlands– you never betray another clan, ESPECIALLY to the evil English, longtime enemy of the Scottish people.
To this day the MacDonald clan has not forgiven the Campbell clan for their treachery, and they promise that “we will hold this grudge as long as a tree grows in Scotland.” Each year on the anniversary of the killings they get together and plant a tree. A few years ago a Canadian journalist tried to check into a hotel run by MacDonalds, but when she signed her last name, Campbell, on the register, they politely told her, “Sorry. No Campbells can stay here.” She was incensed. “But I’m not even Scottish!” She tried to sue the hotel, but she lost.
I guess the Campbells had to move to America and go into the soup business. Because Scotland will never, ever forgive them as long as those trees grow. Does anyone have a shovel? Time to plant another one.
As the lush hills of Glencoe faded into the fog behind us, we started heading into the lake country. I, personally, never thought of Scotland as waterfront property, but this part of the journey reminded me so much of traveling through Outer Banks. Every few minutes we passed a gorgeous lake, with little fishing boats moored to the docks or out on the deep, crystal blue waters, bobbing merrily. Occasionally we would pass a little while stone cottage, standing proudly as a sentinel beside a deserted shoreline. The countryside was so beautiful that it almost defies description– the rugged mountains looming in the background, the fresh, cold air in our faces– the innate wildness of the place. It was breathtaking.
At one point we passed a lake (“loch”) in the center of which was a tiny island. The tiny island was completely bare of trees, and the guide told us that it was an island of “understanding and persuasion.” She said that the clans used to meet there when they wanted to have peace talks, because that way no one could hide behind trees and ambush them. There were so many remote little islands. Sometimes we could see these islands clearly, and sometimes they were almost like vapors, themselves, in the mist. One island, Eynhallow, is rumored to be inhabited by an evil spirit that makes the island disappear like a spirit into the mist if anyone tries to land on it. One can certainly see how this legend could take hold, as the island is only accessible one day out of the year, and remains largely untouched just as it was hundreds of years ago, without a single inhabitant (unless you count the puffins and the Artic terns). It is a fierce, wild place. And perhaps, like the rest of its untamed sisters holding fast their positions in the boiling seas and ice cold lake depths, it’s better that way.
The sun began to peek through the clouds, and the sight took my breath away. We passed over more lochs than I could count. There was one lake that had a Scottish flag fluttering proudly in, of all places, the direct center of it. The guide explained that an Irish film company had been trying to film in Scotland to save money, pretending that the Scottish landscape was Ireland. An incensed local swam out into the center of the loch in the middle of the night and planted that Scottish flag so that everyone who watched the movie would know that the set was really SCOTLAND and not Ireland. The film company ended up leaving, and I have no idea how that guy attached a flag to the bottom of a ridiculously deep lake, but apparently the locals loved it, because it’s still there– a testament to the fierce pride and unwavering stubbornness of the Scots.
Another lake we passed was called “The dark Loch.” The loch is called “dark” because the peat in the bottom of it actually dyes the water black. I felt like I was like looking at a lake full of coffee (I wish!). Loch Ness is also full of peat, which makes the water much darker than normal lake water. That unique darkness, combined with Loch Ness’ incredible depth and reedy, weedy interior, makes visibility under the surface almost impossible. This is a main reason that divers can never fully “weed out” (pun intended) the legend of a monster below the surface. If you dive just a few feet under, even with beacons of light, you can’t see even your hand in front of your face. That, of course, means you can’t see the monster, either, if she happens to be behind you, so if I were you I’d keep my swimming to the hotel pool.
Finally we parked the bus near what I had come to see– Loch Ness. The guide said that there would be “a short walk down the hill” to the lake. The other passengers on the bus were grunting and groaning complaints, but I thought they were crazy, and I leaped right off (well, I let the bus STOP, obviously, and then I leaped off).
