May 23, 2003
Scotland had never been on my radar, particularly. When I said I was going, at least a dozen people sighed and expressed their lifelong yearning to visit. I only decided to go because the chance presented itself–an agreeable native companion, a great chance to explore a country I’d never seen, a great vacation after a long and difficult season. Why not? I did a little reading and exploring beforehand to prepare a little bit, so I’d have some context.
I was not prepared for what I found–and even now, with all my words and all my musings on travel, I am still struggling to find a way to express it that will express what I mean to say.
From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Glasgow, I felt at ease. I noticed it immediately, but put it down to the fact that I did have a guide and had gained a little experience over the past few years into the slight dizziness of immersion into a culture just enough different from my own to put me a bit off balance.
But these many weeks later, the most abiding sense I have of my time in Scotland was that sense of comfort and welcome I felt there.
There are places on the earth for all of us like this. I don’t pretend to understand why. Perhaps it’s an astrological alignment or a certain scent in the air that agrees with us. There are those who would say that such welcoming places are those our ancestors have walked, or lands we knew in another life. I don’t discount those explanations, but I did not feel a sense of fatedness in walking there. It wasn’t a sense of memory or return. I didn’t turn a corner and think, “Oh, I remember this!”
It was simply, quietly, exactly right. As if the land itself carried some elemental magnetism that pulled everything in my body into order. I didn’t think to question it while I was there–I only knew I was absolutely content to be walking along this beach, that street, that lane. It was quite specific in geography, too–from Ayr, along Loch Lomond, to Duror, where it stopped.
We toured many places beyond that, and I saw many that were beautiful–the area around Perth has to be some of the most gorgeous landscape anywhere, and Plockton was an absolute treasure of light and water and islands—but it was while I walked that narrow strip from Ayr to Duror that I felt that sense of ease and comfort.
For one thing, it’s an almost indescribably beautiful landscape–mountains and the sea are my favorite combination no matter where they are found, and Scotland has that arrangement in abundance. Our timing was perfection, because we traveled those hills at the exact moment the daffodils were in bloom, and the gorse had burst into bright yellow blossom, and the effect with all those blue hills and blue skies and blue seas is enough to make even the most hardened heart blink in astonishment. One such moment is etched in my memory for all time: we were driving up from the south and came around a bend toward Dunure, the site of a ruined castle where once a bishop was roasted. The day was brilliantly sunny. The road curved upward, high above the blue of the sea, with the island of Arran drawing a lighter blue line across the even lighter blue sky. In the foreground was the hillside, illuminated with thousands of yellow blossoms, gorse and daffodils. In between, sticking a finger into the day, was the castle, brown and ruined and dramatic.
We stopped the car and got out to simply admire it. There are no words for such a sight. One simply breathes it in, with great gulps of gratitude, and presses it into the folds of memory.
I am no stranger to beautiful vistas. I would say I even have a bit of ennui, or perhaps only measure by a very high standard. I am a Colorado native, after all. I grew up with Pikes Peak in my hip pocket, and dramatic vistas were part of every Saturday afternoon picnic. There are other places besides Colorado that I’ve found beautiful, of course, many of them–the rocky, dramatic coast of mid-California; the rolling emerald hills of western Ireland; the moody softness of the Shenandoah Valley; the city of Bath, sitting in his nest of hills.
In Scotland, I did notice moments of grandeur. That moment at Dunure is one of them. There was another in the Highlands, under a moody sky, with the still-black heather lending a forbidding aspect to the greening valley, when we stopped in a rest area and a busker in full regalia began to play the bagpipes. Another near Glen Co, near the three sisters, where the sun and the hills and the winds created a dazzlement of beauty that made my heart squeeze.
But in general, it was quieter than that. Loch Lomond, shimmering and quiet with its population of little islands made me wish to walk the length of it. That’s all, just walk along and see what it would whisper. I wanted to have a study little boat, too, to sail out and explore the islands, one at a time, let them tell their secrets. There is one tiny island near the shore where a castle ruin of some age sits mute. Who lived there, and why? I would like to row out to it and have a sandwich and sit with it.
My favorite moment came when we stopped to visit some people in Duror, a tiny spit of a town. We’d been driving on and off all day, and were quite anxious to stretch our legs. My friend suggested a little walk down to the bay. It was early evening, full of a gilded, soft sunlight breaking through a patchy ceiling of clouds. The lane wound around fields where a trio of horses grazed, thick tails flicking back and forth as they watched us beneath long forelocks, and a little further on was a field of many, many sheep. It was absolutely still, the only sounds from birds or the scurrying of some unseen creature in the grass. The air was cool and soft, with no wind.
And then we went over the rise, down to the beach of the bay. I stepped up to the water and took a breath of the salty air and looked out, southward to the place where the loch would meet the sea. An island stood out near the horizon, pale in outline, nearly transparent against the lowering sun, as if someone had cut it out of thin paper and stapled it against the darker line of mountains–another island–rounding out the bay. To my left was a lush green field where a horse grazed nearby the fence, and to my right were more mountains, their lines growing paler and paler blue as their height and distance receded. Behind was a field of sheep, bleating softly now and then. At my feet licked the water.
Here, words fail me again. Or maybe they don’t fail, it’s just that they sound perhaps a little foolish, or arrogant or any number of things. I have promised to be honest in my reactions, however, so I will say there was a softness of breath sweeping through my body, carrying away anything tired or sad or burdensome, and allowing in a single thought, “Ah! Here it is, this place I’ve been seeking. I didn’t know it was here.”
I didn’t know it was anywhere. Didn’t even know I was looking. But there it is, that place, on the high west coast of Scotland, where my body felt pitched to an exact rhythm and my mind swirled with softness and peace, and I knew, if I wished, I would write wildly and productively. If I am too worn by my life, if there is too much, it is to that bay I can escape, and things will align again. It isn’t so much that I felt I must move there immediately, or that I knew it from some other time or history. Nothing so dramatic or urgent as that.
It was more like finding there is, after all, a source where the Mother can speak to me clearly and without interference of any sort, where I can commune with nature and the earth and spirit and sky. Like finding a magic phone booth to SpiritLand.
I got up early the next morning so I could go back down there by myself. I simply sat on the beach and wrote. And wrote, and wrote. I scribbled a description of the beach, and my reaction to it, and noted trip reports from the day before, but that wasn’t enough, so I let my hand flow over the page with new ideas and hopes and character sketches and book outlines. I was alone, so it was also all right to stand at the water and sing. I sang a song I know from sweatlodge, and the Doxology, and then a folk song, and it was all just right.
The trip had been so unexpected that I knew there would be some magic gift in it if I were open to it. It did not occur to me until I arrived back home that the gift was the land itself, where–for whatever reason–there is a sense of nourishment for me. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter. It just is, and I’m glad to know it.
Now, I’m off to develop a few more of the ideas that swarmed over me there….see you next week.