I can’t even explain the emotions that were swirling through my head as I walked, completely alone in the quiet, down the road to Loch Ness. The other passengers were still on the bus griping about having to walk, but I left them in the dust and felt like I needed to prop my eyes open as wide as they would go, just so I didn’t miss any of the delirious beauty of that place. The path was quiet and windy. There were a few little stone houses, absolutely covered in roses, along the path. One house had a bench by the road. It said simply, “For travelers.” Even in this remote place, the Scottish were hospitable. PS– if your last name is Campbell don’t tell them, or the bench might disappear.
The road wound down into the most picturesque little town you’ve ever seen, and I crossed a little bridge heading toward the lake. Halfway across, I almost dropped my camera. This is the view that met me. It was so lovely that I honestly just stood there, stunned. Having come from a hot, sticky Virginia summer where it was muggy and humid and close to 100 degrees when I left, this day was like wishing for a perfect fall day and being gifted one pristine, perfect autumn moment during the wrong season. The air was so cold and crisp and clear that it might have come from the lungs of the frosty mountains, themselves. The sun was so warm that it beckoned you to take off your jacket and enjoy the 68/70 degree day. Having already experienced how cold and rainy Scotland could be, I knew that we were being given a rare gift, and I certainly wasn’t going to waste it complaining on the bus. It was as if Lady Scotland had put on her Sunday best for us– combed her wild red hair and decided to give us the most breathtakingly beautiful audience we had ever beheld.
I turned the bend after the bridge. There were a few people there, but not many. The mouth to Loch Ness was a little rivulet, sparkling like diamonds in the autumn sun. Little boats bobbed happily, moored to their tethers. The grass was so lush and green that it almost didn’t seem real.
The water was so dark it was almost black. It sparkled like obsidian against the emerald grass. I could look across at the far shore, heavily wooded without a house in sight. The park itself has a few outbuildings which function as covered observatories in case of inclement weather, but the far shore was truly wild as one would expect it to be– a true Highland lady. I could almost hear the bagpipes calling me and feel the pull of fierce pride emanating from those who had lived here for centuries and probably fished and traveled these very waters. The depth of history of the place pressed upon me so deeply that I had to remind myself to breathe. It was as if I were picking up on the heartbeat of the very soul of it– and that probably sounds stupid, but that’s the best way I can describe it. I literally felt the energy of the place with my entire being. It was one of the most awe inspiring experiences I have ever had in my entire life.
But it was about to get even better. I kept walking, being drawn along by some invisible thread, down the dirt path leading into the sunshine. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was dying with curiosity to see where this beautiful little road turned out. I walked for a little while, past the boats and the shoreline . . . past the little river at the mouth of the loch. And then, in an instant, I saw it.
Loch Ness. My friends, it’s difficult for me to put into words what I felt as I beheld this beautiful spot. I stood there, so overcome with the beauty and majesty of it, that my mouth dropped open. The water was crisp and black, reflecting the deep blue sky like an obsidian mirror. The mountains swept back respectfully around it like an array of beautiful bridesmaids– lovely in their own right, but nothing compared to the beauty of the bride, herself. Little waves lapped against the rocky shore. The smooth, jewel-like surface of the water seemed to stretch on for miles– as far as the eye could see.
I don’t know how long I stood there before I realized that there were tears coming down my cheeks. In fact, just looking at these photos and remembering that day, I am tearing up, again. Seeing Loch Ness was almost a religious experience, for me. The vastness and beauty of the place (the loch is so deep that if you took all the water in both England and Wales, it still would not fill up Loch Ness), combined with the rich history that I felt with such heavy significance in my soul that I almost felt like holding my hand over my heart, just left me with no other recourse than tears to express my emotion.
Everyone was quiet. Everyone was whispering in muted tones. There was just something about that place that caused it– it reminded you of being in a gorgeous, awe-inspiring cathedral. I saw one man go down on one knee and bow his head. I don’t know how anyone could go to this place and not leave without his or her life being changed forever.
I sat by the loch for almost an hour. I ate the apple I brought and just sat there, soaking up the sunlight and listening to the little waves lapping like laughter against the rocks at the shore. I found myself able to think clearly and deeply and without distraction, so clear and pristine was the location and the weather. Each moment was like a gift. I savored every second that I spent there, trying to soak it all up so that I could call to memory the experiences I had here all the rest of my days. Viewing and experiencing this lovely place will forever change my life, and I’m so grateful I got to see it.
The time passed much too quickly, and then it was time to go. I stood up and took a picture with beautiful, sparkling Loch Ness, the golden sunlight spilling across my hair, illuminating the red buried within it . . . whispering of the Scottish blood in my veins and making me feel a pride and kinship to the place that I don’t think I will ever forget as long as I live.
At the end of the road I turned and took one last look at Loch Ness. I stared at it– tried to drink it in– to memorize everything about it– about this moment. I smiled and whispered, “Someday, I will come back here.” And then it was gone.
Back in Edinburgh I bought my Mom a teapot with thistles on it. The thistle is the national symbol of Scotland for an interesting reason. Apparently there was once a battle (The Scottish are always fighting– mostly the English), and the Scottish army camped out in the center of a field of thistles. When the enemy tried to attack at night, they removed their shoes and armor, trying to sneak up and attack by surprise. But the enemy ended up being the surprised ones, because when they charged they ran straight into the field of thistles (which was the clever Scottish plan all along), and their screams of pain alerted the Scottish army, who ended up routing them and winning the battle.
They are very fond of thistles around here.
All in all, Scotland blew me away, in the very best way. I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad, but I honestly left that place changed. Through the fierce beauty of the Highlands I thought about life, and was reminded how fragile it is. I thought about friendships and loved ones. I thought about loss and trials and difficulties. Sickness and pain. I thought about courage. Fearlessness. Facing the lash of the enemy with pride and courage, even when you’re afraid. I thought about what it really means to be brave.
And I just can’t wait to go back.
Things that surprised me in Scotland:
1. “Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties.” Although this sounds like some sort of off color joke, it’s actually a favorite meal around here. The haggis is made out of sheep’s lungs (I think? Eww), rolled in bread crumbs and fried. The neeps are mashed turnips (the yellow mash threw us for a while as we wondered what in the WORLD that was, but it’s turnips. Everybody breathe), and the “tatties” are just mashed potatoes. And in case you’re wondering, it’s illegal to bring Haggis back to the US from Scotland, because apparently it’s illegal to import organs, even in edible form. Gross. Sorry fam. I know how much you were looking forward to trying it. Maybe someday, if you have VERY good luck. *cough, cough*
2. This was the first place I experienced having to pay to use the bathroom. Since I wasn’t sure what coins I had, I just started putting some in, hoping against hope I had enough (I think I ended up paying like 3 times more than I should have, but hey when a girl’s gotta go . . .). I’m not sure what you do if you have to go and you don’t have any money. I did see a few determined travelers heading off into the woods, and I didn’t ask questions. At one point we passed a “free public toilet,” and the guide stopped the bus just for that. She said, “Use it. It’s free. Why not. Use it twice. When in doubt, squeeze one out.”
3. Scotland, like Ireland, seemed to have a thing against shower curtains and ice in drinks. On a brighter note, each time I got a shower the bathroom got a thorough cleaning, because I had to rub down every single surface to get the water mopped up. If anyone has insight into how these people take showers without changing their name to Noah and his flood each time, please do enlighten me.
Things I loved:
1. The people. On so many occasions I had to ask for help, and although the people did not talk excessively (rather a straight lipped bunch), they were always extremely kind and helpful. They are fiercely proud of their country, their cuisine, and their heritage. And after seeing their country, I don’t blame them one bit.
2. The history. There is just something about the picture of fierce, Scottish clansmen, almost hidden in the fog, their bagpipes over their arms, exuding the very picture of grandeur as they breathe out white plumes of steam in the chilly Highland air. Although, if it were I, I would have opted for pants. It gets COLD up there! Maybe that was part of the respect they garnered– being manly enough to have bare legs up there in the winter.
3. I truly think that Scotland might be the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my entire life. I will be forever changed by the massive, unspoiled wilderness that I had the privilege to observe. And if you ever get the chance to go, tell Nessie I said hello. I’m sure she misses me by now.
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